Living the History Lessons

The Senate’s New Historian Recalls Decades Past

Posted September 9, 2009 at 4:02pm

In the same way your grandpa tells stories about his youth, new Senate Historian Donald Ritchie tells stories about the Senate in decades past.

Remember when the Hart Senate Office Building opened in 1982? Senators refused to move into

the building because constituents saw it as an extravagance. Though he loved his office in the Russell Senate Office Building, legendary Sen. Henry “Scoop— Jackson (D-Wash.) was the one who reluctantly broke the logjam. Without political ramifications, of course, it was easier for Ritchie and other staffers in the Senate historian’s office to make the move, and they remain in Hart today.

Or how about when the House historian’s office was (temporarily, as it turned out) decommissioned in 1995? Republicans had won control of the chamber for the first time since the office was established in 1983 and they saw it as a partisan office with no need to continue. Fearing the same fate following a change in majority control in 1980, the Senate historian’s office prepared for the worst. They were relieved when a staffer for then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) called to say he considered them professional staff, not partisan aides; that was when they decided that the new Majority Leader was “a true statesman.—

[IMGCAP(1)]Then there was a time when two Senators took the same information from the Senate historian’s office to make opposing arguments. In 1989, Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and George Mitchell (D-Maine) asked the historian’s office whether a Senator’s confirmation for a Cabinet position had ever been denied, and they were told it had happened six times. They took to the Senate floor to use this information during former Sen. John Tower’s (R-Texas) confirmation hearings for his appointment as secretary of Defense. Dole said denial was rare, while Mitchell argued there was historical precedent. Ultimately, Tower was not confirmed by a vote of 53 to 47.

And there are so many more stories where those came from. On Sept. 1, Ritchie was promoted from associate historian of the Senate, the title he has held since 1976, to Senate historian. Retiring Senate Historian Richard Baker founded the office in late 1975, and Ritchie was his first hire early the next year.

“An awful lot of people applied for the job, and I received several extremely heartfelt letters from his advisers and faculty members at the University of Maryland. I’ve never read letters as over the top as those were,— Baker said in a phone interview.

One was written “by a leading diplomatic historian from [University] of Maryland who said that in his whole 30-odd years of teaching he had never encountered a more perceptive or diligent student or a brighter student than Don. No more superlatives could be used.—

Baker added that though Ritchie was technically his deputy, the two men have always worked as a team. The new top historian agreed, adding that he will carry on his predecessor’s vision.

“I hope outsiders don’t notice a change,— Ritchie said.

Ritchie, who at 63 is six years younger than Baker, said the new role will give him more administrative responsibility, but he’ll maintain many of his day-to-day responsibilities. Like before, he’ll handle routine questions from Members, staffers, students, reporters and anyone else who happens to call. He’ll continue to conduct oral histories, a love that he has indulged throughout his career. He has interviewed a wide array of people who have worked on the Hill, from influential Senators down to committee clerks. Ritchie served as president of the Oral History Association and authored a how-to guide called “Doing Oral History.—

The Oral History Association and “Doing Oral History— aren’t the only major lines on Ritchie’s résumé outside the Capitol complex. He has also held leadership positions in the American Historical Association, the Society for History in the Federal Government and the International Oral History Association. He is the author of eight books, including two on the Capitol Hill press corps and most recently a volume on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign.

Now, though, much of the time that Ritchie spent in professional organizations and on books while he was associate historian will likely be devoted to the administrative duties required to run an office. The Senate historian’s office employs a staff of nine, and Ritchie was interviewing for two new staffers over recess. There isn’t a lot of turnover in the office: Assistant Senate Historian Betty Koed, who has worked in the Senate historian’s office for more than 11 years, was promoted into Ritchie’s old job. Noting that he is at the average age of Senators, Ritchie said he has plans to stick around for a while, too.

“I figure the Senate is a good place to grow older in,— he said.