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Richard A. Baker: Senate Historian

Senate Historian Richard Baker

"I realized pretty quickly that this room is a magnificent prop."

Former Senate Historian Baker and Assistant Senate Historian Katherine Scott discuss the development of the formal orientation program for newly elected senators, which include the Senate Historian giving a talk in the historic Old Senate Chamber.

BAKER: As far as I can determine, the first formal orientation program for new senators was 1976. But that may be because the historical office was created in 1975. [Laughs] So there is that possibility. But many people were interested because there was a fairly good size class of senators elected in 1976. As people looked around for precedents, there really were none. Nobody could remember having done that. Before, the new senator would sit down with the incumbent senator from his or her state, or if they were political rivals, then they would look around for somebody from a nearby state who might be helpful. Or, they might go to the secretary of the Senate if it happened to be a long-serving secretary of the Senate. You couldn’t avoid in 1976 doing something formal because the new members demanded it. Here’s Senator Byrd in 1976, about to become the majority leader, and he expected that he would be the majority leader. He realized that he had to continue the kind of hands-on approach that he took as the assistant majority leader, the whip. All of a sudden, Mike Mansfield, this somewhat detached god-like oracle, is off the scene and in comes Senator Byrd with a whole new style of management. Senator Byrd couldn’t change his persona, that’s who he was. I think that’s what the times demanded.

Also, 1976 was a time of a lot of institutional self-evaluation, as we’ve discussed already. And Senator Byrd was right in the middle of all that. Just as a few years later he was involved in the recodification of the Senate rules, for the first time since 1884. Nobody else would have thought of doing something like that, but it’s sort of tidying the place up. But the rules are important, or some of them are, while some of them are dead letters. As far as I can tell, he was not the engine pulling the orientation programs. But he was certainly the person who blessed the enterprise. He came and did what the secretaries of the Senate and sergeants at arms, and party secretaries, asked him to do.

SCOTT: And you were part of these orientation meetings, starting in 1976. What kind of role did you play?

BAKER: It was a really big deal for us because all of a sudden the leadership of the Senate and the people we all worked for realized that a good teaching model to use for these new students, incoming senators, is a historical model. Follow the history, take it one step at a time. How did we get from there to here? So, naturally you need somebody to come in and do that in one hundred words or less, or maybe a little bit longer. And throughout the various orientation programs, there was always a historical component. Generally, it was at the beginning. In those earlier days, it may have been a little farther into the schedule. But now, into the 21st century, the programs begin with a talk in the Old Senate Chamber by the Senate Historian, for maybe half an hour, and this is around 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and then a big dinner for all the senators-elect hosted by the president pro tempore and the majority leader and the minority leader, so that’s their official welcome. But they get warmed up a little bit for it, by being in the Old Senate Chamber and hearing about the history of the Senate from the perspective of the old chamber. It’s easier to talk to them about the Golden Age of the Senate. It doesn’t get as complicated as it does when you get down to more recent times.

SCOTT: How did you approach these history lessons? What did you focus on?"

BAKER: Well, I gave it a lot of thought over the years. You are never satisfied with each presentation, there is always something that you can do better. But I realized pretty quickly that this room is a magnificent prop. All you have to do is point and every part of the room has symbolic value. You point to the galleries, and the fact that they built galleries only some years after they first moved in there. Why all of a sudden do they need galleries? 1828, well, what was going on? And you can go from there. Then there is a press gallery and that leads to stories about the relationship between the media and the Senate and individual senators. Sometimes I would try to do a fact-and-figure brief routine because every senator wants to know where he or she fits into the big picture, what number they are; where do they place on the long chain of senators going back to 1789. I’d mention some firsts and whatnot, but just a bit of that.

In the 1982 orientation program, the whole program was done in the current Senate Chamber. I was given 45 minutes and I knew going into it that that was much too much time. But the people who scheduled us, there was sort of a window and they needed to fill it, so I was the victim. [Laughs] Sure enough, about 25 minutes into it, I remember Secretary of the Senate Bill Hildenbrand sort of tugging on my sleeve and saying that’s enough. Twenty-five minutes. And that’s right, that’s about enough. Once in the year 2000 I had a chance to speak to the entire membership of the United Nations Security Council meeting in the Old Senate Chamber. I deliberately kept it to about 25 minutes, maybe even 20 minutes. Later, I thought, I seem to have an attentive audience. Probably I could have stretched it and gone on a little more but, you know, we all give history lectures and we like to believe that our audience is just hanging on our every word. Around here you just know that there are tiers of the audience. The top tier is with you every step of the way and the bottom tier is checking their BlackBerries to figure out where their next meeting is. So you try to hit that balance and that’s what we’d try to do in the orientation program.

I would add that the substance of the program was determined by the number of new senators. There are a couple of years when there were only three or four new senators and so we didn’t really have a formal program those years. It was all done in the old fashioned way of having the leaders sit down two-on-two, or four-on-two, with the new members. But any more than say, six, in a class, then you are in business.