Interviewed by Associate Senate Historian
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Ritchie: How about the home state staff, did you have to manage them as well?
Arenberg: Yes. Of course, there is a director in the state who was an extremely competent guy who had done the job—he’d been on the Muskie staff. So it was a very professional, very effective staff that Mitchell had at the time that I got there. But as I say, he had, I think it was, six or seven offices in the state at the time. Not that uncommon anymore now, but at the time it was like…I think it was beyond the upper limit, actually, you know. And so covering those offices—I’d go up there and rent a car and drive around. You know, driving around the state of Maine, covering all that territory, there were thousands of miles involved, actually. But there is kind of a state office inflation that sets in because it’s an easy thing if you can get approval to do it…it’s an easy thing to open up a new state office. You know, people like it, and you’ve got a new operation in a new area. It’s the hardest thing in the world to close an office. So they do tend to…you know, unless the sergeant at arms cracks down…or is it the Secretary of the Senate? I don’t recall, but you know, there is a tendency to add offices.
Ritchie: These days, at least, they have telecommuting…teleconferencing capabilities. I know a lot of staffs have a Monday morning teleconference with their state offices and everything.
Arenberg: We did that in the Levin office, you know, the last few years. We met with not just the Detroit office but all of the offices around the state.
Ritchie: It does seem that there’s more of a trend toward having more staff back in the home state. I guess with electronic mail and everything else, you don’t have to be here in Washington for everything.
Arenberg: Right. When I first came here, you know I always…the younger staff finds it amusing when I regale them, particularly about office equipment, for some reason. When I tell them there was a time when we didn’t have computers, and we didn’t have Xerox machines, and we didn’t have fax machines. And no long-distance phone calls. I mean, when I first came here there was the FTS line, which the executive branch had access to all day long, but in Washington we only had access to it after five o’clock. There was one FTS line in every Senate office. And it was only after five o’clock that we had access to it, I guess because of the amount of traffic in Washington. But in the state offices, they had access to FTS all day. So the routine, I think probably in all Senate offices, but the routine that we had was that the state offices were all under instructions never to answer the phone on the first ring. So you would call the state office, let it ring once and hang up. They would know that was the Washington office and would call us back on the FTS line. But you know, it’s kind of a trivial matter, but when you think back to, you know, it’s not all that many years ago—30 years ago—that the United States Senate was operating in a way where for most purposes, you didn’t even have access to a long-distance phone call. And when we first got the first faxes, it was back when I was in Tsongas’ congressional office over in the House, because Wang Laboratories was in our district, and they developed, I believe, the first one. They were called telecopiers then. You remember, those were the things that, you know, you’d get…it would go around and around and when it came out it smelled bad and was all curled up. And you couldn’t uncurl it. But, you know, we thought that was a miraculous thing: documents over the phone line, what a revolutionary idea! You know, and we take all that for granted now.
Ritchie: Especially with some of the older senators, it was a real chore to get them to accept something as new as a fax machine.
Arenberg: Yeah, exactly.
Ritchie: Whereas I would think Tsongas, as one of the Atari people, would have adjusted to new technology.
Arenberg: Yeah, he was pretty good on moving to technology
Ritchie: So you moved not only to a different senator but to a different state. How did you acquaint yourself with Maine in this period?
Arenberg: Well, you know, I’d grown up in New England, and so I had some familiarity with Maine. I went back to the state probably more frequently than I have in any of these other jobs. These other jobs had been more Washington-centered, I think, than when I was his chief of staff. I spent more time up there. I spent a lot of time meeting a ton of people. And it was interesting to me because having had my early experience with a larger state like Massachusetts, where the relationship with the senator is a little less personal and intimate—I mean, there’s a lot more people and most people in Massachusetts, even in all the years that he was in office, probably never met Ted Kennedy or shook hands with him. You know, I’m sure he met millions of people, but…and if they had one interaction with him over the course of all those years that was probably a lot, unless they were really active in some way or another. And in larger states, I’m sure that’s obviously even more the case.
It’s very different in a small state like Maine. Politics is very personal. A guy like Mitchell, if you walked the streets of Maine with him, he knew two out of three people by name. It was a miraculous thing. And sometimes he knew more about their family tree than they knew. I had experiences like that, when I’d be with him and somebody would come up and he’d ask about their great-aunt Mabel or something. And they’d say, “Do I have a great-aunt Mabel?” And he’d say, “Yeah, isn’t your family from Millinocket?” And, “Aren’t you the Smith’s from Millinocket?” And lo and behold he knew the family tree better than the person he was talking to. But as a result, I found that as the chief of staff to the senator, when I went to the state, it was a bigger deal than I expected. I mean, when I went to visit the statehouse just to meet people, they took me in to meet the governor, and then took me out on the floor of the state senate and so forth. I mean, when I worked for Tsongas, if I walked out on the floor of the Massachusetts state senate, you know, what these guys would be saying out of the corner of their mouths is, “What’s this guy doing here? Where’d he come from? Who does he think he is?” You know, in Maine, that was a very different thing. And all of that individual contact was expected.
And running an office for a state like that, you take something like mail. Now even working for Levin or working for Tsongas, it’s always in a Senate office you try to be very responsive in terms of responding to mail. It’s an important thing. You know, you try to be very substantive. But in Maine, the feedback was instantaneous. If you didn’t respond to a letter, or you were late responding to a letter, or the response was off the point, or anything like that, the senator was likely to hear about it that weekend. You know, because if he didn’t run into the person who got it, which he probably wouldn’t but they might know somebody that was going to be at something he was going to be at, and the word would get to him. He would come back and say, “Well, what happened here?” A much more kind of instant feedback. I think in larger states the relationship between the constituency and the senator tends to be more electronic: they see him on the news. It’s more of a mass media kind of relationship. It’s obvious it’s just the math, but it makes a big difference.