Society Marks 45 Years of Capitol History

Posted July 13, 2007 at 4:55pm

Most fan clubs consist primarily of teenagers, raise funds through bake sales, and hold meetings in treehouses or converted storage spaces. The prospect of ever coming face-to-face with the subject of their adoration is slim, and the likeliness of remaining active past a celebrity’s heyday is slimmer.

The United States Capitol Historical Society, however, should serve as an inspiration for fledging appreciation associations everywhere — for starters, it has a staff of qualified adults, raises money through sales of diverse paraphernalia, and even has an office right across the street from the building it honors.

“It’s such a magnificent building,” enthused Ron Sarasin, USCHS president and a former Republican Representative from Connecticut. “I’ve been here for all these years and I always get excited — it’s an exciting place to be. I never get jaded.”

What’s more, it also has stood the test of time: On Tuesday, the multipurpose vehicle dedicated to educating the public on the political, social and architectural history of the Capitol will turn 45.

The society was founded in 1962 by then-Rep. Fred Schwengel (R-Iowa) in an attempt “to share with the public something of the fire that burns in the hearts of the people who served here.” He soon discovered that the best approach to recruiting new society members was to lobby his friends and colleagues around the Hill.

“I remember Fred going from door to door of Members’ offices talking up the society,” said Sarasin, who joined the D.C. political scene in 1972 after being elected to Congress.

“Fred was a one-man dynamo in making this organization into something,” said Norman Ornstein, a USCHS trustee who also is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer for Roll Call. “He was somebody who just believed passionately in the Congress and the Capitol and was stunned by how little had been done on its history.”

One component of the society’s visibility and prosperity always has been the gift shop that, prior to the Capitol Visitor Center construction, had a home in the Capitol; it continues to sell souvenirs through an online catalog. Another claim to fame was the late-1960s publication of the history book “We the People: the Story of the United States Capitol,” now in its 15th edition.

Today, USCHS continues to execute projects with common goals unaffected by the strains of party politics. It seeks to reach out to the community with a variety of symposiums, guest speakers, tours of the Capitol and traveling exhibits such as “From Freedom’s Shadow: African Americans and the Capitol.” The society publishes articles on specialized areas relating to Congress, the Capitol and American history, as well.

It also hosts dinners in celebration of House Members, Hill staffers and contributors to the political life of Washington, D.C. One such event last year, though, looked likely to turn sour: a reception honoring the “hard work, service, time and sacrifices” of 37 departing lawmakers from Congress including former Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who resigned after he was indicted, and Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who was at that point beginning his prison sentence for corruption.

Then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) initially was slated to host the event, but she rescinded her promise to participate unless DeLay and Cunningham were removed from the roster of honorees.

“Two of the former Members you have selected for tribute have dishonored the House,” Pelosi wrote to Sarasin at the time. “I believe they are … unfit to be honored for their service.”

Sarasin ultimately removed Cunningham from the “honor roll” but stood by his decision to acknowledge DeLay at the event, stating that “although [he] may be under indictment, he is entitled under our systems of law, to the presumption of innocence.”

Pelosi did not attend.

USCHS has hit other bumps in the road over the past 45 years, like when the House Government Reform Committee in December ordered the society’s gift shop to remove dozens of items containing dangerously high amounts of lead. At this point, the kiosk also faces an uncertain future in the new Capitol Visitor Center.

Sarasin emphasized that the verdict is still pending, but James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University and a member of the USCHS board, remains hopeful.

“At the last meeting, it didn’t look like the gift shop was going to get an ideal spot,” Thurber said. “I don’t know why, but some [staffers] on the Republican side were saying that they wanted to limit the role of the historical society in the Capitol. … Many people think that might change now that the Democrats are in the majority. They’re a little more open and supportive of the organization.”

Limited funding also has presented a problem for the society’s daily operations. Since the organization is a small nonprofit, all of its activities are financed through paid memberships, donations, grants and sales through the gift shop and catalog.

“It has always struggled to find the kind of money to do the things it wants to do,” Ornstein said, citing the currently homeless gift shop as a major contributor to the USCHS’ financial stability. “Foundations have provided money, films have been done related to the history of the Capitol, but this is not an organization that’s rolling in money.”

Obstacles aside, people involved with the organization agree that the 45 years have been well spent in educating minds and expanding awareness of the Capitol’s grandeur and great history. Cokie Roberts, USCHS board member and award-winning journalist who contributes to National Public Radio and ABC News, joined the society because of her love for the building.

“The Capitol has fallen on tough times in recent years. With the combination of, in my view, absurdly increased security, and the construction [of the CVC], it’s a hard building to get people excited about. And we’ve got to fix that,” Roberts said. “When I was a kid, you could run all over the Capitol. You could explore the attics … nothing was off-limits.

“There are some wonderful parts of the Capitol that no one ever sees,” she continued. “The Appropriations Committee room on the first floor, over by the press elevator, is the room where [artist Constantino] Brumidi tried things out — it was his audition room. It has every style he ever painted … still-lifes and full busts … it’s just wonderful.”

When asked how the society intends to celebrate its birthday, Sarasin said there isn’t going to be anything special. As has been the case from the very beginning, it seems like USCHS plans to just keep doing what it’s been doing, one day to the next.

“I’m sure there are better ways to do what we do,” Sarasin said, “but our mission is to promote the Capitol to the public. We don’t compete with historians; we just try to do for the Congress what it can’t do all the time for itself, which is to say nice things about them and the Capitol building.”