Senate Historian Reflects on 34 Years of Queries

Historians in the News

Richard A. Baker says he has received some strange inquiries throughout his 34 years as Senate historian.

Many people ask him questions about the Senate jail, which does not exist. And he spends a lot of time correcting rumors, like claims that tourists can still see pockmarks from the 1814 British attack on the Capitol. What they see is just corrosion, he says.

Mr. Baker, 69, will retire as the first Senate historian at the end of August, and Donald A. Ritchie, the associate historian, will take over his role. Mr. Baker has largely been responsible for shaping the mission and day-to-day operations of the Senate Historical Office. Congress established the office in the wake of the Watergate investigation, and began to emphasize the importance of record keeping after President Richard M. Nixon’s efforts to destroy official documents.

The historian has been responsible for educating schoolchildren and senators alike, often turning to 20 blue binders that hold nearly every kind of list imaginable, like tallies of senators who have been governors and records of senators who have written books while in office.

“He was all ready to go above and beyond the call of duty in providing his assistance,” Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, said in a statement about the aid Mr. Baker provided while Mr. Byrd was working on a four-volume history of the Senate for more than a decade. “Although he was responsible to 99 other senators, he was always there, ready and eager to help.”

Mr. Baker, who earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland, said senators often asked about the styles of previous leaders or sought information about procedural matters like filibusters.

“I can’t think of any leader in the last 30 or 40 years that has not had a lot of curiosity about where the Senate got where it is today,” he said....
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Alonzo L Hamby - 8/12/2009

I have known Richard Baker almost from the day he became Senate historian. I wonder how many people appreciate the remarkable job he has done in creating an office that has been immune to patronage politics and of invaluable assistance to scholars. His achievement has been a great one and deserves far more recognition than it probably will get.