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The Hill’s Dirty Secrets

Self-Made Historian Details Scandalous Culture of Capitol Hill

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Robert Pohl isn’t your typical historian. He didn’t attend an Ivy League school or decide in his youth that he was destined for a life of studying history.

Rather, his interest in Capitol Hill history came after he moved to the area eight years ago and peaked when he lost his job as a computer programmer two and a half years after that. The loss proved more sweet than bitter.  

“I always sort of joked that I would enjoy staying home. But I never made the jump because it seemed like such a big change. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made or the best decision that was ever made for me,” Pohl told Roll Call.

The author of two self-published books, Pohl, through an outside publisher, released his latest effort, “Wicked Capitol Hill: An Unruly History of Behaving Badly,” last week.

The book chronicles some of Capitol Hill’s most legendary scandals, ranging from duels to murder to sex.

Pohl writes about Rep. William Taulbee, a 19th-century Kentucky Democrat who carried on an affair with Emily Dodge, a woman in her 20s.

Initially reported by the Washington Post in 1887, the story gained little traction, and Taulbee’s political standing remained intact, though he would retire from Congress in 1889.

However, the episode served as a cudgel for Charles Kincaid, a journalist from the Bluegrass State who took the Post’s original story and reported it out in greater detail.

Relations between the two men greatly soured in the years after the story broke. Following one particularly nasty exchange in February 1890, an infuriated Kincaid hunted Taulbee down on the steps outside the House chamber, shooting him. Taulbee died days later.

His death ensured that he would be remembered less for his actual service than for the distinction of being the only Member to have been killed in the Capitol.

Pohl points to the more contemporary examples of Rita Jenrette and former Sen. and presidential contender Gary Hart to illuminate how a political sex scandal can be a pathway to either sustained fame or a hasty demise.

Rita Jenrette was the wife of former Rep. John Jenrette, a South Carolina Democrat whose career came to a close in 1980 because of the Abscam bribery scandal.

Following her husband’s fall from grace, Jenrette posed for Playboy in 1981, infamously telling the magazine that she and her husband made whoopee on the Capitol steps one enchanted evening.

While the veracity of the claim was questioned in many quarters, it became a professional and personal boon for Jenrette, Pohl noted.

Subsequently, she and the Congressman divorced. She later married an Italian aristocrat and is now known as the Principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. Last year, she told the New Yorker that she lied about getting down on the Capitol steps.

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