What if Barbra Streisand had not defended the National Endowment for the Arts at Harvard? What if Bill Clinton had defended the NEA as vociferously as he did public broadcasting? What if Christopher Reeve, the most driven celebrity lobbyist for the arts, had not fallen from his horse? What if Time had run Robert Hughes' take-no-prisoners defense of federal arts funding on its cover before rather than after the crucial congressional votes? What if Melanie Griffith had not only lobbied Newt Gingrich but accepted a pouting-sex-kitten role in the screen version of his novel?

Now that Congress has almost gutted the Arts and Humanities Endowments - in the House's case cutting their budgets by up to 40 percent and setting a two-year deadline for the NEA's extinction - it's fair to ask: Did this drama have to reach this dire climax? An informal survey of some on the barricades suggests that while the battle to save the NEA was often scattershot, the agency never stood a chance once it became the designated scourge of the religious right.There were some heroes, including, arguably, Griffith; the literary fellowships she defended to the speaker may be the only individual grants to survive the purge. Among others who made a difference: Isaac Stern, an energetic lobbyist; Jodie Foster, who made a public-service announcement, and Michael Greene, the music-industry executive who turned the Grammy Awards show into an NEA jamboree.

But George Searchinger, a documentary filmmaker, had a real point when he wrote a letter to The New York Times last month asking, "Where are the television network leaders, the movie moguls, the opera impresarios, the great commentators now that we need them?"

Sen. Bob Bennett, a conservative Utah Republican who was among those trying to improve the NEA's lot in the Senate Tuesday, says that classy cultural icons might have made the case on the Hill better than flashy Hollywood stars associated with liberal causes. But such figures were only intermittently mobilized. The arts world has its advocacy groups, but it is too poor and compartmentalized to create a focused Washington presence to match the National Rifle Association.

And what about all those Republican fat cats who sit on the boards of NEA-funded institutions? The president of the Metropolitan Museum, William Luers, who joined with blue-chip business and cultural leaders to form Americans United to Save the Arts and Humanities, found that in the end "not enough of them had the courage to call Newt on this."

The dispirited Luers, like others I spoke to, also soon discovered that the endowments' fate was not tied to "a rational, intelligent debate over what the arts and humanities do" in any case. No argument - esthetic, economic, educational or even patriotic - could save the NEA as long as it was on the religious right's hit list.

Given the enormous wealth and power of the real forces arrayed against it, you can only marvel that the NEA is even standing. And you can only thank those arts advocates, however outgunned, who served as the first line of defense against an intolerant social revolution that will soon engulf us all.