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Richard Baker ’62 stays the middle ground to preserve the history of US Senate
DURING THE RECENT DONNYBROOK OVER the filibustering of judicial nominees in the United States Senate, each side hurled the word “unprecedented” with abandon: The GOP applied the label to the Democrats’ blocking of some of President Bush’s selections, and the Democrats responded in kind with regard to the “nuclear option.” As Richard Baker ’62 could have told anyone who cared to ask, in neither case were the accusations accurate.
Democrats have in fact blocked fewer of President Bush’s judicial nominees than Bill Clinton saw stymied during his terms, while attempts to do away with the filibuster in the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” have a long if not exactly proud history.
As the United States Senate’s official historian since the office’s inception in 1975, Baker is well equipped to speak objectively about the history of such machinations—and to point out what distinguishes the latest go-round from the rest. ( http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Senate_Historical_Office.htm ) “Fifty-two out of the 100 current senators previously served in the House,” he notes. “That’s an all-time high—the average is about 38. So what does that say about the expectations that the new members bring with them?” Unlike the House of Representatives, Baker says, “The Senate is not a majoritarian body; it decidedly looks out for the rights of minority points of view.”
But Baker remained all but invisible during the brouhaha—leaving the partisans to duke it out in print and for the cameras. “We stay out of the politics,” Baker says with obvious pride, referring not just to himself but to the Senate Historical Office’s other eight staff members. “And I’ve walked that line—I think pretty successfully—for 30 years now.”
Indeed Baker, despite three decades inside the Beltway, may just be the least partisan man in a city where refusing to take sides can be the hardest choice of all. That careful neutrality is put to the test frequently by members of the media, who call on Baker and his office for historical context on current events.
“We mostly avoid the commercial news shows,” Baker says, indicating that too often reporters are trying for a “gotcha!” moment. “We prefer to work with CSPAN or NPR—places that are more willing to give you time to provide some historical context.”
The primary business of the Senate Historical Office is to answer inquiries and perform research. “It’s not like we know everything,” Baker says modestly. “We just know where to look.”
Sometimes requests come from the Senate itself on matters of procedure. But even when asked, Baker treads lightly. “There is a built-in bias against academics in this institution,” Baker says. “Senators don’t like to be lectured to. What we’re here to do is to help people understand a very conservative, tradition-based, precedent-oriented body. If they have a tough decision to make, and they can find some example of a course that was followed 10 or 100 years ago, they will follow that course rather than forge their own.”
Baker points to the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton as a perfect example. There hadn’t been such a trial in 130 years, and there were many basic questions about how to conduct such a proceeding. At the request of congressional leadership, the office helped lay out a matrix of administrative issues.
Baker and his staff also answer questions from the public, more so since the advent of the Internet. “We get literally thousands of inquiries a week,” he says, many of them via e-mail.
Questions run the gamut from basic factual questions to the 12-year-long off-and-on conversation that Baker conducted with author and historian Robert Caro, who was trying to get a better sense of what the Senate was like in the 1950s while Lyndon Johnson served there. Baker’s office also occasionally hears from conspiracy theorists, from prison inmates who want to correct erroneous information they discover in the Congressional Register, and from people who want to know where the Senate jail is. (“We haven’t found that yet,” Baker notes dryly.)
That there is a central place for such inquiries is a historical footnote in itself, one rooted in the decision of a powerful senator. In 1975, Baker says, “the Senate was feeling proud of itself—and justifiably so—for bringing a president down.” Mike Mansfield, majority leader since 1961, decided in the wake of this watershed moment that Americans didn’t know enough about the institutional history of the Senate.
Baker, just 35 at the time, had been living in Washington since 1968 and was working for the Congressional Research Service after a stint at the National Journal, then in its infancy. He held two master’s degrees, one in library science and one in history. Baker feels that the library training gave him an edge, especially for the early work of establishing the office and bringing together archival sources. “It was a magic mixture of those two degrees,” he says. “[But] I could not have gotten the job now with the credentials I had at the time.” Both the Senate historian position and that of associate historian—held for years by colleague Don Ritchie—now require a PhD, which Baker went back to school part-time for seven years to obtain.
The scope of the office was vague in the beginning. Baker laughs as he explains that the assistant secretary of the Senate, to whom he initially reported, told him: “I don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, but if you don’t know, you don’t belong here. So go do it.”
One thing the Senate Historical Office does not do, and has never done, is to provide historical background on specific legislative matters. “People will ask, for example, when they’re considering drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, if we will write a history on how the Senate has dealt with the extraction of the nation’s mineral resources,” Baker says. “We don’t. We’re institutional historians, we’re not policy historians. That’s the function of the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.”
The office will, however, take current events into account when selecting special projects. During the time that Senator Bob Packwood was being investigated for ethics violations, the Historical Office decided it was time to update a book, originally published in the late 19th century, on cases of disputed elections, expulsion, and censure. “It didn’t have much detail about what was going on, in terms of the political climate and so on, so we researched about 174 cases to really get at the blood and thunder behind each one,” Baker says. “No one else really has the time or the interest to do that.”
The office has also been recording oral histories from longtime Senate staffers (though not from senators), which Baker says are very revealing about “the hidden Senate.” “Political scientists like to write books with the word ‘Congress’ in the title, and then you open it up and find out it’s about the House of Representatives. The Senate is a profoundly subtle institution,” he says. “It is very difficult to penetrate.”
In 1997, Baker had a meeting with South Dakota senator Tom Daschle, then the Senate majority leader. Daschle found it interesting enough to ask Baker to come back during every weekly meeting of the Democratic senators, “to tell them something they didn’t know.” Thus the Senate Historical Minutes were born. A compendium of these mini history lessons (which Baker continues to deliver, now on a biweekly basis, under Senate minority leader Harry Reid) is accessible on the office’s Web site, which has developed into another important educational tool for fulfilling its mission.
The Capitol Visitor Center, a combination educational and security facility due to open next year, will be yet another such tool. Baker has been working on the project for three years as part of a team of historians that also includes representatives from the National Archives, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. But here again, inevitably history collides with politics. The committee overseeing the work recently got its first look at some of the definitions of broad concepts like “freedom” that serve as the major thematic elements for the displays. “They didn’t much like it,” Baker says. (Someone complained that there was “too much struggle” and that “freedom” should be more uplifting.)
In any case, Baker clearly loves his work, both the day-to-day aspects and the unique moments. Several years ago, a number of old dusty volumes were narrowly salvaged from being bulldozed into oblivion at the visitor center construction site. One of those books turned out to be a Senate salary ledger covering the years 1790–1880. The book—which will be on display when the visitor center opens—had John Adams’s signature on page one.
On another occasion, Baker was asked by historian and best-selling author David McCullough to help him reenact Harry Truman’s sprint through the Capitol on the night that FDR died. “Only if I can go with you,” Baker told McCullough, and so with the lights turned low to mimic the Capitol halls of 1945, the two made the dash.
Back in the spotlight-bright glare of present-day politics, a Supreme Court seat opens and the battle over judicial confirmations escalates. Baker turns a long eye to the conflict, knowing that it will be 20 years before events can be truly evaluated from a historical perspective. ?
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