Daniel Webster would have been different on television
Looking down at the Senate from the press gallery the other day, I got to thinking that it wasn't what it used to be. A lot of faces I didn't know. But it went beyond that. Where are the buttonhole carnations, the long hair, the cutaways? As a matter of fact, where are the orators? They don't try to orate much anymore; if you want to sway the nation, get on television. This is a club-like atmosphere. It is drab. Most of the seats, most of the time, are empty. Save at the roll-call votes it is a pretty dull place.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Not in the old days. Come with me on a rattling street car past the State-War-and-Navy building (room enough to hold three government departments); past the White House; past the Willard Hotel, the Ebbitt House, the National Hotel, up to the Capitol. The street car is no old-fashioned trolley; it gets its electricity somehow through a ''plough'' that follows an endless slit in the pavement (and that always goes out of kilter in a snowstorm). Well, here we are, the Senate. And what personalities and raw power you find.
There is Reed Smoot, Republican, serving his fourth term, a lugubrious figure who looks more like an undertaker than a legislator; there is cagey George Moses of New Hampshire; and noble George Norris of Nebraska (the man who stopped Harding from selling Muscle Shoals to Henry Ford). There is Thomas Heflin of Alabama, of whom critics say he is the only man who could strut sitting down.
Several stars haven't been added to the flag yet so the Senate has fewer members. There's James Couzens of Michigan who began making automobiles in 1903 and made a fortunate investment in the Ford Motor Company. There is Henry Cabot Lodge, described as the ''crisply withered Boston Brahmin'' - the Wilson-hater; he made the keynote speech at the Republican 1920 Chicago convention that lasted an hour and 20 minutes. (If you wound them up those days they ran for a long time.) There is Carter Glass of Virginia, who utters wise comment out of one side of his mouth (''Just think,'' mused Wilson one day, ''what if Glass used his whole mouth!'') There is Hiram Johnson, the isolationist; Bob LaFollette, the Wisconsin liberal, there is Borah . . .
I compare these senators with the names in the new Senate Congressional Directory. Let me take the first 10 of these in 1983: Sens. James Abdnor (R) of South Dakota; Mark Andrews (R) of North Dakota; William L. Armstrong (R) of Colorado; Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee; Max Baucus (D) of Montana; Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas; Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware; Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico; David L Boren (D) of Oklahoma; Rudy Boschwitz (R) of Minnesota . . . and so on. Some names are familiar enough but they are hardly the type that stir the blood one way or another as in the old days. Consider them: a group of them met in the smoke-filled room of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago on June 11, 1920 , picked a fellow senator, Warren Harding, for president; nominated him; elected him. . . . Lodge and Watson and McCormick and Smoot and Grundy: they chose one they could control, put him in the White House, and he was an extension of their coterie.
One thing that has passed out of style, for better or worse, is eloquence. Borah was about the last of the orators. It was electrifying to hear Jim Preston , the veteran press gallery superintendent, burst open the swing door where we sat in the press gallery, with the words ''Borah's up!'' In a minute we jammed the door, eager to hear. Whatever Borah said made news, and it was worth hearing him say it, too. He spoke extemporaneously, the rumble of his voice resounding in the chamber: not knowing which line he would take on anything; he was an individualist, collaborated with nobody. Cal Coolidge showed Borah on horseback and asked if we could see what was wrong with the picture. Yes, he snorted, Borah and his steed were going in the same direction.
What has happened, of course, is television. The old stump speech is different from the modern delivery over the tube, sandwiched between commercials and probably prepared by ghost writers. Daniel Webster and Calhoun would have been different on television. Franklin Roosevelt was fine in fireside chats but they were not oratory in the grand manner: they were informal and persuasive. The best man doing it today, I think, is Ronald Reagan. He carries an audience along easily with him. In fact it is a great deal like the old FDR style.
It is a different style today and our television has brought us into it. Look down at the sleepy Senate floor now. Maybe it's for the best! There's not a breast-beater in the lot.