WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN was barely 30 when he took the floor of the House of Representatives for his maiden speech as a congressman. The subject was legislation to reduce the tariff on wool and he spoke for three hours.

More than 20 years later, Bryan was the guest speaker at a national oratorical contest in Kentucky. By then he was Wilson's secretary of state and a three-time loser for the presidency. After his speech, a young contestant asked him for tips on holding the attention of a big crowd. Bryan told young Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois always to "talk to the last row and everybody else will hear you."

Dirksen parlayed his own oratorical skills into a successful political career. Like Bryan, he tried and failed to make it to the White House, but he eventually rose to become the Republican leader of the United States Senate, and no one in the last row of the galleries ever failed to hear what Dirksen had to say.

Lewis L. Strauss' career in government came to an unhappy end at the hands of the Senate in the very year that Dirksen became the minority leader. The powerful and rigid former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who led the fight to banish physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as a security risk and pushed the country to build thehydrogen bomb, had been nominated to be President Eisenhower's secretary of commerce. But in a public life that spanned four decades, Strauss had made too many enemies. He was rejected for the Cabinet post in 1959 and retired to his farm in Virginia.

Harold Ickes, a reformer from his youth and eventually Franklin Roosevelt's outspoken secretary of the interior, made just as many enemies as Strauss during his stormy public career. He was as liberal as Strauss was conservative and equally inflexible in his convictions. The end of his career as a cabinet officer was just as explosive as Strauss'. Ickes quit in a blaze of publicity when President Truman questioned his honesty.

These four biographies are oddly intertwined, not obviously by design but by the nature of the lives these unusual men led. They covered roughly 80 years of history in Washington in elective and appointive office, and were in the middle of the shaping of the modern Democratic party, the modern Republican party, the Cold War,the arms race and the struggle for human justice. Each ended his life in some way unfulfilled -- or worse -- except for Dirksen, perhaps the consummate Washington insider and creature of the Senate.

Bryan served only briefly in the House of Representatives, but his influence on American politics was enormous. He was nominated for president by the Democrats for the first time in 1896 after his "Cross of Gold" speech electrified the national convention. He was 36 at the time. He quit the cabinet in protest over Wilson's anti-German policies on the eve of America's entry into World War I and ended his public career in humiliation, the loser to Clarence Darrow in the Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee.

A Righteous Cause, by Robert W. Cherny, a professor of history at San Francisco State University, is a slim, readable history of Bryan's life, although it suffers somewhat from too much attention to the state politics of Nebraska. As a political figure, Bryan bears some resemblance to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, like Bryan the most powerful political orator of his day. Bryan had influence without much electoral success, he kept his opponents at bay by defining issues in moralistic terms. He pushed his party to become more progressive, he embraced unpopular causes, he maintained his own independence and distance and he earned his reputation and his livelihood on the strength of his own voice.

Dirksen of Illinois, by historians Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, is a friendly and often chatty biography in which the authors constantly refer to Dirksen as "Ev," and generally find in him only the most admirable qualities as a politician.

Dirksen came to Congress in 1932 and vigorously opposed Roosevelt's New Deal. Ten years later, he tried to run for president. In 1948 he quit the House because of an eye ailment, but returned to Washington as a senator two years later. He was a Taft Republican in 1952 who quickly became an Eisenhower loyalist. He was vigorously conservative and anti-communist, encouraging the witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy. In 1959 he was elected Republican leader and became a close friend of Lyndon Johnson, then the Senate majority leader. In 1964, he was instrumental in breaking the filibuster on the Civil Rights Act, helping it finally to pass the Senate.

The Schapsmeiers' book skims over these episodes too rapidly in my view. Dirksen, obviously a gifted and skilled congressional animal, is described only in the most general way, usually from secondary sources. The disappointment in reading this book is knowing that there is so much more. But rarely if ever do the authors bring to life one of the liveliest men of his time.

But the Dirksen book is a pleasure to read in comparison to Harold Ickes of the New Deal, by Graham White and John Maze. Blending history and psychology, the two authors put Ickes on the couch and, for me at least, out of reach. Rather than generalize about their technique, permit me to quote one shining example.

THE AUTHORS note that Ickes often referred to instances when Franklin Roosevelt put his hand on Ickes' arm or shoulder. "Why was there no negative reaction to such physical contact or to Roosevelt's overpowering masculine charm? Perhaps Roosevelt's paralysis, the crippling of his legs, disarmed Ickes' belligerent defensiveness. For such a man as Ickes, this would stand, unconsciously, as the canceling out of Roosevelt's physical masculinity (though it was not so in fact). So the threat of too great a challenge to Ickes' own masculinity was decreased. Roosevelt was like a feminized father figure, attracting admiring dependency, and perhaps the physical tenderness Ickes would have felt for an ideal mother, or wife, without any accompanying danger."

Well, it's hard for me to challenge that.

The authors base their analysis on a series of documents they say reveal wide differences between the public and private Ickes. They are fascinated with his relationship with his first wife Anna and it runs throughout the book. Also some incidents Ickes describes about his mother. That he is a complicated and difficult man is without question. That he should be written about in this way is questionable.

On the other hand, No Sacrifice Too Great, the Lewis Strauss biography by Richard Pfau, an associate professor and dean at the University of Miami, is a straightforward, well-written, well-researched biography of the controversial man who held center stage in the development of U.S. nuclear policy.

Strauss (pronounced "straws") never had more than a high school education, but as a young man signed on with Herbert Hoover when Hoover was organizing his European relief efforts during World War I. This led to a stint in Europe, a career as an investment banker in which he made a fortune off the 1920s economic boom, a commission as a rear admiral in the Navy and finally, after World War II, a long stint on the Atomic Energy Commission, concluding with a five- year term as chairman.

Strauss was the AEC hardliner who often found himself in a minority of one. Rigidly anti-communist and suspicious of anyone who did not agree with that position, he fought vigorously and successfully inside the government to force development of the hydrogen bomb, the so-called "superbomb." He pushed a program that allowed the United States to detect that the Soviet Union had developed atomic capability.

And throughout his career at the AEC, he was at war with Oppenheimer, whom he believed was an agent of the Russians. In his pursuit of Oppenheimer, he employed the use of the FBI, put the Princeton physicist under full surveillance and tapped his telephone. Eventually he broke Oppenheimer -- and paid dearly for it.

Uncompromising, arrogant, totally self- confident, Strauss was done in by his own hubris when Eisenhower tried to make him secretary of commerce as the crowning achievement of his career. Caught in a lie in his confirmation hearings and the victim of a partisan power play, Strauss was rejected by the Senate in June 1959 by three votes.

"Under the pressure of an inquisition which resembled the review of Oppenheimer's behavior five years before, Strauss failed to demonstrate convincingly those two attributes that so admirably suited him to be secretary of commerce -- his character and integrity," Pfau writes. Then quoting Strauss' brother, he adds, "He never got over it."