PLANK DECEMBER 7, 2012
There was a time when, if you asked Donald Ritchie how to smuggle a gun into the U.S. Capitol complex, he could give you an answer. The trick, he tells me, would have been to do it in a coffee can, as police used to allow staffers entering the Capitol to pass those around the metal detector.
That was the '90s. Nowadays, security is too tight. But Ritchie, the sitting historian of the U.S. Senate, still gets similarly strange questions. When he is not busy capturing and cataloguing Senate history, the genial, bespectacled 66-year-old serves as the Hill’s weird-answer man.
Ritchie has been at this for a while, having been the associate historian from 1976 until becoming head of the department three years ago. He was long a source of factoids for Sen. Robert Byrd, who was obsessed with facts and placed dozens of phone calls to Ritchie in his lifetime, sometimes from the Senate cloakroom during a break in debates. Byrd once had Ritchie’s office count every man and woman who had ever served in the Senate—just so Byrd could know his own number. (He was the 1,579th senator.) Today, there are queries from, say, a Hollywood set designer wanting to know the precise color of the curtains in a hearing room when so-and-so testified there in 1944. The gun question came from crime-noir novelist Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for his 1996 novel, A Crooked Man. “And sure enough,” Ritchie says, “in the novel, at a certain point, the villain opens up a coffee can and pulls out a pistol.”
For the moment, Ritchie is also serving as a guide for senators who want to dabble in the history of the filibuster, as some of them push to reform it. Their offices want specifics on past attempts to rein in its power, as when, in 1917, the Senate first devised a way to cut off a filibuster (pronounced, if you’re a New York City native like Ritchie, “filuhbustuh”). The younger ones would like to know when, exactly, the use of the filibuster began to proliferate (answer: under Bob Dole). And recently, staffers of Senate leadership have asked about the most productive lame-duck sessions in the Senate’s history; they're curious to know how this session might stack up, if “fiscal cliff” negotiations are successful.
Still, much of Ritchie's daily life remains devoted to Washington trivia. Were a senator to perish tomorrow in a plane crash, the press would instantly ring him up to ask how many other senators had died that way. Ritchie, to answer, would refer to his ready-made file on the violent deaths of senators. “Whatever means of transportation there has been, senators have died in,” he says exuberantly. “Stage coach crashes, steamboats exploding, railroad cars going off the tracks. As soon as there were planes to fly, there were senators who went down in planes.” Senators, or their staff, call upon him for incidentals, too. They are never short on curiosity about their own seniority. Ritchie says he's been asked questions like, “Am I the longest serving senator from my state? How much longer will I have to serve to beat senator so-and-so’s record?”
And he loves to answer them all, whether the student is Robert Caro, who camped outside his office for a year while writing Master of the Senate, or Dan Brown, seeking details on Masonic influence in the Capitol building that he could distort for his latest book, The Lost Symbol. Ritchie recalls arcane rules about cloture in the same tone of amused reverence he uses when talking about his file on bean soup, which, for reasons unclear, has graced the Senate restaurant’s menu every day for more than a century. If much of his job is testament to the Hill's naval-gazing, Ritchie doesn’t seem to mind. After Byrd asked how many senators came before him, Ritchie and staff began informing all incoming senators of their exact place in line. With twelve new senators elected this year, we’re up to 1,943.
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