'Something has happened at Hawaii!'
BORAH'S up! Jim Preston the veteran secretary of the Senate press gallery shouted the announcement as he flung open the swing doors. Twenty reporters lolling about the gallery chamber sprang to the door. Sen. William E. Borah (R) of Idaho was going to make a speech - and where Borah was news was. I ask myself: Is there anybody like Borah in Congress today? No, I don't believe there is. Congress isn't as newsworthy as it used to be. It is no longer much of a debating society, either. Where are the prima donnas? Television, I think, and the difference of national mood have quietly changed our form of government.
It used to be taken for granted that the great events of the time and particularly foreign affairs would be threshed out in the Senate. There were Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. In more recent times there were leaders whose eloquence affected the nation. I turn to the cherished office files of Congressional Directories and look over some of the senators. There is aristocratic Henry Cabot Lodge (with his small beard), burly Boise Penrose of Pennsylvania, Reed Smoot (the tariff man), Bob La Follette Sr., William Borah himself, courtly, Claude Swanson of Virginia, the saintly George Norris, and, yes, here is Warren Gamaliel Harding - I had forgotten about him - small-town publisher, pushed into the presidency by stronger and sterner men, mostly from the Senate, who knew just what they wanted.
What vivid personalities they were; would that be a handicap or advantage today?
Before radio and television the nation used to follow the eloquence of favorite senators in the printed word. Somehow it seems harder for them to do so now. I don't know why. Would people listen to Borah today? His style of oratory was simple but formidable. He came just as America emerged under Woodrow Wilson from its historic isolationism. Could the United States be protected from foreign quarrels by the Atlantic and Pacific? Not during World War I, but now came a great revulsion back to isolation, against Wilson's crusading.
I knew Borah as a reporter and remember taking my children down to the zoo one day where we found the great man looking into the lions' den. He was alone and on foot (normally he used streetcars, when he wasn't on horseback). I gave him a ride back to the trolley in my Model T.
The old Progressive Bloc in the Senate was eager to keep the United States aloof in the new war danger. It was Hitler this time. Franklin Roosevelt believed that war would come soon. So did Cordell Hull, secretary of state. Not Borah. At a White House gathering in 1939 Borah flatly declared, ''There will be no war this year.'' How does he know? He explains enigmatically, ''I have my own sources of information - they are superior to yours at the State Department. . . .''
But war did come. The scene this time shifts to the portico of the White House. Word comes to my house by telephone, Dec. 7, 1941 (43 years ago today) that something has happened at Hawaii! It looks like an attack. Almost automatically journalists all over Washington move to battle stations. I go to the press room of the White House.
It is a calm winter day. There are sprigs of Christmas decoration about. A yellow moon rises through the trees, its upper edge chewed off. The press room is jammed with every device of the communications media going at once.
Reporters write with wild surmise and you can watch them methodically settling down.
Radio says, ''We've just had a flash that Japan has declared a state of war with Britain.'' You can hear ''Baukhage talking'' on radio at one end of the room or see and hear him in person on the other. . . . Photographers dive and surface. . . . There will be a Cabinet meeting at 8:30. . . . ''I've sent five 'flashes' and four 'bulletins,' '' exults a cub reporter who never sent a ''flash'' before in his life.
I go out on the portico of the White House itself, among all those great columns. There are about 50 of us there threshing and stomping. It is 8:34 and we stand watch there, and see the Cabinet go in, then the congressional leaders. They go in glum, come out grim. . . . There is a hush as Sen. Hiram Johnson, the great isolationist, stalks in and the press is too awed even to ask questions. The moon is higher now.
So it goes: the long wait through the evening. It is cold on our stone stage. The moon shines down. I think of Borah. At 11:20, cracked voices of the thinning crowd, looking up at us through the White House fence, sing ''God Bless America.''