Press Club at 100

Historian to Kick Off String of Centennial Events

Posted March 28, 2008 at 5:36pm

When Sylvia Smith moved to Washington, D.C., to open a one-person bureau for The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Ind., she started with little more than a windowless office in the National Press building and a stack of phone books.

“There were no resource materials,” said Smith, who has been an active member of the National Press Club since 1989. “The [Club] was all that to me. Their library was my resource bank. Their lunch room was my water cooler.”

Now Smith, who became the club’s president last year, has been busy helping plan festivities to mark the organization’s 100th anniversary. The centennial celebration has been ongoing, but events will jump into high gear this week, starting with a speech this afternoon by Senate Associate Historian Don Ritchie.

Ritchie, an oral and political history expert, said in an interview that in doing research on the relationship between Congress and the press, materials in the club’s archives have been an invaluable resource.

Historically it has been very common for journalists to turn to a life of politics, Ritchie said. Former Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg (R-Mich.), for example, spent more than 20 years as a journalist before starting his career in the Senate in 1928. And publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst went into politics, winning a seat in the 58th and 59th Congresses as a Representative from New York.

Several current Members are former journalists as well, including Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who had a career in radio broadcasting, and Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who was publisher of Louisville Today magazine and founded the Louisville Eccentric Observer.

Experience in journalism can help would-be politicians cultivate good relationships with the press, Ritchie said, though he added that the press corps is not likely to give a politician a free ride just because of a former life in the news industry.

With frequent press conferences, breakfasts and luncheons, the press club also has evolved into a place lawmakers go to make news.

The organization wasn’t started with the intent of acting as a professional resource, though.

The club began with a constitution written on March 29, 1908, by 32 newspapermen. That document set the stage for a social club fit for strong after-work drinks and exclusive to white, male journalists. The club originally met on the second floor of a building on F Street Northwest; it moved to its current location at the National Press Building, 529 14th St. NW, in 1927.

“The National Press Club started because there wasn’t any place to drink or play cards at night when people filed their stories,” Smith said. “Over the years, we became much more than that.”

Like Smith, Ritchie said the club has branched out from the founders’ original vision.

“I think they would be surprised and impressed,” he said, adding that in many ways, the club’s evolving trends have mirrored social trends across the country. African-Americans were granted membership in 1955 amid the civil rights struggle, and women were admitted in 1971, prior to being given equal employment and salary opportunities in the press corps.

The club continues to play a social role, but the organization also helps members to keep their craft fresh with seminars and mentor programs, among its other resources.

“It still is for me a place of rich information,” Smith said.

This week’s events to commemorate the 100th anniversary also include the release of a one-hour documentary on WETA-TV, an appearance by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and a black-tie-optional evening affair on April 5.