BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian of the United States Senate, your new book "Press Gallery" is about Congress and the Washington correspondents. What's the purpose of the book?
DONALD RITCHIE: Among historians is a saying that journalism is the first rough draft of history, and my curiosity was who left that draft, who wrote it, who are behind the stories? I started going back to look into the history of the journalists who covered Congress and discovered that at least through most of the 19th century and the early 20th century, they were professionally anonymous. They published under pseudonyms, in part to protect themselves from retaliation by politicians who objected to what they were saying, and in part because their newspapers didn't think they should have an identity in it. So my objective was to find out who they were, to give names and faces to them and then to find out what were the influences that shaped the news that they were reporting -- especially what was their relationship with their sources and how did their sources, the politicians, shape the news that eventually got to the public.
LAMB: One of the first characters you read about in your book that at least I recognized immediately was Horace Greeley. Who was he?
RITCHIE: Horace Greeley in many ways is one of my favorite people in the book. He was a newspaper editor in the 1840s and '50s and '60s. By 1872, he was a Democratic Presidential candidate. But in the period that I was writing about, he was a very young, very independent editor in New York. He had actually wanted to publish a political newspaper for the Whig Party, but the Whigs wouldn't put up any money to support his newspaper, and so he began what became an independent newspaper, the New York Tribune. He's one of the first outside editors, outside of Washington, D.C., who sent correspondents down to Washington.
As I was doing my research, I discovered that the correspondents from the 1840s and 1850s who interested me the most, who were doing the most things, who got involved in the most scrapes with Congress, all seemed to work for Horace Greeley. He's the man who hired Margaret Fuller to write literary columns for him, and he hired Karl Marx to write about British politics for him. Here in Washington he sent down some very interesting correspondents to cover the news. My favorite of his correspondents was a man named William Robinson, who wrote under the names of Richelieu and Persimmon. Greeley could only afford one correspondent at the time, so he wrote under two different names, in part to make it look as if there were more reporters with them in Washington and also because Persimmon was his humor column, and he used that to mock and ridicule some of the same Senators and Congressmen that he would write more seriously about under the name of Richelieu.
So Greeley is the prototype in many ways of the editor who is using Washington correspondents, hiring them and giving a different flavor to his newspaper, more unique reporting on Washington rather than just depending on the Washington newspapers to do the reporting and then clip their stories and reprint them, which is what newspapers had been doing up until then.
LAMB: Who was Jane Grey Swisshelm?
RITCHIE: Jane Swisshelm was one of the reporters that Horace Greeley hired at the time. Now, of course, it was very early for a woman to be a journalist. But she was the first woman to be admitted to the Senate press gallery in 1850. She arrived with a note saying that Greeley had hired her to write letters on the debates in the Senate. She went to the vice President, Millard Fillmore, and asked for permission to go into the Senate press gallery, and Fillmore said, "Absolutely not. A woman has never been in there. It's an unseeming place for you." She insisted. She went in and she was the first woman accredited to the press gallery. She wrote several stories under her own name, "Mrs. Swisshelm's Letters." They appeared in the New York Tribune.
She was fired, however, because she wrote a story about Daniel Webster's personal life, his drinking and his family life. It was relatively well-known gossip in Washington, but it was the type that the other newspaper reporters wouldn't touch. A public man's private life was not for reporting in the press as far as they were concerned. Greeley was embarrassed by her column -- which is actually not printed in his newspaper; it's printed somewhere else -- but he fired her nevertheless. She went west and set up a newspaper in Minnesota. She was the first woman to serve in the Senate press gallery.
LAMB: How long have you been an associate historian of the United States Senate?
RITCHIE: I've been with the Senate since 1976 now. I got my Ph.D. in 1975, and I taught for two years in Washington-area universities and then came to work for the Senate in 1976 and have enjoyed it ever since. I've said that the institution I work for has changed every two years since I've been there, so it's kept my interest in what they're doing.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
RITCHIE: I went to the University of Maryland, got my Ph.D. right here in this area and did most of my work at the Library of Congress and the National Archives, so I was very familiar with the resources in the area. At Maryland, I did a lot of work in oral history and historical editing. Two of the functions of our office are to conduct an oral history program with retired Senate staff members and retired Senators and also to edit documents that were previously closed and get them out so that researchers can have access to them.
LAMB: Where do those oral histories go?
RITCHIE: We put one copy in the Senate library, one copy in the Library of Congress and one copy in the National Archives so that they are open and available for researchers. We also make copies available to related collections, so, for instance, if I interview someone who worked for a Senator for many years, let's say, Carl Hayden's chief assistant or J. William Fulbright's clerks, we would put copies with Senator Fulbright's papers or Senator Hayden's papers to supplement the record because so much of what goes on Capitol Hill just isn't put on paper. These people have sort of a storehouse of memories that we're trying to record -- the anecdotes, the background, what really happened and what it meant -- in their own words. We do it on tape and in transcript and put them in the libraries, and they provide a little more flavor to the history of the institution.
LAMB: This book was published by Harvard. What's that mean?
RITCHIE: Well, the Harvard University Press is a very prestigious university press and a wonderful group of editors. I published my first book with Harvard Press, which was a biography of James Landis, who worked in the New Deal and the Fair Deal and the New Frontier. He was also the dean of the Harvard Law School. I was delighted with the kind of editing that Harvard gave to the book, very serious editing. An editor and a writer have to develop a good relationship, and Harvard Press has always been very supportive and protective of their authors and making sure that when the book comes out, the author looks as good as possible. I've been delighted with the work that they've done.
LAMB: Did you write this as an individual? You can make money off of this?
RITCHIE: Yes, although with a university press you don't make very much money. It's more for scholarly purposes, I suspect, than a commercial publication. But in my office we have several historians, and we've been encouraged from the very beginning to continue as functioning historians, to do our own research and our own writing as well as the work that we do for the office in the idea that the better historian that you become, the more you can serve the historical work of the U.S. Senate. So this has been sort of a hobby in many ways -- weekends and evenings and research trips that I was able to make here and there. It's not quite the same as teaching in a university where you have sabbaticals and summers off. You do have to work when you can.
On the other hand, as an employee of the Senate, as an observer of the Senate, I'm sort of sitting on top of a mountain of materials, and I wanted very much to use the resources that were there to take advantage of the position, the perspective, that I had on the institution. On the other hand, I didn't feel comfortable about writing about the institution itself. The Senate is my employer, and whatever I said would be to some degree suspect as to my independence. So it struck me as legitimate then to look at the people who weren't part of the Congress but who were also observers of the Congress, who were historians, in a sense, in themselves, recorders of the events. That's what drew me to writing about the press.
Also, the type of work that we do involves dealing with the press on almost a daily basis. The newspaper reporters will call the office to say, "When was the last time this happened? When was the first time this happened? How does this fit into the historical situation? Can you give me some statistics on this?" So I deal with a lot of reporters pretty regularly, both broadcast media and print reporters. That made me curious as well -- to find out how their job evolved and how I could look at them historically.
LAMB: One of the things that is missing from the jacket is the price.
RITCHIE: The price is $29.95, which for a university press book is still a pretty reasonable price.
LAMB: Is it available in bookstores or do you have to order it?
RITCHIE: It is available in bookstores. I've heard right here in Washington that it's already begun to appear in bookstores. If you ask at a bookstore, they can order it. It's, again, not like a commercial press that appears in the shopping market bookstores, but I think Harvard Press will give it a pretty wide distribution, and it's not hard to get a copy.
LAMB: What years do you write about?
RITCHIE: The book starts in 1800 when the first reporters arrived down here in Washington. We have a little prologue in which I talk about what happened in New York and Philadelphia, but primarily in 1800. And it goes up to 1932 when radio and Franklin Roosevelt changed the nature of Washington reporting very dramatically, and I have an afterward that carries it from 1932 to the present. But the real focus of the book is on the first years, the 19th century and the early 20th century, when Congress was really the center of press attention rather than the Presidency.
In the 19th century, no newspaper in the country had a reporter regularly stationed at the White House. First off, they couldn't get in the White House, for the most part -- they'd have to stand out on the street to do their interviews -- and there wasn't enough news coming out of the White House to justify that. So the newspapers sent their reporters to cover Congress, and Congress accommodated them by constructing press galleries and having press lounges and superintendents of the press galleries and supplies, telegraph offices -- everything possible so that the reporters could do their job. As a result, Washington news was told through the eyes of Congress. Even when the President had a major announcement to make in the 19th century, quite often the announcement would be made by a senior Senator or a senior member of the House from the President's party rather than though the White House.
The more research I did, the more it struck me that we think in terms of the Presidency, and even the histories of journalism had always talked about President so-and-so and the press and President so-and-so. Well, Millard Fillmore didn't have a press secretary, and James Garfield didn't call press conferences the way modern day Presidents do. Their press relations were very much more distant. Presidents weren't directly quoted. Some Presidents were very hostile to the press. Grover Cleveland practically locked them out of the White House. One of his cabinet secretaries once complained. He was walking across the White House lawn and a reporter tried to walk with him, and he said, "Please, don't walk with me. The President might see us from the White House." It was a very different world very much the way Washington was covered. I was curious again as to why Congress was so much in the forefront of Washington reporting up to the 1930s and then as of the 1980s, you find David Broder calling Congress "the worst-reported branch of the government" and how the emphasis changed and why the press shifted to more of a Presidential perspective.
LAMB: When you talk about the press, you're talking about the printed word?
RITCHIE: I'm talking about the printed word, largely, but, of course, radio and television changed Washington reporting as well.
LAMB: But this book is about the printed word.
RITCHIE: Yes. I stopped with the beginning of radio. In fact, my last correspondent in here, Richard Oulahan, is one of the first ones, as a Washington correspondent, to give a radio address. As he stands there very nervously looking at the mike, Graham McNamee, who was an early reporter, told him, "Think about it as a telephone and just talk into it as if you were talking on the telephone." Another Washington correspondent from the same time made a mistake while he was being interviewed on radio, and when he was corrected later on, he said, "Well, what does it matter? It's just radio." So these correspondents that I'm writing about thought in terms of print and newspapers. But one of the themes of the book is that certain rules get developed among the reporters in Washington as to how to legitimately report the news, and those rules last until some new form of media comes along to disrupt the way things are done. At the turn of the century, magazines, national magazines, came along and really broke up the very comfortable life that the newspaper reporters had here, and they had to very much adjust the way they wrote to meet the competition from these muckraking magazines. I think the same thing was true when radio arrived and especially when television arrived, that the politicians adjusted to the new form of media and the other reporters had to adjust to the new media.
LAMB: Let me go back to the beginning. In 1800, where was the capital?
RITCHIE: It was just moving here. It had been Philadelphia for 10 years, and in the spring of 1800, the clerks of the Senate and the House were packing up all their records to send down by boat here to Washington, D.C., when they founded the District of Columbia. There wasn't very much here at the time. There was Georgetown and there was Alexandria and there was farmland in between, and so when the Congresses came and when the executive branch came, also the newspapers came, because there really weren't any Washington newspapers other than a few mercantile papers in Alexandria and Georgetown. So the press sort of migrated from Philadelphia down to Washington. One of the first was a man named Samuel Smith, who was actually imported by Thomas Jefferson. Smith set up a newspaper called the National Intelligencer to report from the Jefferson administration's point of view. He eventually sold his paper to Joseph Gales, and Gales and his partner, William Seaton, then published the National Intelligencer from 1808 until the 1860s when they died.
LAMB: This picture right here is of ...?
RITCHIE: Joseph Gales.
LAMB: Mr. Gales, and on the other side ...?
RITCHIE: Is William Seaton, both his brother-in-law and his partner. They apparently had a very amiable relationship. They allegedly never quarreled over anything as editors. Each one served as mayor of the District of Columbia at various times in their careers. Their newspaper was, in a sense, an official newspaper. It was paid by the government to print the news of the government, the laws and the reports. They also served then as the stenographers who covered the debates in Congress. For instance, it was Joseph Gales who took down the notes when Daniel Webster was giving his famous reply to [Robert Young] Hayne, and Webster personally asked for Gales to serve as the stenographer in that case. Eventually, they hired their own reporters, who also served as stenographers, and they began to publish something called the Register of Debates, which is the early form of what is now the Congressional Record.
LAMB: Back to the Intelligencer for a moment. When they were writing for the Intelligencer, they owned it?
RITCHIE: They owned it, yes.
LAMB: Was it considered a newspaper? Would we pick it up and read it just like a newspaper?
RITCHIE: Yes, it had local news in it as well as the official reports of the Congress. It was the Washington Post of its era.
LAMB: But they were also on the payroll of the United States Senate?
RITCHIE: Well, they were on the payroll of the Senate and the House as official printers of the Senate and the House, and they were also being paid by the executive branch to publish the laws and the other administrative activities.
LAMB: Were they free to say anything they wanted to say?
RITCHIE: They pretty well followed the line of the Jefferson administration or the other administrations that paid them, but I think it was in part because they totally agreed with those administrations. They didn't feel they were being constrained in any way, but, obviously, they looked to those who were supporting them. This kind of official organ, in a sense, continued. After Gales and Seaton, there were other official administration organs that really were not free to say anything that would contradict the President or the administration. That's the form of early reporting that really had to, in a sense, be overthrown. That's what Horace Greeley was trying to get around and not to rely on these official constrained reports by the National Intelligencer. The Intelligencer was a very dry newspaper also -- very colorless to some degree. When Mark Twain came down to Washington in the 1860s as a newspaper reporter, he said that the National Intelligencer regularly published every day the news that it should have published several days before. It wasn't the paper you went to first to get your information.
LAMB: When you lived, say, in New York and Philadelphia, how long did it take you to get the Intelligencer shipped up to you?
RITCHIE: Oh, days and weeks, in fact. But what would happen was that the federal government paid for free mailing of the Intelligencer to other newspapers. There was a newspaper exchange going on at the time, and so newspaper editors all around the country would get the paper depending on how quickly the post could arrive. In other words, New York probably got it a little bit quicker by boat. Going overland it took a lot longer, weeks and in some cases a month or so to get to the West Coast later on. But when the paper would get to those sites, then the editors would clip out the pieces that they liked and reprint them, and so the news from Washington was really the news that the editors received from the National Intelligencer. That lasted almost exclusively up until the 1820s, and that's when the sectional issues began to come along -- especially the tariff. Pretty soon the North and the South wanted, in a sense, to hear different news. They wanted to hear the news from their perspective that would serve their interests, so newspaper editors out of town began then to pay somebody to report the news that they wanted to hear. They would still print the reprints from the Intelligencer, but they would have a little flavor and opinion coming from their own Washington correspondents.
LAMB: Let's go back to the early days. How many members were in the House of Representatives in the 1800s, the early 1800s?
RITCHIE: Oh, very few actually by comparison. The first House of Representatives was equivalent to the size of the U.S. Senate today. There were between 100 and 200 members throughout most of the early 19th century. It began to grow, of course, as the western states grew. The first Senate was only 26 members. It was the size of a Senate committee. The first Senate, by the way, conducted all of its business in secret. They decided that it wasn't important to open the doors to the press or the public. Senators were not elected by the public. They were elected by state legislatures. They thought they could do their business better if they did it in secret. It wasn't until 1795 that they actually built a gallery and allowed the newspaper reporters and the public in. But that was only for legislative business. They said, only when we're dealing with bills can you come and listen; when we do executive business, which is treaties and nominations, that's much too private and we have to maintain the secrecy. So the Senate continued to meet in secret session for most nominations and treaties until 1929, which is remarkable that they were able to do it that long. On the other hand, very early on the press began to penetrate the secrecy and really began to expose most everything that happened in secret sessions.
LAMB: So back in the 1800s, you could walk in the House for any debate ...?
LAMB: And sit up and watch the debate in the gallery?
LAMB: In the Senate, treaties and nominations ...
RITCHIE: The doors were closed.
LAMB: Doors were closed. One of the most interesting things of the book is that battle that went on then between those reporters who doubled, double-duty, were a reporter and also clerk in the Senate or worked for one of the parties, and then they would leak the information out. Talk through that.
RITCHIE: It's a strange thing to look back and realize that the leading newspaper correspondents of the 19th century were at the same time also clerks of the Senate and House committees. The reason for this is that starting in the 1850s when the Congress began to hire clerks, they would only pay for clerks for the months that Congress was in session, which was really only about half of the year. The newspapers at the same time were only paying their reporters to cover Washington for the months that Congress was in session. They wouldn't pay them on an annual basis, and so newspaper reporters were always looking for some way to supplement their income. They were literate people. Most of them, the ones that I was studying, were college graduates in the 19th century. The Senators would hire them as their secretaries to handle their correspondence, and the committees would hire them to handle their reports and things, which they could do easily on the side, but at the same time file their official dispatches. Of course, this gave them and inside position in which they could hear information that they might not hear otherwise and relay it to newspapers and have them published.
But the newspaper reporters had to be very careful, of course. They couldn't publish anything that would be detrimental to the Senators or the committees that were hiring them. In some cases, reporters complained that they were a graveyard of secrets. In other words, that they heard so much more than they could actually put into their reports. So they often would have a source who was not someone they were directly working for. In other words, if you were a Northern reporter, you often found a Southern Senator who would leak information to you and vice versa or a Westerner, or if you were in the wire services, you could find somebody from practically any part of the country. The Senators were usually willing to cooperate.
One thing that struck me about looking at secrets in the 19th century, and especially in the legislative body, is that for every person and for every group who have a stake in keeping something secret, there's usually somebody else or some other group who have a stake in not keeping it secret, and so it's very hard in the legislative body to suppress information and eventually everything leaked out. In some cases, the Congress observed that they got better newspaper coverage for their closed secret hearings than they got for their open public hearings.
LAMB: You've got a lot of little things I want to ask you about here in the front of your book. You dedicate this book to these two folks, Horace Samuel Merrill and Marion Galbraith Merrill. Who are they?
RITCHIE: Sam Merrill was my graduate adviser at the University of Maryland and Marion Merrill is his wife. They did a book together, a very fine book, called The Republican Command, a study of Congress at the turn of the century, especially the relationship of the powerful Republican Senators with the Theodore Roosevelt administration. They really set me on my career as an historian, and I felt that it was a very well deserved book to dedicate to them. I couldn't have written it without their help.
LAMB: Then you have this quote in the front of your book: "In the press gallery we sit at the top of the world and the kingdoms of earth are at our feet -- Louis Ludlow." Why did you choose this and who was Louis Ludlow?
RITCHIE: Louis Ludlow was a newspaper reporter for many years. He wrote a memoir called From Cornfield to Press Gallery, and then he eventually was elected to Congress himself. Many of the early newspaper reporters that I studied wound up getting elected to the House or, in some cases, to the Senate. I thought he was a particularly interesting character in that respect. But the quote expresses, to some degree, the feeling of the press gallery. You know, the press gallery is perched up over the House and Senate chamber, over the presiding officer. They are literally at the top of the world and the politicians are literally down at their feet to some degree, and I thought that he captured some of the spirit, the pride and the amusement, I think, of the people who I was writing about. They had great sense of humor. They were known as bohemians in those days, and there is some of that captured in that expression.
LAMB: In the introduction you write, "Walter Lippmann himself helped the speech in which Senator Arthur Vandenberg announced his conversion to internationalism and then praised the address in his columns. Edward R. Murrow secretly coached Adlai Stevenson on his television campaign appearances. George F. Will similarly prepared Ronald Reagan for a televised Presidential debate and then acclaimed the candidate's performance in his own post-debate commentary." One more thing. You write, "The historical relationship between press and politicians in Washington has been far more intimate than adversarial."
RITCHIE: We look on the press as adversarial. I suppose it's the [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein image that the press has. But when you look at the whole history of the relationship between the press and the politicians, it's much more collaborative than it is adversarial, that news is something that has to be found and the sources of news are essential towards getting the story, so the politicians have a role to play and, therefore, the press needs to cultivate the relationship, the friendships. Quite a bit goes on between the press and the politicians that is more intimate, closer than we would suspect.
I cited Walter Lippmann because he was one of those who advocated the distance. He called it an "air space" necessary between politicians and their sources, and yet Lippmann himself violated that air space quite frequently, the case of Senator Vandenberg being the most prominent. There are so many other cases dealing with the most prominent journalists -- Murrow and Will and so many others -- that I concluded that this was much more of a standard practice than a deviant practice, and that, in fact, when I went back looking through the history of these reporters in the 19th century, it was the closeness of these reporters to the politicians that they covered that was the consistent factor.
In fact, whenever the relationship got strained, whenever the politicians and the press did become adversarial, the reporters looked for some way to smooth things out. There is a reporter by the name of Henry Boynton, who I followed quite a bit through this book. He is the man who helped to create the standing committee of correspondents in the press galleries to regulate the press galleries and also to set up the Gridiron Club in the 1880s -- again, to find some social means in which politicians and newspaper reporters could get together to reduce the tensions that would sometimes develop between them.
LAMB: By the way, he's Gen. Henry Boynton. Where did he get his generalship?
RITCHIE: He was brevetted a general from the Civil War. He was wounded in battle as a Civil War officer and left the military brevetted as a brigadier general in 1864, then became a correspondent on the battlefield. Many of the late 19th century correspondents that I looked at had either served in the military or had been military correspondents during the war, and when the war was over, they settled here in Washington. They set up office on 14th Street in a block that was known as "Newspaper Row." It stretched from Pennsylvania Avenue up to F Street, and the Willard Hotel was at one end and the Ebbett Hotel was at the other. The telegraph office was there, and the horse-drawn trolley that took them to the Capitol was nearby.
There was a whole series of little newspaper offices that existed from the early 1860s until about 1900, 1905 or so; they had pretty well dispersed. That happens to be today the site of the National Press Club, right on the corner of 14th and F, so the reporters, in some sense, have come back to Newspaper Row. But many of the politicians that these early 19th century or mid-19th century reporters were covering were also Civil War veterans, and that gave them a special relationship as well. They could get together and talk about their days on the battlefield, and they had a common past to some degree.
In fact, Gen. Boynton and a lot of the other correspondents were also very active in the commissions that set up the Civil War monuments and battlefield parks around the country, so this was the crowning moment, in many ways, of their lives. If they had a rank in the military, they always used that title for the rest of their lives. Another one is Ben: Perley Poore, who actually only served about three months training some the recruits in 1861, but he kept his title of major for the rest of his life and through the 1880s.
LAMB: I've got to ask you about this. This drove me crazy reading this book. Ben, colon, Perley Poore, and at no place in this book do you explain where that comes from. What does that mean?
RITCHIE: Well, it was an affectation in part on Poore's part. The Perley, his middle name, was actually the name that he wrote his columns under. He wrote for the Boston Journal -- "Pearly's Waifs from Washington," as he would refer to them. But his name was actually Benjamin and he used Ben: as his signature. That has also been a bane to copy editors who have dealt with anything that I've written about him since then.
LAMB: Did anyone else ever use a name like this?
RITCHIE: Not that I know of. He was unique in many ways. He was a big man, about 300 pounds, sort of a Falstaffian figure. As a bohemian type of reporter, he actually came from a very well-to-do family. He had a 65-room mansion back in Massachusetts that he kept up. He was one of the first American antiquarians, collected antiques from around the world, documents, signatures. He had one of the great autograph collections in the United States. He was also the clerk of the Senate Printing Committee in that period and was quite frequently charged with having purloined some of these autographs from official government records, and that appears to be the case in looking back through the catalogs of his collection. He had President Buchanan's handwritten inaugural address, for instance, among his collection of autographs.
LAMB: What were the years that Ben: Perley Poore was here?
RITCHIE: He spent some 60 years in Washington. He wrote a two-volume memoir of his 60 years in Washington. He counted actually from his childhood. His parents were from Georgetown. His grandparents lived here, and he would visit down to Georgetown as a child in the administration of John Quincy Adams. He came to Washington as full-time reporter, however, in the 1850s, and he continued to report right up to his death in 1887. In fact, on his last official day as a reporter, he had been at the government printing office. He came back to the Capitol, was walking up the steps and he collapsed on the Capitol steps. He was carried to his hotel, the Ebbett House, where he died. The Ebbett House is also, again, the site of the National Press Club today. But his entire career really was devoted to correspondence from Washington. The last two or three years he spent collecting his reminiscences, which are a very valuable source of information.
LAMB: This is in the chapter on Ben: Perley Poore. By the way, what did people call him?
RITCHIE: People knew him as Perley, I suppose.
LAMB: You say, "To make ends meet, he wrote speeches for congressmen, clerked for three committees and collected more than his share of federal patronage and subsidy." All along writing for newspapers?
RITCHIE: Oh, yes, all along writing for newspapers. He also was the person who really founded the congressional directory as we know it today. There had been a tiny little pamphlet known as the congressional directory before that period. As clerk of the printing committee, he decided to modernize the directory, and the directory he produced in 1860 looks a lot like the congressional directory today. It's organized very much in the same ways. He copyrighted the congressional directory in his own name in those periods. He also did one of the first biographical directories of Congress. Even though it was a government document, he copyrighted it, collected money from its sales.
I will say that his congressional directories really made my research possible because from the very start in 1860, he listed all the names of all of the people who are accredited to the Senate and the House press galleries. I really began my research by taking a look at the names, especially during the Civil War, of who was there -- trying to get biographical information about them, checking the newspapers that they published for. I discovered, among other things, that Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, served as a reporter in the press gallery in the 1850s; that Mark Twain came and served as a reporter briefly in that period, in the 1860s. I found that other reporters who I was trying to follow, I could trace their careers through the congressional directory.
There's a lot of information inside the directories. Among other things, in those days, it would tell you where the Senators lived, and they lived in boarding houses. You can also check to find out that the newspaper correspondents lived in the same boarding houses that the Senators did. You begin to see how the sort of social networks were developed in the rough and tumble of Washington in the mid-19th century.
LAMB: The book is called "Press Gallery," and it's published by Harvard University Press. We were talking earlier about your background. University of Maryland? What degrees?
RITCHIE: I received my master's degree and my Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
RITCHIE: In New York City and went to CCNY in New York.
LAMB: City College of New York?
RITCHIE: Yes. Then I had a professor at CCNY, Fred Israel, who very strongly recommended that I come to the University of Maryland, especially because it was so close to the Library of Congress, and he said it was the place to work as an historian. He was right, and I've stayed within sight of the Library of Congress ever since.
LAMB: Where did you get your interest in history?
RITCHIE: Oh, it came from a variety of sources. My parents, I think, were just interested in family history and we'd talk about the stories in the family. I think my family talked in narrative form for years, and I picked it up there. When I went to City College, I had some very good professors, including Fred Israel, who got me interested, among other things, in oral history in the 1960s. One of our assignments was to go out and to interview people who had lived through the Depression. I began to learn about the immediacy of history and how you could find source material. I began doing archival research in New York in the New York Archives, and actually working with the documents that the people handled themselves, wrote -- this was a Woodrow Wilson letter or a letter from [New York] Mayor [Fiorello] LaGuardia or something to that effect -- always interested me. I came down here to Washington and sort of discovered all the sources that were here, and I've enjoyed it tremendously.
LAMB: What did your mom and dad do for a living?
RITCHIE: My father worked for Consolidated Edison Company. In fact, my grandfather worked for them. It was sort of a family operation. I even worked there as a mailboy my self in the summers when I was in school. My mother worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.
LAMB: How big is the U.S. Senate Historical Office? How many people work there?
RITCHIE: It's a relatively small office by comparison to other federal historical offices. We have about seven or eight full-time people. We have three historians. We have a photo historian. We have an archivist and then some assistants. One of thing that we do is to help the Senators and the Senate committees get their records in order so that Senators can get their records back to the home state to libraries and historical societies when they leave office and that the committees can turn over the records when they are no longer current records to the archives and have those records opened up.
When I first started working for the Senate in 1976, the Senate had no uniform access record. One of my first jobs was to go down to the National Archives and screen the records of the Senate Finance Committee for 1850 because the papers of Daniel Webster wanted to use some of those records in their collection. I came back and I wrote a memorandum and I said that, as far as I could see, opening these records from 1850 would not violate anyone's personal privacy or national security, and the records were opened up. We worked then with Senator [Robert] Byrd, who was majority leader at the time, to establish the first uniform rules for access to Senate records. In 1980, the Senate adopted a resolution that opened all of their records after 20 years unless personal privacy or national security were involved, in which case, records could be closed for 50 years. But this means that historians have a good shot at getting records fairly early and very important records of the Senate committees and the Senators.
LAMB: Does the House deal with this differently?
RITCHIE: The House set up an historical office a few years after we did, and the House at that time had a 50-year rule. So the House at first, in a sense, was a little bit more progressive than the Senate was. The Senate had no rule of access; the House had a 50-year rule. The House then changed their access rule to 30 years, so we now have a 20-year rule for the Senate and a 30-year rule for the House. I think it's pretty much together, and the researchers have, again, a fairly good shot of getting to see mostly all the records that they want to see.
LAMB: Who owns Senatorial records?
RITCHIE: Committee records are official records and the government owns those records and they go to the National Archives. But the Senators' own records are his or her personal records and they go to wherever the Senator desires. At times in the early years, Senators just desired to burn their papers, and there are many prominent Senators who have no letters surviving them. Sometimes when the Senator would die, the widow would burn the records, worried about what might be in there; somehow protecting the reputation. Sometimes they just needed the space. When Harry Truman finished his first term as a Senator and then was re-elected to a second term, he got a letter from his staff in Washington saying, "Don't worry about it. When you come back, we can start all over again. We just threw away everything that was in the files from the first term." Of course, now the Truman Library would love to have those records of the first term of Harry Truman, but there's a big gap in the collection.
LAMB: Which Senators that we know of, not necessarily today's Senators but in the last 20 or 30 years, did the best job of caring about history from their standpoint?
RITCHIE: Oh, I'd give a model as Mike Mansfield for instance. Mansfield was the majority leader at the time that the Senate Historical Office was created. He, in fact, was very instrumental in setting up that office. But he put his papers in Montana while he was a Senator, and he had archivists coming to Washington on regular intervals to take back non-current records. He actually had opened up the early records of his career in Congress while he was still serving in Congress. This is practically unheard of. Most people prefer to wait until they leave office before they open up their manuscripts. But Mansfield really felt, as a former professor of history himself, that he had an obligation to leave an historical record. He has a magnificent collection. There's a wonderful collection of Richard Russell's papers at the University of Georgia. They had to build a whole wing on the library to house them; it's so big a collection.
LAMB: Who was he?
RITCHIE: He was the leader, in many ways, of the Southern caucus of the 1950s and 1960s and early '70s until he died and a very prominent Senator -- chairman of the Armed Services Committee, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A new biography of him has just been published by Gilbert Fite, a professor from the University of Georgia. The book would not have been possible if Russell hadn't left such a rich manuscript collection.
LAMB: Don Ritchie is associate historian in the U.S. Senate Historical Office. This is what the book looks like we're talking about. It's called "Press Gallery," and as you told us earlier, this starts about 1800 and ends about 1932 and it's about print journalists and their often dual roles in life. How many journalists back in the 1800s did both jobs -- did writing for the newspaper and working for a committee?
RITCHIE: Many of them. I would find in a particular Congress a dozen or two dozen reporters serving as clerks of committees. There are a lot of committees in those days -- in some cases as many as 70 committees of the Senate alone in the late 19th century. Many of them were sinecure committees that only existed to provide the chairman with a clerk and a room in the Capitol somewhere. So there were just long lists of reporters who worked as clerks, and I tried to capture some of them in the book, some of the major ones -- a fellow named Uriah Hunt Painter. I spent a lot of time doing some research on him because he left a manuscript collection, and that was a rare situation for a newspaper reporter. Editors and publishers save their manuscripts, but newspaper reporters would throw away their correspondence along with their daily newspapers.
LAMB: Which one is he in this picture?
RITCHIE: He is the man standing on the far left, and he's seen with two inventors who had come to Washington in 1878 with their new invention, the phonograph. That's Thomas Edison sitting down on the right. Painter had an eye for money-making operations, and he spotted the phonograph early on as a great invention. He invested in it, and he lobbied for Edison in Washington. So, Painter was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, he was the clerk of the House Post Office Committee and he was an active lobbyist for railroads, for inventors, for Alexander Graham Bell. He set up the first telephone company here in Washington. He was a business entrepreneur, lobbyist, clerk and correspondent simultaneously. In fact, the other newspaper reporters celebrated him as the only one that they could think of, the only newspaper reporter at the time, who died wealthy in Washington.
He was very wealthy. As a matter of fact, he built an opera house on Lafayette Square and had his name up on top of it. The Lafayette Square Opera House stood until 1964, and it was demolished for a federal courthouse down there. But he was a very unusual man for a newspaper correspondent. Today, almost everything that he did would be considered unethical and would have driven him out of the journalism profession. In fact, it was because of his lobbying activities that the standing Committee of Correspondents was created to make sure that lobbyists couldn't pose as journalists and journalists couldn't moonlight as lobbyists; that journalists couldn't have anything to do with the legislation that they were reporting on and that they couldn't work on the side for these business operations. Painter was not at all alone in this. Quite a few other reporters were doing lobbying in the 1870s.
LAMB: Is it safe to assume that you laugh when you see some of the discussions going on today about journalists wringing their hands about getting too close to government and vice versa?
RITCHIE: Well, I think that it's always good for everybody to have a sense of the history and the past. We talk about ethics today, and ethics change. Ethics change with economics and they change with the times. These reporters did what they did because they did it to survive to some degree. The newspapers didn't pay them on an annual basis. Starting in the beginning of the 20th century, newspapers became financially independent enough that they could afford to pay a Washington correspondent a full-time salary for 12 months, and that freed correspondents from the need to do the sort of moonlighting that they were doing elsewhere, and suddenly they began to rewrite the ethics rules to say, well, what we did before is no longer legitimate. But at one time they accepted that type of practice. The same thing is true with the closeness that develops.
I think journalists were probably even closer to their sources in the 19th century than they are today. Their positions today enable them to be more independent, to establish some distance. And yet, to really get the inside story, you have to develop relationships with people who really know what's happening. In Washington, very early on the press realized that not everybody knew what was going on. The journalists found that a handful of very powerful Senators really knew what the schedule was going to be, what the likelihood of activities would be. If they could get someone, say, like Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, a real power at the turn of the century, if they could get him to tell them what was happening, they could write about it with assurance. On the other hand ...
LAMB: He owned the Providence Journal when he was in the Senate.
RITCHIE: He did. He very secretly owned the major newspaper in his state and hired ...
LAMB: So that was secret?
RITCHIE: Yes. Oh, he didn't let it be known at the time.
LAMB: Was it secret that you were a reporter for, say, the Chicago Tribune or the New York Tribune and also clerk for one of the committees? Did your audience that read you know that?
RITCHIE: Probably not. No, they didn't. The editors back home knew and sometimes they disapproved and sometimes they approved of what was happening. But the readers generally didn't know that.
LAMB: What's the great story you tell here about the Alaska purchase?
RITCHIE: Oh, there's quite a scandal involved with the Alaska purchase, and yet the scandal is perhaps less than we thought it was. For years historians assumed that the Russian minister, the Russian ambassador to the United States, had taken some of the money that Congress appropriated to pay for Alaska in 1869 and paid off key members of Congress and of the administration -- in a sense to grease the deal. An historian named Paul Holbo did a book on this a few years ago and discovered that the money wasn't spread around quite as much as people thought and that the Russian minister probably pocketed most it for his retirement fund. And yet, it does turn out that Uriah Hunt Painter and several other journalists did try to get some of the money that was publicized, the Alaska scandal. Painter started out actually as an investigatory reporter in this particular case. He smelled a rat. He tried to expose it. When that failed, he tried to get cut in on the deal, as did other newspaper people in Washington. Most newspaper people, however, didn't realize that this was going on.
The scandal was probably not as awful as it seemed at the time, and Alaska was certainly a great deal for what we paid for it. The funny part of it all, however, is that because the press got burned on the Alaska scandal, they became a little wary of these rumors of deals and scandals going on, and they missed the very next scandal that popped up. At the same time as the Alaska purchase scandal, the Credit Mobilier scandal came along. That was a railroad deal in which the Union Pacific Railroad was paying members of Congress, giving them stock in Credit Mobilier, the construction company for the Union Pacific, to basically buy their friendship so that hopefully they would continue the appropriations in support of this. The stock went to the most prominent and powerful members of the Senate and the House. The press missed the story for about four years. It wasn't until 1872, in the middle of the Presidential campaign, that the New York Sun broke the story and it became a major investigation that destroyed the political reputations of two vice Presidents, of a speaker of the House, of several other prominent members of Congress. But here's a case in which having jumped into one scandal and getting their fingers burned, the press held back from reporting on an even bigger story that was coming down the pike.
LAMB: There's a lot in this to talk about and we're running out of time. How long did it take you to write this book?
RITCHIE: Well, I started this book in 1981, so it was a 10-year project. As I said, a lot of weekends and evenings went into this project. The one thing about it was I was always interested in the people I was working on and that kept me going. I would always find a little bit more to keep me going. The research was spread out in various places. The last chapter on Richard Oulahan was possible because I discovered that Oulahan had left an unpublished memoir in the Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa. I managed to get out to West Branch, and there was this first-person account of a man who had started out as a cub reporter in the 1880s and could talk about the old bohemian reporters that he first encountered and then eventually became the head of the New York Times Washington bureau here in Washington -- one of the first really professional bureau chiefs here in Washington. His death in December of 1931 really is the conclusion of my book. His funeral is a state funeral. The President, the cabinet members come to it. Members of the Gridiron Club come and sing at the funeral. It's a major event, the passing of a major figure in Washington. This, I think, symbolized the status of Washington reporters by the 1930s.
LAMB: What can you tell us about Dave Barry?
RITCHIE: You notice he's a very dapper gentleman. The bohemian reporters liked to dress very well. In fact, they use to come in formal attire on the first day of the opening of a session. But David Barry started out as a page boy as a teenager in the Capitol and eventually became secretaries to various Senators, became a newspaper correspondent. He was the correspondent who reported for the Providence Journal, which was owned by Nelson Aldrich, the Senator. In 1919, he was elected as the sergeant-at-arms of the Senate. He served then for many years as sergeant-at-arms and wrote a memoir about his experiences. He was about to leave office in the spring of 1933. The Democrats had won the majority of the Senate for the first time in a decade, and a new sergeant-at-arms would be elected, and so he went back to his old profession, which was writing articles. He published an article in a magazine, not counting on the fact that the magazine would come out early. In fact, it came out about a month early, and it came out while he was still in office. It was so critical of the Senate that he was fired in his last month of serving as a sergeant-at-arms. I suggest in here that that's some of the risk that these old-time correspondents faced when they willingly accepted patronage, that their independence as journalists really was compromised. Barry is a classic example of that.
LAMB: If you had a dinner party and you invited the people that you were most interested in here for a good evening of conversation, who would you put at that table?
RITCHIE: I'd practically want everybody from the book, I must say. What I'd really like to have is to be invited to one of those old Gridiron dinners in the 1880s because the Gridiron Club saved their menus and they kept them at the Library of Congress. I can remember drooling over those menus as I was doing research. They would have seven- and eight-course dinners of terrapin and duck and mutton, ending up with cigars and cognac. I would have loved to have been at an 1885 Gridiron dinner with Ben: Perley Poore presiding and Mark Twain telling after-dinner stories and all of these other correspondents reminiscing. I would like to have brought my tape recorder along and done an oral history of the whole batch, and it would have made my work as an historian and as an author a lot easier.
LAMB: As we said earlier, this book might not be in the bookstores, but it could be ordered through the Harvard University Press for $29.95 or thereabouts, depending on the tax for the region. What do you really want people to get out of this? What's your hope for this book?
RITCHIE: Well, a variety of things. I'd like a wider audience than perhaps just historians to read the book. I'd like people who are interested in Congress and people who are interested in journalism to look at it and to realize how differently Congress was perceived in the era before the focus on the Presidency. I'd like them also to see how journalism has evolved, and perhaps understand a little bit more about what exactly is news and how reporters and politicians help to shape the news that we read. I come across this as an historian, and I, of course, in my other writings always cite newspaper accounts as historical evidence. Up until working on this book, I never really thought about what that evidence was. Could this evidence be slanted? What was the personal perspective of the individual writer? Many of them were very partisan in that period. Others had a particular business enterprise that were involved in these things. Where were they coming from? How were they writing the news and how does that tell us how news is derived today?
LAMB: Are we better served today than we were then by the press?
RITCHIE: I think so, although the press is different in many ways. The newspaper media, to some degree, has shrunk from the way it was. There was much more competition among newspapers in the 19th century. The competition today comes from different types of media. The general public, of course, gets in to see Congress through C-SPAN and through the television news broadcasts much more so. They don't need the reporters, in a sense, to interpret Congress as much as they did in the earlier years, and yet interpretation is an important function of the press, and so we still need the newspapers and the magazines and the broadcasters to explain to us what's happening and what's going on behind the scenes.
LAMB: There's a lot more that we haven't talked about. "Press Gallery" is the name of this book. "Congress and the Washington Correspondents." Donald Ritchie, associate historian of the United States Senate Historical Office, our guest. Thank you.
RITCHIE: Thank you.
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