Chronicling the Story of the Upper Chamber

Historians in the News

Change comes slowly to the Senate historian’s office. Since its founding in 1976, the office has had only two head historians: Richard Baker, who retired last month, and his successor, Don Ritchie, who started in the office just six months after it was created.

If it seems like an inside job, well, that’s how the Senate works. “The job is built on an apprentice type of system,” says Associate Historian Bette Koed, who also received a job promotion in the wake of Baker’s retirement. “There is a lot of on-the-job learning. It takes a long time. It is not something you can hire someone for off the street.”

Ritchie, who received his doctorate from the University of Maryland and is originally from Queens, N.Y., sees the office as a public service. “We are here to make it easier for people who want to study the Senate,” he says, “be it senators, their staffs, the press, scholars, the general public or people watching C-SPAN. When something comes up that mystifies them, and they call the Capitol operator, the operator transfers them to us.”

The office was established in response to the needs of the bicentennial, when numerous federal government agencies created or expanded their historical capacities. Both the Senate majority and minority leaders during that time — Democrat Mike Mansfield of Montana and Republican Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania — were personally interested in the study of history. Before serving in Congress, first as a member of the House, Mansfield was a professor of Far Eastern history at the University of Montana. Scott was a devoted collector of antiquities. After some urging by historian Arthur Schlesinger, the two Senate leaders felt that something needed to be done, particularly in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the Ervin Committee, which investigated the Nixon misdoings.

“There was a sense that the Senate was an important part of the story, and yet we were saving everything that the White House produced,” says Ritchie, “but very little that Congress produced.”

Until then, Senate committee records were supposed to be shipped off to the National Archives, but this process was often haphazardly executed. Some committees failed to do so at all. Additionally, there were no rules that dealt with access to records. Ritchie used to make weekly ventures to the National Archives in order to look up requests, some of which dated back to the 1850s...
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