SOME OF US were lamenting the other evening the fact that, not all that long ago, we would today be looking forward to a year's feast of oratory -- some of it sublime, some of it ridiculous -- whereas all that we will now get are a few snippets of speeches on television news, and of course the paid advertisements in which the candidate is packaged and offered for sale like a bar of soap. We were all agreed that we miss the theater of an old-time election -- which of us would not have ridden 30 miles on a hay wagon to hear William Jennings Bryan as he inveighed against the "cross of gold"? -- but otherwise does it matter that rhetoric now plays so small a part in our politics?

Most of us thought that it matters a great deal, and not least in the campaign which is now beginning. Both within and between the two major parties, there are a series of legitimate choices which any voter can make, first in the nominations and then in the election. There is an extraordinarily wide area of possibilities. Before it is all done, public opinion may swing back and forth, often and in a wide arc. The election offers the opportunity for very clear definitions of alternative policies and political character.

This is why politicians used to make speeches, and why people not only listened to but read them. Today the policies of a candidate tend to be pushed into position papers, which no one reads, and his character is then judged solely as a kind of dramatic performance. But when speeches really were speeches, the two had to be fused night after night.

To listen to a politician on his feet for an hour -- and perhaps even longer -- was to have an inimitable chance to observe the whole man. Not only did he have to develop his ideas in the widest context -- exploring and sustaining an argument and not just spotlighting a few points -- but he was bound to define his own character very sharply in front of a live audience. This sense of wholeness -- ideas plus policy plus character -- was forged in great speeches.

We hear a lot today about the importance of judging the characters of those whom we may elect to high office, and try to convince ourselves that being able to see the man on television in our own living rooms gives us the clues which we need. But this is really nothing in comparison with watching him in the past as he sweated it out before a huge audience in a cow pasture or even a small audience in a school hall. However well prepared such a speech might be, he was almost certain at some point to desert the text, and to become an individual to the faces in front of him. There was a communication.

The audience played a real part. There were, for one thing, the hecklers. Heckling was a fine art. One hears very little of it now. People sit as passive in front of a speaker as in front of television. Today even the speeches of a candidate are so arranged for television that it is very difficult for the heckler to play his role.

In fact the last great example I can remember was in the general election in Britain in 1964, when Harold Wilson was speaking one evening in Chatham, where the Royal Navy has some of its dockyards. He spoke at considerable length about the urgent need to strengthen the navy, and then he did what no politician as experienced as he should never do. He asked a rhetorical question: "Why do I emphasize the needs of the Royal Navy tonight?" From the back of the hall came a shout: "Because you're in Chatham, chum!"

Collapse of stout party, as the saying goes; and of course the collapse, also, of the audience in laughter. Wilson was forced back on his heels, to justify policy and to prove character. He managed it.

Every politician worth his salt used to pray for hecklers. Even if he was sometimes floored by them, they brought him into live contact with the audience. At what I must admit was a provocatively young age, I was once a parliamentary candidate in Britain. One evening I was gaily criticizing the way in which Conservative governments before the war had truckled to the great dairy companies by withdrawing legislation which would have made milk cheaper and cleaner and more nourishing. Every fact was in my hand; my case was irrefutable. So I thought! But suddenly a matronly figure in the fifth row shouted: "All that you knew about milk before the war was from your mother's breasts!"

It was unfair to do that to a candidate of all of 23 years. I opened my mouth but no word came out. I knew then what it means to be dumbstruck. I even blushed as the audience rocked with laughter. But in spite of the humiliation, I felt the audience at once draw closer. From that moment I was on my mettle, and the audience also listened with new relish. It is quite a challenge to have to recover on your feet. Nevertheless the heckler had also exposed a flaw in my campaign: that I was a whippersnapper with facts at my command but not an ounce of experience to support them.

But the heckler only represents all the other faces to whom the politician is speaking. Every great speaker with whom I have discussed this is agreed that he begins by picking out one and then another face in the crowd, trying to get and hold its attention, trying to reach and persuade it, until at last some alchemy takes place, and his eyes seem fixed simultaneously on every person in the audience and he knows that they are all listening to him intently.

This is not just a performance, as might be given by an actor. The script often, as I have said, goes by the board. An act of definition is taking place, as the politician pits himself against the audience, and it is never quite the same as the night before. There is no such definition as the politician stares at the red light on the camera. But in a speech, something new will happen each night. The audience is never quite the same. The trial takes place once more, and the verdict is never certain.

The speech can never in the end be cleaned up, as it can for television, because the candidate is out there on his own. It is partly for this reason that there come those marvelously mixed metaphors which are a part of all political oratory. When Joseph T. Ferguson ran against Robert A. Taft in Ohio in 1950, he once declaimed from the platform: "I got the people in mind and when you get the people in mind you got the cat by the tail." There was the character of the man, as the rest of what we know of him confirms, caught in a sentence that will not die.

When the very first legislature of the Wyoming Territory was passing the legislation which gave so many political rights to women before any other state or territory in the Union, one W. R. Steele (D) rose and said: "No woman ain't got no right to set on a jury unless she is a man." Across the century that has passed, the man lives in front of our eyes. One does not just read that sentence, one hears it as if one had been there. One knows exactly what Mr. Steele was like: wrongheaded but likeable.

In contrast, when I once read a sentence used by Sen. John Sparkman -- "One man's cultural morality may be another's pragmatism" -- I shook my head and said that he had been in the Senate too long. It has all the starchiness of a man who is talking rubbish, because he has ceased to talk straight-forwardly what he feels. There was no man in those words.

It should be noticed that these are not examples of great oratory. They are examples only of oratory, which may well be homely, and what matters is their liveliness. There is very rarely an anecdote to tell about a politician's performance on television, and the point of anecdotes, as we tell them even of our friends, is that they are ways of describing the whole rounded character of a person. What we faddishly call "body contact" and "eye contact" are all in an anecdote.

They also all used to be in a speech. This is one reason why before the days of rapid communication a speech -- the whole impression of a speech -- seemed to travel almost by magic across the country. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were not only passed from hand to hand across the continent -- and read thoroughly, and read aloud -- but one can feel that there traveled with them from mouth to mouth a folk image of the two men.

The oratory was true theater in a way that television never can be. One does not have to carry it as far as Richard Sheridan -- playwright and actor-manager as well as politician -- who spoke for four and a half hours in the impeachment of Warren Hastings. But nevertheless the occasion must have been splendid. No less than the actress Mrs. Siddons was so overcome that she fainted. At the end of his oration, Sheridan fell back dramatically into the arms of Burke. But the historian Edward Gibbon responded like a historian. He called on Sheridan the next morning, and found that he was "perfectly well."

Yet this theater has an importance we can miss. It was understood by the Iroquois who were the greatest of orators, finding the right images and then repeating them again and again, with not less but even more vivid force. Since they had no writing, they were writing the words on the mind. This is also what the oratory or a Webster or a Calhoun was meant to do. The arguments and characters of politicians did not flicker across a screen. They were taken in, absorbed, pondered and remembered.

For ultimately what mattered more in oratory than the speaker was the audience. All great politicians say that they must get out among the crowds, and there is not the slightest doubt that they draw some knowledge from the encounter which not even the most experienced political journalist is able to do. If the people can feel him, he also can feel the people. Part of our trouble today is that neither knows the other. Instead of a heckling audience -- only that red light on the camera.