My Stint in Washington

Soon after service in the Army and graduate school, I thought at some point in the future I might want to run for Congress. I’d met a few Senators over the years—Brian McMahan of Connecticut and Jacob Javitts of New York—and they appeared smart, articulate and proud of their considerable accomplishments. Congressmen, I learned, made a decent salary with impressive perks like reserved parking which, if you’ve lived in New York City, is the ultimate perk, not to mention a spacious office and a paid staff. To prepare myself for this eventuality, I thought it good training if I worked, maybe for a year or two, in the office of a Congressman or Senator. The work couldn’t be too taxing, I thought to myself. It is, after all, inside work without heavy lifting.

I hit Capitol Hill with my resume, which listed college degrees, some newspaper reporting, two summers as an underpaid seaman and part of one summer as a ski instructor for the Chilean Army. The last two skills seemed not to be in demand on Capitol Hill.  But the fact that I had listed a lobbyist, my grandfather’s lawyer, caught the attention of Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd’s Chief-of-staff.

Hired onto the Senator’s staff by way of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which the Senator chaired, I was informed that my responsibilities would be to write speeches for the Senator. The pay was more than adequate, plus free parking. I settled in recognizing the importance of this experience for my future run for Congress.

My first call to duty came from the Senator’s secretary directing me to the local liquor store for a bottle of scotch “and be sure it is Chivas Regal.” I found the liquor store and brought back a pint hidden in my briefcase. I figured the secretary didn’t want anyone to know about her mid-day habit.  But from her reaction you might have thought I’d brought back a disemboweled skunk. She admonished me, saying “the Senator always wants a quart.” “Sorry,” I responded and hurried back to Capitol Liquors. I returned with the correct bottle and for my efforts I received a nod of recognition from the secretary and a cash reimbursement for my purchase. The next day, we went through the same routine. The Senator certainly entertains his constituents well, I thought.

I came to learn after my third trip to the liquor store that when Connecticut’s senior senator wasn’t on the Senate floor defending the Nutmeg State and the interests of insurance companies, many of which headquartered in Hartford, he was sipping away in his private office with an aide or a lobbyist. If, by the end of the day, some scotch still remained in the daily bottle, the Senator carried it off to the regular after- session gathering in Vice-President Lyndon Johnson’s basement hideaway.  Sometimes it was my responsibility to see that the good Senator behaved himself among all the attractive secretaries (“Senator I think the young lady would appreciate it if you removed your right hand from her left breast”) and arrived home safely, though not necessarily sober.

 

Where I really shined was in writing short speeches for the Senator that he either delivered on the floor, entered into the Congressional Record, “or conveyed on the campaign trail.” For one such occasion, a Fourth of July celebration in New Britain, Connecticut in 1963, I pulled out all the patriot stops. It was one of my best efforts. “Today let us raise the flag of liberty as we fight against evil forces of Communism.”

But about half way through the garbled speech in sweltering heat, the Senator stopped and walked off the platform looking as if he would faint. An ambulance arrived and rushed him to the local hospital.

The press swarmed around me, the most evident staff member closest to the platform. “What’s with the Senator, is he all right,” someone asked? “Just the heat,” I answered.

There was a question from a reporter. “What did the Senator say in his speech?”

I answered the local reporter. “That speech was one of the Senator’s very best. I wish that he could have finished it. Here’s a copy.” The reporter took the speech and stuffed it into his pocket. The next day’s paper mentioned the Senator’s appearance at the celebration but not his speech.

About the time I decided I didn’t need anymore training on how and where to purchase Chivas Regal, the Senator fired his chief-of-staff and my scotch-broker, the secretary. Soon news reports began circulating that the Senator had diverted over $100,000 from campaign funds into personal accounts. The office barely functioned while the Senator took cover in his office with his Chivas Regal medicine.  The Senate later (1970) censured Dodd for these illegal transfers.

One day when in the midst of the of the office upheaval, which I wanted no part of, I found myself with no assignments to complete. To pass some time I walked over to the Senate chamber to listen to Oregon’s senior senator. Wayne Morse delivered one of his daily harangues against our growing political and military involvement in Southeast Asian affairs. Morse had the facts, and I appreciated what he had to say. He warned the Senate, but few listened, that we were being sucked into a land war in Asia so. “It is time to extract the United States from this mess now,” he said.

As I made my way back to my office by way of the rotunda, I saw Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona on a direct path shuffling towards me. Everyone on Capitol Hill knew well enough to give the senior senator a wide birth. As the oldest and longest-serving senator in the chamber, his poor eyesight and hearing did not prevent him from serving as the Senator Pro-Tem in the chamber where the Senate Parliamentarian constantly nudged him awake so Hayden could direct his attention to a senator who wished to be recognized.

But when it came to water for the arid state of Arizona, Hayden never dozed off. If he discovered a gallon of unappropriated water in the Colorado River, he immediately captured it for Arizona, like a drunk at the bar looking at a free shot of whiskey. He was also the master in making water flow uphill with the help of tax dollars. He’d constantly reminded his eastern colleagues from urban states “you need my vote on welfare funding, I need your vote on water.”

As Hayden walked directly at me in the rotunda, I stepped to the right so as to avoid an embarrassing collision. But as fate would have it, the Senator moved to his left almost simultaneously. As he bumped hard into me, he took a step backwards aided by his cane, looked up to me from his frail five-foot frame and dirty lenses and asked, “Sonny, can you tell me where the shithouse is.”

What a nice title for a book, I thought.

I also recognized that my three months on Capitol Hill had persuaded me that I no longer aspired to be a congressman. Too many Slick Willies at work, too much duplicity in an institution that manufactured hot air to enlarge gigantic egos. I decided I’d rather be an outside observer than an inside worker bee.

© 2017 Western Slope Press