Category Archives: Institutional Memories

In Media Res (1991 Edition)

Speaking of workspaces . . .

I opened my e-mail this morning to find a photograph (seen below) from my pal Marron, with whom I shared an office in my first years on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s.  She and I (and usually two, sometimes three, others) worked in this office in the U.S. Senate Dirksen Building — a building that had all the charm of a 1960s-era high school — from 1990 until about 1995. It was here that we first learned that airplanes were on their way to the Middle East for the opening volleys of first Iraq war, where she and I answered phones over Columbus Day weekend during the infamous Clarence Thomas hearings, and where we generally worked long into the night when the Senate was in session. Marron and I could also get into quite a bit of trouble together; we took great delight in pranking our fellow staffers, and each other.  (Marron once crashed our office phone system by forwarding every phone in the office to my direct line.)

Anyway, if you think from watching television or movies that the life of a Hill staffer is glamorous, and that we all work at enormous oak desks in offices lined with gigantic bookshelves crammed with leather-bound books and framed prints of the Founding Fathers on the wall, well . . . not so much.  Here’s me in my workspace in 1991 or so, as photographed by Marron from her desk across from me (you can see her own inbox in the foreground):

(Click on it if you want to embiggen it and enjoy me in all my twentysomething glory.)

Yeah, that’s me with a head full of hair.  Shut up. Given the way I’m dressed, the Senate was likely in an extended recess, when we didn’t have to wear our usual suits and could come in a bit more casually dressed.

Sitting on the desk in front of me is one of those gigantic old IBM desktop computers.  Back in the early 1990s, the only people in our office who had desktops were the low folks on the totem pole — and that’s because we were using them to draft responses to constituent mail, which we could then save onto an inner-office network, where anyone with a desktop could pull them up. And let me tell you, we worked those things hard, responding to about 10,000 pieces of mail each month.  (And as Marron reminded me in her e-mail  accompanying this photo, it wasn’t too long after this picture was taken that my computer monitor actually caught fire.)

All other office business — including a rudimentary e-mail system — was carried out on computers we called The DeeGees — old green-screened Data General computers, hooked into a central system that made it possible to share files and send messages. Mine was on the desk’s return,  just behind the clunky IBM.  (If you think your computer currently takes up too much space on your desk, try having two.)

The bookshelf to the left in the photo was my filing system — and you can see that, even then, I was still a black binder kinda guy. There was an old dot-matrix printer in the space just behind the bookshelf, where our assistant press secretary would print out wire stories once each day, making a loud zzzt zzzt zzt! for about 30 minutes.

The television you see — which we used to monitor the Senate floor — wasn’t mine or Marron’s;  it belonged to another staffer we all called Joe T, who had one of the two desks next to the window. And on the wall?  Not Founding Fathers, but Georgia O’Keeffe prints (the one behind my desk was a painting of the Taos Pueblo)  and framed photos of New Mexico scenery.  And it looks like I also had a small promo poster for Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta taped to the wall just above my DeeGee.

Finally, it appears there’s a pile of papers on the desk in front of me.  Some things never change. Apart from the hair, of course.

Remembering Kay

If you’re lucky, every once in a while someone comes into your life who makes your life better and more interesting just by being so wonderfully, unfailingly, unapologetically human.

Kay Davies, center, along with some of the others whose lives she touched -- including yours truly, in the back row on the right.

Kay Davies was that way for me. She was my boss for most of my twenties, when she came into the office of Senator Domenici as the new Legislative Director in late 1990. Kay had worked for the Senator before, in the early 1970s, and had then gone on to a distinguished career working in the State Department for President Reagan—her favorite story, and one she re-enacted for us frequently, was striding into her empty State Department office with her boxes under her arm on the morning Reagan was sworn in, and answering the ringing telephone only to be told that the Iranian hostages were being released at that very moment.

Kay was loud and brassy and opinionated, and when she walked into our little suite of offices in 1990, she scared the hell out of almost all of us. But she was also wonderfully open minded—and when she came into an organization where most of its senior staff had moved on to other jobs after the 1990 election, Kay did something that, knowing her now, was typical of her: she put her faith in all of us snot-nosed twentysomethings, letting us slide into those empty chairs and take on the responsibilities of senior legislative staffers.

Some might disagree, but I’d say it was a good investment—and over the next seven years, I learned a lot. Almost immediately, Kay and I were working together, poring over a proposed revision to the sacred Civil Rights Act. It was an important but highly technical change, steeped in obscure legal precedent—and since neither of us had a legal background, we would sit in her cramped office reading through policy papers, calling the Justice Department on speakerphone, arguing over language, and drafting statements (she would always insist on typing, pounding away on her computer keyboard as I paced the narrow room behind her talking my way through a paragraph). She would lose her patience on the phone when she thought White House staffers were trying to brush her off, snapping a pencil angrily in her hand with an audible POW! And always, always there was a cigarette burning, slowly filling her office with a gauzy gray-blue haze.

She could manage a meeting like no one else. She always came prepared, usually with an accordion folder bursting open under her arm, and she had little time or patience for pat answers—she would call bullshit on anyone the moment she caught the first whiff of it and ask them firmly to start over and try again. And she was smart; she was the first person I ever met who could read through a lengthy document and summarize it in four sentences or less—an unbelievably important skill in politics—and she could always come up with a really good, real-life example to illustrate her point. She was passionate about policy and politics, her voice rising higher and louder and she made her case. But she wasn’t extreme in either direction; she was mostly merely practical—and you if would walk by her office when she had the Senate floor playing on her small television, you would hear her griping at any grandstanding, regardless of which side of the aisle was carrying on.

She was tough and gruff and worked us hard — but at the end of each work week, she ensured that the office fridge was filled with beer and soda. At 6:00 p.m. on Fridays, she would crack open a beer (it was always Miller Lite), light up a cigarette, and sit down to gossip and laugh with the rest of us. In short, she was a dynamo, a whirlwind, and I loved her. I think we all did.

She was the first person I’d met who wasn’t afraid to be herself. She wore brightly colored scarves, carried huge but expensive handbags, and never held back her opinion. When she was in a hurry, she’d take these long, pounding steps that practically broadcast her mood.  She loved calamari, but she loved pizza even more. She could laugh loud, and cuss even louder.  Yet, even with her famously potty mouth, the worst thing she would ever call anyone was “dodo bird”—and if you made the dodo bird list, believe me, brother, you were in big trouble.

She was a mentor to me not only in politics, policy, and the world in general, but she also shaped the way I wrote. While I always marveled at her ability to write these concise policy analyses, she never considered herself a great writer—she called her style ‘bang bang bang’—but she was a fantastically brutal editor. She had no patience for overly purple prose (she’d let some creep in—it was politics, after all) and she was a strict adherent to Strunk & White’s directive to “omit meaningless words,” something I’d always struggled with. Consequently, my speeches would come back with phrases—sometimes paragraphs—crossed out so stridently that her black pen left divots in the page. Other times, the intercom on my desk would ring and she’d say—loudly, of course—”Beautiful. I sent it in.” Those moments made my day.

I still have a tendency to lean purple—but because of Kay and her black pen, I quickly (and early on) overcame the so-called Golden Word syndrome, where I was convinced every word on the page was beautiful and perfect. I didn’t always like it when some of the bits I had slaved over or was proud of because I thought they were so clever came back with a black slash through them. But I trusted her judgment and I could always see her point—a mentality that proved invaluable the first time I ever had a completed manuscript in front of a book editor. (An entire chapter had to go? Fine.)

A little more than a decade ago, Kay was diagnosed with cancer. The outlook even then was bleak—she was always being told she had less than a year to live. Yet, she kept hanging on, never losing her sense of humor, her sense of self, or her sense of her own place in the universe. She made it to my wedding—a sweltering hot July day—walking through the woods in Williamsburg by herself.  We traded e-mails regularly, and I would stop by every once in a while—though not as much as I would have liked—to talk with her, move furniture, or help her with her “goddamn computer.”

She loved history and biography—she was a big fan of David McCullough and read anything on the Romanovs—and collected and framed historic prints and documents (she had, for example, a commission for an army officer signed by James Madison). We would talk for hours about books and history—her knowledge of the Civil War could be staggering—and she was genuinely proud of me when my Washington Irving biography was published in 2008. It couldn’t have happened without her—and I told her so. In fact, I told her everything she had done for me, and how much I loved her.  It embarrassed her a bit—she was defiantly unsentimental (I don’t even have a photo of us together!)—but I meant every word.

Over the last few months, as Kay’s health deteriorated, she refused to let anyone feel sorry for her, and rebuked suggestions that she retire to a hospice. She wanted to be at home, with her books and her piano and her cat. I went to visit her several times, and she didn’t appear to be dying so much as she looked to be simply fading away, as if she were being slowly erased from within. Her voice, once so loud and firm, was quiet and higher-pitched, from the cancer pressing against her vocal cords. But there was still a bit of fire behind her eyes as she laughed at familiar stories or discussed something she’d read in the newspaper that morning. She was, as my pal Marron put it, “grit and determination all the way to the end.”

Kay passed away earlier this week. She was at home, just as she wanted. And typically, she insisted on no service, no obituary, and no fuss—very much like her. But I wanted to make sure she didn’t pass away without the universe taking just a bit of notice of an extraordinary woman who was once so alive, so loud, and so human—and who meant so very much to me. I’ll miss her. A lot.

Institutional Memories: Robert C. Byrd

Earlier this week, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia became the all-time longest serving member of Congress, racking up 20,774 days —  that’s 56 years, 320 days — that Byrd has been either a Congressman or Senator.  That makes him the Cal Ripken of Congress, and it’s an impressive record, a testament not only to the 92-year-old Byrd’s stamina and health, but to his unswerving commitment to the people of West Virginia, who thanked him by returning him to the Congress and the Senate again and again and again and . . . well, you get the idea.  He’s served three terms in the House, nine in the Senate, and, I believe, has never lost an election.

I’ve always liked Byrd.  Sure, he could be cantankerous and had — has — a habit of lecturing, but I always found those habits endearing. He belongs to a generation of Senators we don’t see much nowadays, either — he’s a Senator who loves the Senate, respects its traditions, and tries hard to uphold its integrity.  He loves debate and oratory — you could always count on him quoting Shakespeare off the top of his head (“Bring me my robes!”) — and while we often rolled our eyes when he took to the floor with another long speech, he was never dull, whether he was discussing Shay’s Rebellion, civil rights, or the infamous Twinkie defense.

He could also be blistering with members who he believed were not behaving in a manner worthy of the same institution that housed John Adams or Daniel Webster. When Senator Bob Packwood was accused of sexual harassment during the mid-1990s — indulging in activities that seem tame by today’s creepy Larry Craig/David Vitter/John Ensign/ad nauseum standards — Byrd was one of the few who angrily shook his finger at Packwood  on the floor and declared that he should “have the grace to go!” It genuinely pained him to see the Senate disgraced.

He also knows its history backwards and fowards, and had a series of speeches he delivered on its 200th anniversary in 1989 bound into a gorgeous three-volume history of the place, printed almost exclusively for Senators  (I was lucky enough to snag exactly one volume, which I rescued from a recycling bin).  He understands its rules and precedents like no other member, and God help any Senator who tries to outmaneuver Byrd using parliamentary procedure.

And yes, he knows how to bring home the bacon for his home state.  It’s with good reason there are countless structures and stretches of road in West Virginia named for the man; as a long-time member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — and he’s been the Ranking Member or Chairman for as long as I can remember — he’s never been shy about sending dollars back home. Like it or not, it’s all part of the job — and no one does it better than Byrd.

To staffers, he was always more than a little intimidating.  If he was sitting in the chair presiding over the Senate, staffers would try not to set foot in the well of the Senate — the area directly in front of the presiding officer — lest we fall under his withering glare.  To Byrd, the Senate is for Senators, and staff belong squarely behind the railed-off seating area at the back of the room.  My Senator once had an amendment pending, and shortly before its introduction, while it was sitting at the desk, the clerk beckoned me down to the well to help clear up a minor wording error.  Byrd was sitting in the chair at that moment, and I’ll never forget the look on his face as I staggered down to the front desk directly in front of him, my knees knocking.  It was all I could do not to say, “Hey, he ASKED me down here!”

And yet, he could also be incredibly generous to staff.  In my last month on the Hill, Byrd delivered a blistering, and hilarious, floor speech in which he derided what he called “verbal clutter” — the habit we have of using terms like “um,” “you know,” and “like” in our speech.  Byrd tut-tut-tutted and shook his head sadly, but he was clearly enjoying himself.  I thought it was so funny — and spot on — that I sent a short note over to his office telling him how much I had enjoyed the speech. Several days later, I received a thank you note back from the Senator.  At the bottom, in his steady hand, he had written, “How kind of you! Please come by my office so I may thank you in person!”

I’m sorry to say I moved away shortly thereafter and never had the chance to take the Senator up on his offer.  I wish I had.  He’s a good man, a terrific legislator, and a great historian.  I wish him nothing but the best.

R.I.P. Ted Kennedy (1932-2009)

ted-kennedy_398x299I was saddened this morning to learn of the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, after his long fight with brain cancer.  Considered perhaps the most liberal member of the United States Senate — if not American politics — chances are good you had strong feelings about Kennedy, his politics, and his personal life, no matter which end of the political spectrum you were on.  And obituaries today will likely be unable to discuss his political achievements — and they were many — without also bringing up his often rocky, and disappointing, personal shortcomings.  That is, of course, life in politics.

When I started working on the Hill in 1990, Kennedy, nearing age 60 at that time, had already been serving as a Senator for longer than I had been alive. He was an institution in an institution, a brush with a piece of America’s mythic past.  He was also a genuine political celebrity and he had that indescribable Kennedy magnetism.  We used to joke that the strength of his charm was inversely proportional to your own political stance — that the more you disagreed with his politics, the more charmed you were by him in person. He would shake your hand with both hands, look you in the eye and call you by name.  You were completely disarmed.

If you were opposed to his policies, Kennedy could infuriate you with his absolute determination to ram through his initiatives — and he led the charge on an awful lot of them, from civil rights to health care. But it might surprise you to know that Kennedy was also brilliant at something else: bipartisanship.  He was so good at it, in fact, that you scarcely realized he was doing it. When he was preparing to introduce either a huge, complex or controversial piece of legislation, Kennedy had a knack for going out and finding a Republican cosponsor, sometimes an incredibly unlikely one who you wouldn’t normally even put in the same room with Kennedy, much less on a bill.  It was much harder for Republicans to torpedo a Kennedy initiative on veterans’ health, for example, when his lead cosponsor was Republican Leader Bob Dole.

In the late 1990s, I worked on the Republican Senate HELP committee, where Kennedy was the ranking Democratic member of the committee. He hired smart staff and, more often than not, they were genuinely interested in helping reach an acceptable compromise on your legislation.  We were able to easily approve child care tax credits, for example, because we had Kennedy’s staff on board from day one.

Of course, part of the fun of watching Kennedy work was watching Kennedy work.  Like many members, once he got wound up on the floor of the Senate, he could be a shouter and a flailer, waving his arms madly as he all but shouted at the top of his lungs. His voice was easily imitated  — and believe me, once the door was closed, even Democratic staff would sometimes drop into that familiar cadence, starting sentences with “Ayr, uh” in a way Kennedy himself really never did, but which made it all that much funnier. But Kennedy himself was in on the joke, and was smart enough to know that all those impressions only sealed his iconic reputation. (Fortunately for writers on The Simpsons, that accent is not trademarkable — otherwise, Mayor Quimby might sound like Comic Shop Guy.)

I’ll close with one of my favorite Kennedy stories, which didn’t happen to me, but should give you a feel for the kind of charm and reputation the man possessed: my friend Anne, who worked for Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming — one of nicest, and funniest members of Congress ever — had her mother coming to town.  As part of her visit, Anne had arranged for her mother to have lunch with her Senator in the Senator’s Dining Room — a fairly exclusive and impressive place — then take a private tour of the Capitol, sit with the Senator in a committee meeting, and generally shadow Simpson as he worked throughout a typical day.

About a week after her mother had left, I was talking with Anne about the visit, and how impressed I was with all she had planned out.  “What was your mother’s favorite part of the day?” I asked her.  She scowled slightly, then laughed.  “Her favorite part was an elevator ride in the Dirksen Building, when Senator Kennedy stood next to her.”

That was the Kennedy charm.  Love it or hate it, you likely won’t see anything like it again.

Institutional Memories: Constituent Service

The day-to-day operations of a Capitol Hill office are rarely glamorous.  While you might like to think staffers go whizzing from one important meeting to another, negotiating legislation, hashing out report language, and horse trading with billions of dollars, the truth is that while those moments do happen, they happen only every once in a while. 

So what is it those staffers are doing the rest of the time?  For the most part, they’re taking care of you.  Or your neighbor, or the guy in the next block, or across the county, or across the state.  Most of their days, in fact, are spent writing to or talking with constituents, most of whom remind them that “my tax dollars pay your salary!”  And what that polite staffer won’t say in response is that there are days you just don’t pay them enough to deal with constituents . . .

Now, keep in mind that most people don’t call their elected officials unless they have a gripe, problem, or complaint — after all, you don’t call the power company to tell them that your electricity is working exactly as it should, and that the lights do, in fact, come on when you flick the switch.  Nope.  You call them when the power is out, and you want the problem fixed as quickly as possible.

It’s the same in Congress.  In general, you don’t call your Congressman to let him or her know he’s doing a great job (though some nice folks do).  You call when you don’t like his vote, or you can’t get your Social Security check, or even when you’ve read some article in Newsweek about government spending that’s got you really cranked up.  Congressional staff know this, and they’re ready for it.

But still . . . there are days that can try even the most positive, patient staffer.  Days that require hours on the phone, letting Mrs. Johnson vent about health care reform by relating all her own experiences in hospitals for the last 52 years, and usually giving you her complete medical history, including all major surgeries.  Days that require writing countless letters to the FCC on behalf of Mr. Haggerty, who believes the government is monitoring his actions through his cable television — and any assertion to the contrary clearly means that you’re covering up for the FCC’s criminal activity.

Then there were the weekly calls I received from a well-meaning gentleman who was absolutely convinced he was getting radiation poisoning from his dash lights.  Once we resolved that issue — after several weeks of conversations — he then informed me that he was certain the dye in pancake mix was giving him leukemia.  I had another equally as well-meaning fellow insist that the Constitution secretly allowed for the United States to be administered by a royal family, while another lobbied intently for scrapping Columbus Day and replacing it with Amerigo Vespucci Day.

Because we had the pleasure of  working for a Senator representing New Mexico — which is home to Roswell, the UFO Conspiracy Theorist Capital of the World — we received more than our fair share of really bizarre mail.  More than once we had constituents send us photocopies of naked pictures of themselves, with red marker indicating all the spots on their bodies where aliens had implanted devices.  Sometimes we would receive pieces of metal — always nicely packed in bubble wrap — which were allegedly from alien spacecraft (one of these hunks was clearly a penny that had been flattened by a hammer).  Other packages contained letters rivalling  War and Peace in length, explaining the entire UFO coverup, and outing several members of Congress as aliens.  These letters, and others like them, all received carefully written, respectful responses.  I know, because I wrote a lot of them.

Staffers today still spend a great amount of time on the phone, and they’re now crafting responses for e-mail, rather than letters for mailing.  But the rise of e-mail has, in my opinion, seriously ramped down the civility in constituent mail (the relative inconvenience of having to find pen, paper, stamp, and envelope used to provide those “take a deep breath and count to ten” moments that so many e-mailers seem to ignore before punching “send.”)  But it’s also removed a bit of the element of fun, too — after all, it’s tough to e-mail those shards of alien metal.

Institutional Memories: Gentleman Jim

Jim_JeffordsIt’s a bit old news now, but the party shift of Senator Arlen Specter last month got me thinking about the last U.S. Senator to change parties – an old boss of mine, Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont.

In late 1997, I left the office of my home state’s U.S. Senator, Pete V. Domenici, to take a position with the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources (now the HELP Committee), which Jeffords had just started chairing.  I knew the Jeffords staff fairly well—I had worked closely with several of them on welfare reform legislation—but didn’t know much about the Senator himself.  All I knew is that he was a moderate Republican, with views on social issues closely aligned with my own on things like abortion, funding for the arts, welfare reform, and Head Start.  I was a good fit on his committee staff.

While I would technically be working for the Subcommittee on Children and Families, under Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Jeffords was our chairman, our go-to guy, our chief.  We worked closely with him and with his personal staff as we negotiated and steered legislation through the committee.  During the two years I served under Jeffords, I got to know him a bit—and the more I got to know him, the more I liked him.

Jim (I always called him “Mr. Chairman” and never “Jim” during my time on the committee, but ten years later, it just seems natural) is an incredibly nice guy and a true gentleman.  While his quiet demeanor in meetings sometimes made it seem like he might not be paying attention, once he had you out in the hallway, it was clear he’d heard, and analyzed, every word.  He’d pepper you with questions and ask you to go back and make changes in wording or call another member’s office to negotiate.  He was always impressive.

And still, he couldn’t quite overcome a slight shyness.  One of the first events I ever attended with him was a visit to a Head Start provider.  Jim sat at kid-sized tables talking quietly with the students, but then would stand awkwardly off to one side, quietly munching from a veggie tray, and clapping softly when someone began pounding enthusiastically on a piano.  I later spoke with a longtime Jeffords staffer, nervously asking if I had staffed him poorly.  “He looked like a lost little kid,” I said.  “He always looks that way,” she told me with a laugh.

He was also genuinely interested in his staff.  Every year, he could be counted on to take part in the annual softball game between his office and the office of the other Vermont Senator (which was, and still is, Senator Patrick Leahy), taking his turn at bat and playing an inning or two in the field.  He would leave early to go hold a table for the entire team at one of the nearby bars on the Hill, making sure appetizers (and pitchers of beer) were waiting when his victorious staff (as we always were) arrived.  I still have a photo of the Jeffords softball team, taken on the evening of one of the delegation games.  We’re all decked out in our Vermont green uniforms (we were called the Jeffords Vermont Saps), with the Senator proudly propped up on one elbow in the grass in front of us.  His delight is clear, and genuine.

Your 1998 Team jeffords: Vermont Saps.  That's me sitting on the ground behind the Senator, just to the left.

Your 1998 Team Jeffords Vermont Saps, with the Washington Monument in the background. That's me sitting in the front row behind the Senator, third from the left.

From a speechwriter’s perspective, Jim was an absolute dream. “I am not God’s gift to oratory,” he once joked—but boy, could he make the written word come alive.  He would read verbatim what you had written, but he could make it sound like he was speaking extemporaneously.  The only giveaway was a series of hand gestures I took to calling the Jeffords Gyrations—he would mechanically knife the air with both hands in front of him, then open his arms up at shoulder length to accent a point, make a quick curving U back toward center, and start again.  It was elegant, and he could use it to give all the high points of a speech the proper beats they needed—a tricky skill he’d likely learned as Vermont’s Attorney General in the late 1960s.

For years, Jim was the tenor member of a barbershop quartet called “The Singing Senators” that he’d formed with fellow Republican Senators Trent Lott, Larry Craig and John Ashcroft.  At least one morning each week, we knew we’d find him ducking into Lott’s hideaway in the U.S. Capitol so the four of them could practice—and in 1998, they even released a ten-song CD you can probably find on ebay.  Jeffords loved it—there was a part of him, I think, that always saw himself strumming a guitar at folk venues around the country, harmonizing with anyone who wanted to pull up a stool.

The Singing Senators ended on May 24, 2001, when Jim announced he was leaving the Republican party to become an Independent who would caucus with the Democrats.  Because the makeup of the U.S. Senate at the time was split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, Jim’s switch tilted control of the Senate over to the Democrats.  At the time of his switch, I had been working in Arizona for nearly two years, but the phone in my office in Phoenix rang off the hook all morning.  “Your boss!” people shouted.  “What’s he doing?”

Well, he wasn’t my boss at that point, but I knew exactly what he was doing.  It was what he had done all along: quietly standing up for his principles, and fighting for those he thought couldn’t fight for themselves. Jim’s decision annoyed the Republican leadership and cost him friendships, but citing a basic philosophical disagreement over spending priorities, Jim knew it was a decision he could live with. “Just as my colleagues couldn’t understand how I could go ahead and switch,” Jim later wrote, “I couldn’t understand how I could stay a Republican.”

For health reasons, Jim retired from the U.S. Senate in 2006 after 32 years of public service, and returned to his farm in Vermont.  He’s still back in DC from time to time, and from what I hear, his health is better and he’s getting by.  I hope so.  Jim was one of the last of a dying breed of pragmatic politicians.  He was passionate, and smart, and more than anything, he was always a gentleman.  I loved working for him, and I wish him the best.

Just for fun, here’s The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lamenting the demise of The Singing Senators, from May 31, 2001. When you see the clips of the quartet singing, that’s Jeffords standing at far right, belting his heart out to “Elvira.”  Enjoy.

Institutional Memories: Prelude

My First Real Job After College (apart from the comic shoppe gig, I mean, which was Fun and Kept Me In Comics but wasn’t really a Proper Career) was working as a Legislative Correspondent for U.S. Senator Pete V. Domenici.

I walked into Domenici’s office in the Senate Dirksen Office Building (it’s the one that was built in the 1950s, and has all the charm of an old high school) on Tuesday, March 20, 1990. My job as a legislative correspondent — a fancy term for “letter writer” that looks really, really great on your very first ever business card, embossed with a gold U.S. Senate seal — entailed drafting the guts of letters responding to New Mexicans who had written to the Senator about public lands, veterans affairs, or government pensions.

I didn’t get to handle any of the hot ticket items, like abortion or gun control or Social Security, or any of the stuff that makes the front page; my busiest and most high-profile issue, at least for a while, was probably over whether the Mexican Spotted Owl should be designated as endangered. But I was officially in The Game now — and from my small but still front row seat I had the chance to see how the Congress worked, and I was learning a lot about the issues, the legislative process, politics, and, even more fascinating, the members of Congress themselves.

Like many young people who come to DC — and I was 22 when I started working in Domenici’s office — I had taken the job “just for a while.” Lots of people come to work in Congressional offices to get a bit of experience in government and the legislative process before going off to law school, but I was one of those odd ducks who had zero interest in becoming an attorney, mainly because I just didn’t have the passion for it. (My interest in the law was derived from, and limited mainly to, detective novels and Batman comics.) In fact, I’m almost embarassed to admit that I really had no plan whatsoever. My intent was simply to do the best I could in my little job, learn as much as I could about government and the legislative process, and then see where I could go from there.

And then I got lucky. Domenici was re-elected to his fourth term in November 1990, and a number of senior staffers jumped to other jobs, leaving open several nice Legislative Assistant positions — the meat-and-potatoes jobs, where you become the expert on a particular issue or issues, and directly advise your Senator or Congressman. Making things even more interesting, there was a new Legislative Director coming in — the person who directs legislative policy, and who serves as the main conduit between the Senator and the legislative staff — who essentially had the opportunity to make her own staff.

To her immense credit, she promoted me and several other of my snot-nosed twentysomething coworkers into those plum legislative assistant positions — an incredibly lucky break that I’m still grateful for to this day (some people kick around in Congressional offices for years without getting one of those legislative assistant positions). There was a shuffling of issues and responsibilities, and I became the lead staffer for labor, welfare reform, job training, civil rights, education, and the arts — all issues I cared for deeply.

But something else also happened. During my year as a legislative correspondent, I had developed a reputation as a wordsmith, mainly through my ability to craft responses to what we called The Headscratchers — those letters you really had no idea what to do with. There was the fellow, for example, who wanted the Senator to alert Geraldo Rivera because he had been duped and drugged (allegedly!) by his much younger girlfriend. Or the guy who sent photos of his naked, flabby body with red Sharpie arrows pointing to the portions of his anatomy where aliens had implanted microchips. That sort of thing. I was pulled aside by the new Legislative Director who informed me that in addition to my legislative duties, I would now be responsible for drafting a number of the Senator’s higher profile floor statements, articles, and speeches.

Suddenly, my “just for a while” job had become a career.

Still to come: St. Pete