History’s Careful Watcher Turns Another Page

Posted September 10, 2010 at 3:35pm

Senate Historian Don Ritchie is one of the few people in America who will argue that former Sen. Joe McCarthy had a softer side.

While the Wisconsin Republican was notorious for the anti-communism investigations that ruined many lives in the 1950s, Ritchie says most people don’t realize he was also a good boss and friend.

“When he died, all the Capitol Police owed him money because he was always lending them $5 or $10,” Ritchie says.

It’s that sense of the nuances of history that makes Ritchie perhaps the foremost scholar on the Senate.

Through his affinity for history, Ritchie has developed a deep understanding of the Senate. He has the unique perspective of someone who has met many of the key players and listened to their stories, many of which give insight into the characters most people only read about in history books. McCarthy is no exception.

In fact, Ritchie says McCarthy treated his staffers better than most. One staffer who proved to be a good example of that was Ruth Watt. In the 1950s, Watt served as chief clerk on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations under McCarthy. She was on hand for many of his controversial investigations. And yet, during their interviews, Ritchie was surprised to hear Watt speak of McCarthy with affection.

“I thought at the time she was being a little bit easy on McCarthy,” he says. “She said he was the only Senator who ever gave her a Christmas present — a round of Wisconsin cheese.”

Later in his career Ritchie had the opportunity to edit McCarthy’s papers, a task that allowed him to gain further perspective on the man.

Ritchie, who was appointed to his post in 2009 after serving as associate historian for 33 years, is the memory keeper of the Senate. He has spent the last 34 years collecting details of the body’s history and dispersing it to staffers, reporters and even Senators.

“I have a front-row seat to the best show in town,” Ritchie says with a chuckle.

And now he’s written a new book, “The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction,” which abbreviates 229 years of Congressional history into 168 pages. The book, which adds to his oeuvre of more than a dozen works, is designed to educate outsiders on the nature of the body and its various functions.

While Ritchie is an expert on the Senate, he is not as well-versed in the history of the House. Writing the book gave him an opportunity to explore and compare the chambers. One of the major things Ritchie took away from his research is that Congress is designed to be inefficient.

“If the Founding Fathers wanted to have an efficient government, they would have had one body,” he says. “When you look at the system and say it’s not working efficiently today, well, it wasn’t meant to be efficient. It was meant to be deliberative.”

While informative, the book contains only a small fraction of Ritchie’s knowledge of the Senate. Much of this knowledge comes from conducting the office’s oral history project, which Ritchie considers the highlight of his job. The endeavor, which began in 1976, involves interviewing scores of people who worked in the Senate, from janitors to clerks to Senators.

“So much of what I know about the Senate is from sitting down with the former parliamentarian or a Senator,” Ritchie says. “They take you behind closed doors, into back rooms.”

During his tenure, Ritchie has had the chance to interview staffers such as a black clerk who worked in Congress in the 1930s as well as the first black woman to eat lunch in the newly integrated Senate cafeteria. While their roles may have seemed small at the time, Ritchie says their stories are vital to history.

“They’re very colorful,” he says. “They tell wonderful anecdotes.”

While the oral history project may be the highlight of his job, it is by no means the only function of his office. Ritchie spends hours on the phone each week with staffers and reporters who are looking to track down information for floor speeches, press releases and articles.

“We are a very neutral, nonpartisan office,” he says. “We let everybody else put the spin on the story.”

Ritchie and his staff keep 14 binders on hand containing statistics and stories pertaining to the most frequently asked questions. The lists include facts about families in Congress, presidential vetoes and Congressional deaths.

When the historian’s office began in the 1970s, it was located in the attic of the Capitol next to stacks and stacks of books, Ritchie says.

“We would get a call, go look it up and write it down,” he says. The result was the binders, which the office still updates today. “Sometimes somebody asks a question that we’ve never had before, so we start a new list.”

In addition to staffers and reporters, Senators occasionally contact the office looking for information or simply to chat about their love of history. In fact, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was a frequent caller. He often phoned Ritchie to let him know that he was going to the floor to give a speech on the history of the Senate.

“Then, five minutes later, he’d call and say, ‘Well Dr. Ritchie, what did you think?’ And I’d give a little critique.”