Sometimes the subtext of an event is more enlightening than the event itself. Case in point: Yesterday’s nine-hour Senate debate over the nomination of Condoleezza Rice to be Secretary of State.

Certainly, there was plenty of political squabbling and partisan finger-pointing on the floor. All provided ample grist for the denizens of the crowded press gallery.

But there was much more taking place, and, frankly, that was far more fascinating than the opposition to Rice’s confirmation from the usual suspects. And who better to capture the Kabuki theater than that keen observer of politics, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post?

Two hours into the nine-hour Senate debate yesterday over Condoleezza Rice, Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, was asked whether he would vote to confirm. “I’ll be making a statement,” he said coyly.

Thus did Senate Democrats try to keep up the excitement in a debate whose outcome was certain before it began.

A journalist couldn’t ask for a better cast of characters:

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), for one, was determined to give his advice, if not his consent. A master of 19th-century attire and 18th-century rhetoric, he strode onto the Senate floor carrying the text of an hour-long speech.

“In Federalist Number 77,” the 87-year-old lawmaker began, producing groans in the press gallery.

Writes Milbank: “Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who never resorts to plain English when a football metaphor will suffice, scolded Democrats for ‘bump-and-run defenses and tactics’ against Rice, for ‘Monday-morning quarterbacking’ and for ‘playing too hard a partisan game.’”

And when California Sen. Barbara Boxer (an outspoken critic of Rice whose grilling of the nominee became the stuff of a “Saturday Night Live” spoof last weekend) whipped out her “now-famous exhibits,” writes Milbank, the only person left on the Senate floor was Allen, who was “playing with his Blackberry.”

We’ve watched Milbank do his stuff before. It’s always time well-spent.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.