I looked down at the senators from the press gallery the other day and got the strange impression that they all looked alike. The impression passed quickly but it emphasized the feeling that has been growing of how different Congress is from the way it used to be. Senators in the old days had more quirks and eccentricities; they didn't look alike.
I pull down at random the Congressional Directory of March 1937 (with ''Joseph C. Harsch'' stamped on the cover) and my finger goes lovingly down the list of senators. There is William E. Borah of Idaho. . . . There is Pat Harrison of Mississippi, Hiram W. Johnson, California, Robert M. LaFollette Jr. of Wisconsin, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts. Every name is vivid. There is William Gibbs McAdoo of New York, George Norris of Nebraska, Claude Pepper of Florida (he's over in the House now), yes, and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, and Robert F. Wagner of New York. Who is this? - Why to be sure, Harry S. Truman of Independence, Missouri.
What a crowd; get them together and get them in argument, and excitement and razzle-dazzle flows out of it and even occasionally eloquence. Parents used to take their children into the Senate to hear the speeches as they did when Webster made his reply to Hayne (1830).
Would they do it today? Look down now, and amidst a handful of senators one of them is explaining in a monotone, ''The sponsors of the retroactivity provision are responsible for this bill's not passing, and the business community should hold them accountable for its not having been enacted during the 97th Congress. . . .'' It isn't quite fair, of course, to pick out random selections in a dispute, but you get the idea: The debate is solid and practical enough but it isn't clothed in the kind of language that gets quoted in graduation exercises.
Television has taken a lot of life out of congressional debates. Before TV that amusing senator, Everett McKinley Dirkson (of whom it was said that he could strut sitting down), made the observation to a newcomer, ''If you have some kind of trademark, like unruly hair, people get to recognize you.''
How much more now on TV! Instead of making a speech to the Senate and perhaps a thousand listeners in the galleries, you can go on the air and be heard by millions. That's where the forum is.
One of the most thrilling things I can remember when I first started watching the Senate was the phrase ''Borah's up!'' It was followed by a stampede of newsmen from the Senate press room, like firemen answering an alarm, through the double swing doors that open out on to the gallery overlooking the Senate chamber.
If Borah was up it was a story. There he stood in the carpeted chamber beneath, conscious of the stir he was creating but not playing to the gallery; the public seats filled and other senators came back from cloak rooms to hear the rugged old mastiff, big jawed and eloquent, making a speech that rang the rafters and often the headlines.
''Borah's up!'' It haunts me. Its absence today marks the end of something or other; the decline of oratory in Congress, the rise of television.
It was too bad about Borah. I liked him. I gave him a ride with my children once in my Model T when I picked him up outside the lion's cage at the National Zoo. He looked leonine. . . . Never mind that he was an isolationist, never understood the world he was living in, had an unpredictable tendency to dodge out of battles he had precipitated. ''He fights until he sees the whites of their eyes,'' complained liberal George Norris once over some measure. Or as another man put it, ''He winds himself up, yet he never strikes twelve!'' Never mind that: He was the only one who could fill the press gallery at the thrilling words ''Borah's up!''
As I write the above I glance at the Congressional Record covering the proceedings of the opening lame-duck session. It begins with a statement by majority leader Howard Baker of Tennessee on ''Televised Proceedings.'' The House has put its proceedings on TV in a limited way for some time and Senator Baker says he wants the Senate to follow suit. ''This resolution has been on the Senate agenda for close to two years,'' he says. He wonders if something can be done on it ''in the next few weeks.''
I wonder, too. If enacted the public could see and hear the debates. It might change the Senate. You would flick on your set perhaps . . . Borah's up!