Washington — I saw a senator resign last week. It was in a mood of somber melancholy.
At 12:45 (March 11) the vice-president from the little raised island of authority where he sits in the US Senate chamber said: ''The clerk will call the roll.'' It is a big room where some of the most famous speeches of Congress have been delivered. Half a century ago, in the press gallery, a clerk would push open the glass swing doors to the press room and shout ''Borah's up!'' In those days, before television, those two electrifying words would bring 30 reporters stamping to the door and to their seats to hear what the last of the great orators would say. He was one of the most impressive senators, always an uncertain quantity, always good copy.
Nowadays the nation hardly knows its senators. I think it is due to television, which has blurred the whole legislative image. But on this day last week there is a kind of low-keyed tragedy about the affair underlying the usual formality. The galleries are sparsely filled, the Senate seats empty at first save for five or six.
In the press gallery we hear the quorum bells jingling, like a public school when classes change. The clerk goes through the roll once - hardly anybody says ''present.'' A second time brings the same result. Now the chair adds the perfunctory order that the sergeant-at-arms produce the absentees.
The Senate floor has four semicircular rows of desks. For the first time in my experience there is sufficient interest in the press gallery above so that reporters have reserved individual places in advance, announced by writing their names on pieces of paper. We look down at the Senate desks, on each of which papers of the expulsion procedure are placed. An ornate, historic forum, with indirect lighting above and green carpet below.
This is the fifth day of the proceeding affecting Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey. His wife is in the gallery across the chamber, reserved for members' families. She reflects the attitude of her husband - innocence of wrongdoing.
One o'clock now and public galleries are full, the Senate too. The roll continues the last time, undramatic, anticlimatic. The whisper has gone through the press gallery that Mr. Williams will resign, not fight the expulsion that is otherwise inevitable.
The public knows the background under circumstances that are sure to be investigated. The Justice Department heard of bribery attempts in the legislature, and put them to a test with a theatrical, hardly believable staged offer to congressmen, recorded by concealed video tapes. It made a tawdry affair that became the scandal of the nation. It brought the indictment and conviction of seven congressmen, including Mr. Williams - a member with 23 years of Senate service. Though he was convicted last May, his case is now on appeal on the countercharge of FBI entrapment.
So much for the circumstances. What do the Senate scenes look like?
''The Senate be in order,'' says Vice-President Bush. Each of the 100 seats is now filled, unprecedented in my experience. There are three short speeches. They are not personal; there are no recriminations; what has to be done must be done. At 1:36 Senator Williams stands at his desk in the second row and speaks in a moderate voice for 25 minutes. There are few histrionics; it is past that now; his attitude is that he is defending the Senate from executive spying and performing a service by avoiding an expulsion fight. The voice is low-level with variations of emotion; the big chamber is silent, a little awed. ''I thank you senators as I announce my intention to resign. . . ,'' he concludes finally.
There are perfunctory additional speeches as leaders try to sustain their departing colleague and to cast him off at the same time. This room has seen many strange scenes, few as odious as this, and yet it is done with a curious dignity. The conclusion is somber - and necessary. The clerk reads Mr. Williams's letter of resignation.
There is a sense of relief now for everybody, including the ex-senator. The staged event is over. The work of the Senate goes on.