Hastert Taps Scholar

Posted April 29, 2005 at 6:11pm

A decade after the position was eliminated amid partisan controversy, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) last week announced the re-establishment of the office of the House Historian and appointed an award-winning scholar to fill the post.

Following a quiet but lengthy search, Hastert on Thursday handed the long-dormant title to Robert Remini, an emeritus history professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago who has won accolades for his biographies of Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams, among others.

Remini is already more than two years into his work on an official narrative history of the House, a task for which he was chosen in 2002 by a committee of outside experts and current and former lawmakers. Hastert became familiar with Remini through that venture and decided he was a strong candidate.

“The Speaker felt that this was the right person and this was the right time to fill this important position,” said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean.

In resuscitating the historian post, Hastert put to rest one of the few remaining controversies left over from the reign of ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

In 1995, the first year of the GOP’s current majority, Gingrich fired Raymond Smock, who had served as House Historian for 12 years. Gingrich replaced Smock with a fellow Georgian, Kennesaw State University political science professor Christina Jeffrey.

Already under criticism from Democrats who alleged that she was too partisan and too closely tied to Gingrich to handle the job credibly, Jeffrey was soon fired after revelations that she had made controversial remarks about a high school course on the Holocaust.

Jeffrey was never replaced, and Gingrich soon after merged the Historian’s office into the newly created Legislative Resource Center — a move some viewed as ironic given that Gingrich had authored the 1982 bill establishing the Historian’s office in the first place.

Since the Jeffrey incident, historians have complained that the House was doing an inadequate job recording its own history and making it accessible to the public.

In recent years, House Clerk Jeff Trandahl has worked gradually to rebuild the chamber’s historical capabilities. In 1999, the historical services office was created within the LRC, and in 2000 Trandahl hired Kenneth Kato to perform many of the same functions the House Historian had previously handled.

Still, some critics in the historical community felt that Trandahl’s improvements did not go far enough. In particular, they argued that the House’s efforts paled in comparison to the Senate Historical Office, whose staff is known as eager to assist Senators, aides and scholars seeking even the most arcane information.

In early 2004, the Clerk’s office quietly posted an ad seeking applicants for the Historian position on the job boards of various historical organizations. After a relatively small response, the Clerk extended the deadline in hopes of receiving more applications.

Those efforts apparently did not yield the right candidate, and Kato himself also made clear that he did not want the Historian post, according to a House Republican source. That led Hastert to turn to Remini.

Bruce Craig, executive director of the National Coalition for History and longtime advocate for restoring the Historian post, praised Hastert for his choice.

“I’m very pleased to see that [Remini] is going to be moving forward with the programs and activities that one would expect from a historian in [this] position,” Craig said. “Clearly Robert Remini is exceptionally well-qualified. There is no person better-suited for the position.”

As was the case before the Gingrich era, the Historian post will fall under the authority of the Speaker’s office. Despite Hastert’s assurance that it will be considered a nonpartisan position akin to that of the House Parliamentarian, Craig said it was “disappointing” that the House structure won’t be modeled more like that of the Senate.

In that chamber, the historical office falls under the aegis of the Secretary of the Senate, an arrangement that some observers believe helps insulate it from the kinds of political pressures that led to the Jeffrey imbroglio.

It is not yet clear whether Remini and the handful of aides he will be authorized to hire will assume some of the duties currently performed by Kato’s office or whether their work will be in addition to that already being done.

Within the House, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) has been perhaps the most fervent supporter of reviving the Historian position. Larson authored the 1999 bill calling for the production of the official House history that Remini was eventually tapped to write.

“To the Speaker’s credit … I think he always saw the need to preserve the institutional history of the house,” Larson said Friday, pointing out that both he and Hastert are former high school history teachers.

“I think the Speaker let time pass and has chosen carefully, and obviously the credentials of Professor Remini speak for themselves.”

The 83-year-old Remini has taught history in various capacities for more than 50 years. The author of more than a dozen books, Remini is best known for his three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson, which won the National Book Award in 1984. Most recently, he has authored biographies of Joseph Smith and John Quincy Adams.

Remini was given the U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s Freedom Award in 2004 for his career achievements and his current work writing the official House history. During that endeavor he has served as the distinguished visiting scholar of American history in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.