When the scene finally unfolded yesterday morning before the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, there were only four "real" people inside the grand room to witness it.

Dorothy Polcher, from Canyon City, Colo. was one of them. In her red, white and blue flowered blouse, the retiree found an empty seat smack against the back wood-paneled wall of the Hart Senate Office Building hearing room.

Beyond the red velvet draped dais upon which sat the six members of the Senate panel; beyond the single green tables at which four of the five senators sat expressionless; beyond the rows of lawyers, relatives and friends; beyond the seven tables of reporters and the squadrons of photographers, beyond the Hill staffers who took up the seats reserved for the public, Polcher looked on patiently, judiciously.

"I suppose from what they are saying, they want their constituents to know they've made an important statement in an important hearing," Polcher said after each of the six panel members read from a prepared text. "But nobody back home is paying any attention, so it's a waste of time."

If the few spectators who managed to squeeze into the packed room yesterday did not represent the General Public in their numbers, they seemed to in their views that politicians are in business to benefit themselves and that this corruption permeates the entire American political system.

But most were equally conflicted over their competing feeling of reverence for the decorum, the imposing marble backdrop, the respectful collegial addresses, and the formal process they watched yesterday.

"I'm really impressed by the soberness and the attentiveness of everyone. Nobody's even whispering," said Patrick Guinan, a government teacher from Bradenton, Fla. "It's touchy," he said of the issues at hand.

Russel Kriwanek of Green Bay, Wis., who was allowed in at midday along with a few dozen students and other spectators, thought the issues were clear. The committee's special counsel, Robert S. Bennett, talked too long. The proceeding would end with little resolved. "I think they probably were caught with their hands in the cookie jar and will get a slap on the wrist," he said. "I don't think the government is fair. It's just gotten out of hand."

The huge news media presence that characterized the hearing made its importance known from the start. Even before the senators or panel members appeared in the room, a clanking, metal wall of television cameras and their lounging human chaparones staked out the long entrance hall to the hearing room.

Inside, a firing line of 23 photographers stood shoulder to shoulder in between the panel and the senators under investigation. On cue, several minutes after the honored guests arrived and took their seats at the single tables several feet below the level of the dais, the photo line broke up. Like a marching band, they filed to one side of the room and stood there in formation, trying to snap what little emotion they could find on the faces of those directly involved.

If the cameras scanned the room, they caught the fact that Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) mother sat near him in a wheelchair, a cast on her leg, doing needlepoint. They recorded John Glenn (D-Ohio) seated alone at his table, without attorneys. They saw Bennett, holding up a box of puzzle pieces during his opening comments, an analogy to the interconnected parts of this case. They picked up that Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) was absent.

A spokesman said Cranston, who watched the proceedings on television in his office, was drafting his statement and preparing for a trip to California, where he will undergo radiation treatment for cancer.

In his opening remarks, ethics committee Chairman Howell T. Heflin (D-Ala.) made a measured appeal for fairness, then said: "Many of our fellow citizens apparently believe that your services were bought by {Lincoln Savings and Loan Association executive} Charles Keating, that you were bribed, that you sold your office, that you traded your honor and your good names for contributions and other benefits . . . . "

"It will bring out a lot of things," Guinan said of the hearings, "honesty, morality, what we demand of our representatives. My students are already turned off. They don't want to know what's going on . . . ."