Robert Remini: The House Historian ... A Look to the Future

With his book "The House: The History of the House of Representatives" now off his desk and available in bookstores across the country, Historian of the House Robert Remini is turning his attention to building an historian's office that he hopes one day will mirror the Senate's in terms of recognition, staffing, and budget.

Remini, who was asked to take the position by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL), has now headed the House history office for about a year. Prior to Remini's appointment, the position had been authorized by the House Rules Committee but it had been left unencumbered for nearly a decade. In 1995, when Newt Gingrich (R-GA) became Speaker, he politicized the position and dismissed then House Historian Raymond Smock, who had been appointed by a bi-partisan commission. Gingrich replaced him with an historian of his own choosing, Kennesaw State University professor Christina Jeffrey. She, however, was fired shortly after her appointment because of controversial remarks relating to the Holocaust.

Burned by the entire affair, Gingrich opted not to fill the position at all and merged what was left of Smock's operation into the House Clerk's office. He made the curious decision, however, to retain funding control for the historian position. In recent years, under the guidance of Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl, the history operation grew and became part of the Legislative Resource Center where it once again began to provide the type of assistance to Members and researchers that for years the Senate Historical Office has been performing. An Office of History and Preservation (OHP) was eventually formally established and charged to concentrate its activities in the realms of archives, curatorial services, and publications. Many hoped that the present Speaker would see the logic and cost savings to be achieved if he were to transfer funds for the position to the Clerk and empower Trandahl to fill the vacant "historian" position within the framework of the OHP. Had that happened, the House operation would have more closely resembled the Senate's.

With some prompting by historians who knew Hastert personally, and through the quiet but persistent multi-year effort by several history organizations including the National Coalition for History, a drive was launched to convince Hastert to transfer the funds and fill the Historian of the House position. After several years of advocacy it became clear that Speaker Hastert would not authorize the use of his funds for the position unless a prominent, well respected historian was willing to take what the Speaker envisioned as largely an "honorary" position -- a position that he envisioned as being similar to the Library of Congress's Poet Laureate. Historians working to re-establish the position wanted the House's history operation to mirror the Senate History Office in which all history- related activities would be concentrated in one non-partisan office, headed by a qualified, professional, non-partisan historian with a knack for building collegial relationships with members of both major political parties.

Remini seemed the perfect selection for the position as he met the desires of both the Speaker and the historical community. He was a National Book Award-winning historian with solid credentials, a professor emeritus of the University of Illinois at Chicago with a world-wide recognition as a scholar of Jacksonian America, and he had been engaged by the Library of Congress to write the definitive history of the House. Remini recalls that the offer "came out of the blue" but after some negotiating he agreed to serve as House Historian. Though Hastert insisted that Remini's position be retained in the Speaker's office, Remini, at the time he took the position had hoped, as he still does today, that in time his office as well as the Clerk's OHP will be merged into one operation.

Remini brought on as his D.C. based deputy Fred Beuttler, a University of Chicago trained history Ph.D. who had been working with Remini as Associate University Historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Beuttler brought to the operation ten years experience in teaching political history and other skills needed in a history office -- oral history expertise as well as other history-related skills that are generally viewed as essential for success in a non- academic history position.

Unlike the Senate operation, the House historical activities are fragmented. Though it seems to make little sense rather than merge the House Historians Office with the OHP under the overall supervision of the Clerk, Speaker Hastert wanted to keep Remini's operation separate from the OHP. Though the physical location of offices the OHP and the House History Office are separate, their programmatic responsibilities though theoretically different in reality they somewhat overlap.

A turf battle has thus far been avoided as both Remini and the acting head of the OHP are making a concentrated effort to coordinate activities -- in general Remini and Beuttler seek to fill in the gaps of those activities not covered by OHP which includes a greater emphasis on oral history and documenting the history of the House, on public outreach and on interpretation (a fellows program, for example, is in the works), thus leaving the OHP to focus more on records and archival management, museum collections, and publications.

What lies in the future? It is generally thought on Capitol Hill that after the next election Hastert may step down as Speaker. Should that happen, because the Historian of the House is not protected by Civil Service rules, Remini could be dismissed or be given a new boss depending on what the new Speaker would like to do with the position.
The same fate awaits Remini if the Democrats recapture control of the House. At that time a new Speaker would be selected, who (like Gingrich) may want to put his/her own person in the slot. In either case, early next year there most likely will be a window of opportunity in which Remini's and the historical communities goal of depoliticizing the position of Historian of the House could be achieved and a merger of it into the OHP could be the result.

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