Should the proceedings of the Senate be televised? Probably not. It isn't because certain people would hog the limelight -- although they almost certainly would -- or that it will somehow intrude on its deliberations -- they don't have them anymore.
It's simply that the Senate has become a great bore. Members rarely come to the floor, knowing that hearings, or The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, provide the chance to shine.
The House has been on television for 6 1/2 years and is none the worse for it, although right-wing conservatives have taken over and made themselves household words to afternoon addicts of C-SPAN.
A similar thing could happen in the Senate once the lights went on and the cameras rolled. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), popeyed prophet of the hard right, would use the device to raise money, of which he already has too much, to promote prayer in the schools and tyrants in the hemisphere.
But at least in the House, where the five-minute rule holds all in an iron grip, they do have debates. In the Senate, debate often means one member standing in an empty chamber, being heard only by a bored presiding officer who is signing his mail or autographing pictures.
The Senate is now dithering again over whether to put itself on live. It knows it has no great oratorical talents, no endearing personalities to make the show go. Some people attribute its corporate blandness to the fact that so many senators won their seats by heeding television coaches who exhorted them to blow-dry their hair, lower their voices and above all, never to say anything of substance.
Once the Senate was crammed with characters, men who had respect for the English language and an aversion to tedium that is rarely evident today.
Once they had debates, which were eagerly attended by their colleagues and packed the galleries. They had orators like the late Walter F. George (D) of Georgia, a man whose sentences and paragraphs rolled like the "blue waves" he evoked when he talked about Americans who had fallen in battle. Now Sam Nunn (D), a technocrat, is the senior senator from Georgia. He speaks in Pentagonese.
In the old days, when members could speak and liked to, they came to the floor as a matter of course. Maybe it was the issues before them. Tax reform does not stir the blood; and nuclear war, which they sometimes touch on, is too abstract for people who live by polls and their fear of Ronald Reagan.
In the '50s, the Senate had to come to grips with the brutal, errant force in its midst, Joe McCarthy. They gathered in full strength on the Senate floor to censure him. Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), who today sits in a wheelchair after having his leg amputated last year, was in his prime. He stood up and pointed at the demagogue, and in a steady, vibrant southern voice, indicted him for the "slush and slime" he had brought into the chamber.
When the two veterans from Illinois, Everett M. Dirksen (R) and Paul H. Douglas (D), went at it on civil rights in the early '60s, the younger members came scurrying. They would sit in their chairs with their arms wrapped around their chests lest they be seized by unsenatorial laughter, as the two old bears, equally rumpled and unkempt, scuffled with each other, every courtly phrase and nuance given its due.
Dirksen, as minority leader, was wonderful theater. The damp and curly locks above the ravaged countenance of a burnt out Shakespearean actor, the dramatic gestures, the pained quotations from the Bible bespoke a politician who understood the importance of avoiding tedium in the public's business. His voice had the consistency of butter and he used it with conscious power, sometimes speaking in a stage whisper, at others filling the chamber with its thunder.
He comes poignantly to mind because of a recent Senate action that would have made him weep over lost dramatic possibilities. The Senate made the rose the national flower. Dirksen for years hilariously championed the marigold.
Last week, when the rose was voted in, only doggerel, written by a Senate staff member, was heard.
The Senate is considering gavel-to-gavel coverage so the public won't think the Democratic House is the only functioning arm of Congress. Maybe with the cameras on, senators would come to the floor. Maybe they would learn to think on their feet, even to speak.
But they shouldn't rush into anything.