It was a humane flogging, as these things go. The secretary of defense was occasionally hectored, badgered and interrupted, but his rights were never violated. His main punishment was being forced to sit in a witness chair for 165 uninterrupted minutes yesterday while one United States senator after another hurled a speech at him.

Donald Rumsfeld spent a fair amount of time not saying anything at all. He patiently waited for the senators to finish sharing their feelings. He came to the Hill to provide answers, but what with all the prepared remarks and oratory, there was barely time for questions.

Rumsfeld dropped a bombshell in his opening statement — there are lots more terrible photographs of prison abuse, he said, and there are even videos — but the senators took their time getting around to asking him about that. They had other things they wanted to expound upon. Many seemed compelled to remind the world that they feel bad about this whole thing. They’re shocked and horrified: Put that in the Congressional Record.

The Armed Services Committee has 25 members, fully a quarter of the Senate. Every senator had the privilege of questioning witnesses for precisely five minutes yesterday, but much of that precious time was gobbled up by oration.

In a typical committee hearing, most of the senatorial chairs are empty. But this was the full-blown Senate production, the room jammed, almost every committee member in attendance, the very senatorial Sen. John Warner using his quiet, stern voice to keep things moving along on schedule, Majority Leader Bill Frist making a surprise drive-by appearance, media scrums forming in the hallways every time a senator left the room, and the obligatory eruption of shouting in the audience (“Fire Rumsfeld! War Criminal!”)

When Rumsfeld and four other witnesses raised their right hands to take the oath, the camera shutters sounded like birds exploding from a holly tree.

Rumsfeld has never been terribly popular on the Hill, for he doesn’t go out of his way to seek advice and consent from the Senate before making an important decision. He met with a great many senators a few hours before “60 Minutes II” was to broadcast images of prisoners being abused, but he neglected to bring it up. The Senate takes seriously the idea that Congress is a “co-equal” branch of government. That was one subtext of yesterday’s hearing. It was the Senate saying: We matter. (And the House matters, too, but the Senate got to hear from Rumsfeld first.)

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