In January 1957, the chief congressional correspondent of the New York Times, William S. White, published a book entitled Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate. An immediate best-seller, Citadel soon became one of the most influential books ever written about the Senate.
In publishing this book, William White enjoyed several advantages. First, he admired the Senate, which he characterized as “the one touch of authentic genius in the American political system.” He had covered Congress for more than a decade and had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of the late Republican Majority Leader Robert Taft. As pressures for passage of the first Civil Rights Act since the Reconstruction era focused the public’s attention on the Senate, one book reviewer commented that Citadel would help Americans understand the “mysterious ways of senators and the baffling behavior of the Senate.”
By any standard, William White was a Senate insider. A native Texan, White had known and admired Democratic Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson for 25 years. He proudly counted himself among Johnson’s inner circle of advisers.
Employing a light and breezy style, White takes the reader into his confidence to explain what was really happening behind the public face of the Senate. An extended essay, rather than a scholarly treatise, Citadel remains worth reading decades later.
White popularized the notion of the Senate as a gentlemen’s club, run by a small inner circle of intuitively skilled legislators. He described the model senator of his day as a “sensitive soul,” with the temperament of an artist rather than a person in business. He characterized each major Senate committee as an “imperious force,” whose chairman, “unless he is a weak and irresolute man, is emperor.”
Thirty years after publishing Citadel, White looked back fondly at the Senate of the mid 1950s. “My old Senate had a full complement of big egos, but on the whole those who thought extremely well of themselves had good reason so to think.
Both Citadel and Senator John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, published within months of each other, enhanced the Senate’s popular image. This did not go unnoticed on the House side of the Capitol. One day White ran into Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. Rayburn acknowledged him cooly and asked why he was visiting the House. White responded, “Do I need a passport?” Rayburn shot back, “Yes, hereafter you do.”
White, William S. Citadel: The Story of the U.S. Senate. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.