Category Archives: Washington DC

Big Fun at the BIO

The second annual conference of the Biographers International Organization (BIO) is now officially one week away, on Saturday, May 21, at the National Press Club (and several other sites, such as the Library of Congress and National Archives) right here in beautiful Washington, DC.  If you’re a biographer, an aspiring biographer, or someone who enjoys biographies, you should be here.

What’ll you find? In a word: lots.  BIO works hard to offer panels that are packed with information, staffed by some of some of the best writers, editors, agents, grant writers, publicists, and publishers in the business—so many, in fact, that you’ll probably find it tough to narrow down your choices.

You’ll also get a keynote lunch headlined by—wait for it—Robert Caro, winner of the 2011 BIO award and . . . lemme see . . . oh yeah: the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Twice.  The end of day features a reception where you’ll have the chance to mingle with pretty much everyone, buy books (and get ’em signed), and listen to Stacy Schiff (of Cleopatra fame) in an interview/discussion in Inside the Actor’s Studio style.

What are you waiting for? Click here for tons more information. Online registration closes soon — but if you miss the online deadline, don’t worry. Shoot BIO an e-mail and they’ll take care of you.

Oh, and if you hurry, there’s still space available in several pre-conference workshops being held on Friday, May 20, at the Library of Congress and the National Archives.  In addition to an exclusive tour of the Library open only to BIO attendees, space was still available as of yesterday in several of the daylong workshops, including the Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Division, Geography and Map Division, and a favorite of mine, the Motion Picture and Television Division, which has a really fun (though surprisingly small) reading room. For the latest information, click here.

See you in DC.

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.

I Love This Town!

Can it really be post-Labor Day already? Weather-wise, it doesn’t seem like it — although we’ve been blessed with cooler temperatures in Maryland for most of the summer, more heat is on the way, and the lack of rain has turned every yard in town a crispy brown. Still, it won’t be long before the flowers start to fade and trees start to shed.

In our neck of the woods, though, Labor Day marks more than just the start of the turn toward autumn; it’s also the beginning of the drop in tourists and out-of-town visitors that make Washington, D.C. such a mess during the summer. Suddenly, public parking lots near the monuments are empty. The Smithsonians look like abandoned, though perfectly-preserved, warehouses, giving you lots of time to stroll and read every sign. The Metro is all but deserted, giving you room to spread out and lay your bags or the newspaper in the seat next to you.

Barb, Madi and I went into the District on Saturday evening — not yet Labor Day at that time, I know, but the crowds were already down — for a leisurely walk through the Ripley Gallery, where there’s a terrific exhibit on the works of Jim Henson, and a slow stroll through the Natural History Museum, where there was a nature photo exhibit Madi wanted to see. After dinner at the DC Hard Rock Cafe (where we sat below a large frame holding . . . well, somebody’s bandana, we were never sure whose…), we then walked the west end of National Mall to visit some of the sites as the sun was going down.

It was dusk as we stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with a slight haze as the heat of the day burned off. Looking east from the steps, here’s the view we had:

And then this, directly behind us:

I love this town.

Institutional Memories

The short version of my resume — the one that appears on my book jacket, and which people usually read when introducing me at events — mentions that I served as a speechwriter for two U.S. Senators. Just that little nugget of information — and the words “U.S. Senators” — invariably leads to questions about life on Capitol Hill, my impressions of the Congress and the two members I’ve worked for, peeks behind the curtain at how the legislative process really works, even who I think Washington Irving might vote for in the upcoming elections.

I get the impression that people sometimes think they’re imposing or trying to uncover some Matter of National Security when they ask me whether Congressmen really read their mail, but the truth is, I love answering those kinds of questions. But it took me a bit to realize something: to those of us who live and work in the Washington, DC, area, things like politics, the legislative process, and the Capitol Building are such a part of our everyday lives that we often fail to remember how strange or magical or weird they may seem to everyone else. Even if you don’t work in government in this area, you still walk past the White House while on your way to get coffee, your daily newspaper is still The Washington Post, and you still have to shove past camera-laden tourists on the Metro, none of whom seem to get the whole stand-on-the-right, walk-on-the-left thing. To us, it’s our neighborhood; to the rest of the world, it’s a movie or postcard. Just as I was dazzled by New York City — I’m in awe of the people that actually live and work there, with a romantic perception of the place that, I’m sure, doesn’t reflect reality — so, too, are people fascinated by Washington, DC, and Capitol Hill.

From time to time, then — since people seem always to be asking, and since I seem to be always looking for Regular Features for this blog — I’ll share with you some of my stories, memories, and impressions of my Decade on Capitol Hill. And if you’ve got questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. It’s all part of the public service we like to perform here on this little corner of Literary Conceits.

Stay tuned.