BY THE TUBE, FOR THE TUBE

On the second day of judge John Roberts's confirmation hearings, CNN's Jeff Greenfield felt moved to ask a question. The guest was Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, and Greenfield inquired why his fellows on the Judiciary Committee felt the need to use their limited time for bloviation instead of actually asking the judge questions. Senator Grassley replied in one word: "television."

I can reply to that in three words: aw, come on.

Members of Congress have had more than a quarter century to get used to the idea that cameras are recording their proceedings, and that this is an invaluable thing for the American people. Watching the hearings to decide whether Roberts should become chief justice was quite illuminating from several collateral perspectives. How could senators complain that they had not learned enough about the nominee when so many of them had wasted their allotted time giving pocket stump speeches? How come the aides who sit behind them don't realize that they, too, will be on camera, and that therefore they should not behave like small children in church? And didn't Sen. Tom Coburn think anyone in the room would notice that he was doing a crossword puzzle? Isn't it strange how these people are both mesmerized by the cameras and weirdly insensible to them?

You're not qualified to govern this country at this moment in time if you don't understand the uses of TV. In fact, those in public life should be required to watch it. It's like Google Earth for the national psyche, hovering over the landscape, zooming in. Much of what it zooms in on makes you wonder what we've come to. Are teenage girls and their parents really as venal, acquisitive and without standards as "My Super Sweet 16" would suggest? Has the revolution in science and technology in our time really led inexorably to the breast implants (and man tans) of "Dr. 90210"?

But saying that there's a lot of junk on TV and that's why you won't watch (or, for purists, won't have a set in the house) is like saying you won't read books because there are a fair amount of cheesy ones published. Just look at the government debacle surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Apparently they didn't know. This is mind-boggling to those of us who understand how to work a remote. Every network, every moment, was showing what looked like a disaster movie with the most terrifying special effects possible. And everywhere there were the same sentiments, hand-lettered on placards, painted on roofs, screamed by women with children outside the Superdome: help.

We Americans were ahead of the administration curve because apparently its members weren't watching TV. Lots of huff-and-puffs in D.C. don't. Some of them make the argument that they're too busy to channel-surf. Bull. The members of Congress find time in their schedules to consume finger food with lobbyists. The president currently holds the world record for vacationing by a head of state.

The nature of his job is that he's divorced from normal human experience. He doesn't have to buy a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas. He doesn't hear people talking about his shortcomings or their own despair. Everything seems to take him by surprise, so that while we were watching the end of the world in New Orleans he was giving some lame speech spelling out how many pounds of ice were being sent south. If he'd been watching all those black women with hungry babies on their hips in New Orleans, he would have known that we were heading into the teeth of a national storm on poverty and race as devastating as any hurricane.

But the president doesn't see what we see. He doesn't know what we know. He needs to find some way to transcend his isolation, and one way is to watch TV. Instead of those stagy red-white-blue events with the cheering crowds, he might want to take a look at some episodes of "Cops" to see what's really going on in parts of the nation. Maybe the sight of the battered buildings of Fallujah, once stores and schools and homes, would provide a clue to why some Iraqis aren't thrilled to have us there. As a lifelong print person, I have to admit sadly that the small screen owns some of the biggest stories of our time, because of the footage, because of the immediacy, because of the range. More than 30 percent of us watch TV news for more than an hour. The average home has three TV sets.

A certain snobbery has developed around the notion of TV viewing, a certain "let them watch 'Raymond' " attitude that television is declasse, a thing best left to the masses. Well, it's the masses who decide elections, and who live with their results as well. Think of it this way: The Founding Fathers are sitting around in Philadelphia and New York, the 13 Colonies stretching up the coast and down, Virginia and Rhode Island a long slog on horseback. And suddenly someone offers them a way to know what people are thinking, on farms, in towns, from the North to the South. Not a perfect way, not a way that tells you everything you need to know, but a way nonetheless.

They'd jump at the chance. So should their successors.