WASHINGTON - Joe Biden didn't talk that much Tuesday for Joe Biden.
And he told Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker that they shouldn't talk too much, either, so that members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would have time to get in their questions. Even though the senators often didn't ask questions but simply gave little partisan lectures or told stories about themselves, or in the case of Barbara Boxer, had an aide hold up a blown-up picture of herself with Petraeus in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Biden, the committee's chairman, took time at the end of his first hearing with the Surge Twins to make the points, a bit repetitively, that there is no plan to get out of Iraq and that the Bush administration is not leveling with Americans.
John McCain was standing behind Biden, waiting to sit down for the next hearing - the Armed Services Committee - with the witnesses.
Never miss a local story.
First, the Republican presidential candidate smiled archly at having to cool his heels as the Democratic presidential candidate yakked - sniffing at the Surge that McCain supports. Then McCain turned to his GOP colleague Susan Collins and flapped his fingers in the universal hand sign for yakking.
It pretty much said it all.
For months, everyone here has been waiting with great expectations to hear whether the Surge is working from the top commander and top diplomat in Iraq.
But the whole thing was sort of a fizzle. It's obvious that the Surge is like those girdles the secretaries wear on the vintage advertising show, "Mad Men." It just pushes the fat around, giving a momentary illusion of flatness. But once Peaches Petraeus, as he was known growing up in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., takes the girdle off, the center will not hold.
And it was clear from their marathon testimony that the Iraqi politicians are useless, that we're going to have a huge number of troops in Iraq for a long time, that there's no post-Surge strategy, that they're just playing for time, hoping that somehow, some way, things will look up in the desert maze of demons that Gen. Petraeus referred to as "home."
The strategy is no more than a soap bubble of hope, just as W.'s invasion of Iraq was based on a fantasy about WMDs and an illusory view of Iraq.
Even though it was 9/11, Osama was barely mentioned all day.
Republican Sen. John Warner, freer than ever now that he's announced his retirement, turned the screw on the two witnesses.
Do you feel, he asked the general, that the Surge "is making America safer?"
"Sir, I don't know actually," Peaches replied. "I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind."
The Surge Twins seemed competent and more realistic than some of their misbegotten predecessors, but just too late to do any good. They're like two veteran pilots trying to crash land the plane.
Crocker has expressed a darker, more rueful vision in background briefings with reporters, and he emanated a bit of Graham Greene on Tuesday.
He noted that the Iraqis know that "they're going to be there forever," while we will not.
Pulling troops out too soon, he fears, could "push the Iraqis in the wrong direction. It would make them, I would fear, more focused on, you know, building the walls, stocking the ammunition and getting ready for a big nasty street fight without us around."
Asked by McCain whether he was confident that the Maliki government will get the job done, the ambassador said dryly: "My level of confidence is under control."
The star witnesses gave shell game answers, trying to make the best of a hideous hand.
"It's a hand that's unlikely to improve in my view," Hillary Clinton - one of five senators running for president on the two panels - told the Surge Twins. "I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."
Hillary's plan is to posture and criticize W.'s war all the way to the White House. But then President Clinton will be stuck with figuring out how to pull out the more than 100,000 troops still there policing a lot of crazy sectarian street fighting.
The Republicans seemed happy that the witnesses' calm presentation bolstered the president's case for continued war funding.
Republicans seemed oblivious to the fact that they might have scored points short term while laying the groundwork for disaster long term. W. won't care because he's not running, but it will be political suicide for Republicans entering the campaign with 130,000 troops still in Iraq.
As Lindsey Graham joked to the witnesses about Congress, referring to the talk of the dysfunctional Iraqi government, "You could say we'r e dysfunctional and you wouldn't be wrong....
Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.