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Either Americans are getting an excellent civics lesson, learning again that democracy is messy and life is unfair, or they are getting so caught up in the entertainment value of it all that they'd expect nothing less on their TV sets.

From O.J. to Whitewater, from health care to secret spy buildings, this has been a summer to watch your government in action.As our TV clickers have sent us from a courtroom in Los Angeles to the hearing rooms and floors of Congress, it's easy to have conflicting views about what all this says about the fate of civilization.

The preliminary legal maneuvers before the pending trial of sports superstar O.J. Simpson on charges of murder have shown that it's a good thing to have millions of dollars on hand for a phalanx of lawyers if you are implicated in a killing.

Justice no longer seems blind. She seems mentally challenged.

Americans have watched the Menendez brothers admit to killing their parents and get off at their first trial on technicalities. Americans watched police officers, who were caught on videotape beating Rodney King, convince a jury they were innocent and then get convicted in a second trial.

Now Americans are watching the legal apparatus of the city of Los Angeles battle some of the world's highest paid criminal defense lawyers in the Simpson soap opera. Nightly polls disclose how many of us think he's guilty or innocent, before one juror has been chosen.

But it is in Washington that the drama that will affect us all the most is unfolding. Congress debates our health-care system in a frenzied blur of haste while the first phase of the Whitewater hearings seemed to drag on forever.

After hours and hours and hours, some Treasury officials were publicly chastised for having misled Congress on how many Whitewater contacts they had with White House officials.

Next a three-judge federal panel got a couple of letters from right-wing Republicans protesting the continuation of independent counsel Robert Fiske, also a Republican. The panel decided to replace Fiske with a more political Republican who had served in the last two Republican administrations. So an investigation costing taxpayers $300,000 a month will go on for months longer.

Meanwhile, the TV cameras switched to the floor of the Senate, where the Clinton White House is fighting for a health-care reform package for which it doesn't even have a final cost estimate. As the administration struggles to reorganize itself, chastened by charges of chaos, the White House says that Americans need more government involvement in health care.

It may be, in the end, that more government effort to restrain costs and to try to ensure everyone has coverage is the right prescription. But the case doesn't seem to have been made for it yet.

Meanwhile, the florid debate on the Senate floor does not inspire confidence or set new standards of eloquence. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, thundered that "if there is anything the existence of mankind on the planet in the 20th century proves, it is that government does not work." But the previous day he said strongly that he is not against all government, just excessive government.

Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., complained ominously, "I can feel what's happening here. (Republicans and Democrats) have to get on together on partisan lines to make sure our team wins." He admonished both parties that the health debate "is not about embracing the president; it is not about embarrasing the president. It is about getting together about writing a health-care bill that will work." As he sat down, debate again surged up around him, a voice unheard.

Now comes the revelation that the government is spending $350 million on a gigantic new office building for spies 30 miles away from the nation's capital and neither the White House nor the Senate Intelligence Committee knew.

Either Americans are getting an excellent civics lesson this summer, learning yet again that democracy is messy and life is unfair, or they are getting so caught up in the entertainment value of it all that they'd expect nothing less on their TV sets.

Since government is so pervasive these days, some people wanted to see what it could do about preventing a baseball strike. But no. President Clinton said that might do more harm than good.