I looked into the Senate last week. It was one of those moments that could have been thrilling but wasn't - not very, anyway. The Senate met at 9:30 and kept at it till 7:30. It condemned the Soviets for ''criminal destruction of the Korean civilian airliner.'' The vote was 95 to 0. This accompanied similar action by the House, 415 to 0. But it was not a moment of rhetorical exuberance.
Great eloquence, I think, has passed out of style. There were strong speeches last week by Senators Percy, Moynihan, Baker, and others, but none that will get into the copybooks. Maybe it was because they all felt the same way: They were stressing the obvious. Nevertheless, 50 years ago I bet there would have been speeches that would have crisped your hair. It was after Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt slowly made his way to the rostrum of the House and told them that ''yesterday'' was ''a date which will live in infamy.'' It was a phrase to remember.
I recall a totally different occasion when President Johnson was addressing a joint session of Congress. He was presenting his sweeping civil rights program; it was electric. I had an advance text and marked 40 applause lines: It was like a hammer hitting an anvil. I wrote pages of notes, and halfway through Page 2, I jotted, ''I shall always like Lyndon Johnson for his speech on civil rights.'' He ended it, you remember, ''We shall overcome.''
Admittedly the situation last week in the Senate was different. But aside from changed circumstances, senators and their world have changed, too. Men like Borah, Champ Clark, Hiram Johnson, Bob LaFollette, and George Norris would have had different audiences. Some senators in those days wore their hair long, or favored white vests. Maybe we are fortunate that they don't beat their breasts that way anymore. What has happened? Reporters looked down from the Senate press gallery and sent running stories, transmitted by telegraph operators using morse code.
The big change has been, of course, radio and television. Reporters knew that by the time the public got their account they would have known all about it or seen spot interviews with the actual senators.
Something has gone out of politics both in Congress and outside. Getting a candidate nominated and elected is more complex. A lot of money is spent, but I have the feeling that the public is less moved than before. According to Herbert Alexander in his analysis, ''Financing the 1980 Election'' (Heath, 1983) the total bill that year exceeded $1 billion for the first time. The total, he guesses, was $1,203,000,000. Some $505,000,000 went to state and regional contests and local referendums. The sum will be larger in 1984. It sounds immense, but it involves a country of 230 million. What is of greater concern, I think, is that only about 54 percent of those eligible to vote in the last election bothered to vote.
As I looked down on the half-empty Senate last week, at one interval I wondered what past orators would have thought? Eloquence in classic days was a great public art form. Take Demosthenes, for example; he harangued in the agora over the alleged menace of Macedonia, lying in wait, he charged, to pounce on democracy. (Democracy itself, of course, is a Greek concept - government by the demos, or people.) In 351 BC, Macedonia was the Soviet menace. Would Demosthenes have done better as an orator with TV and radio? He did all right, by all accounts, without them. Democracy needs something more than electronics to defend it.