Since 1976 the Senate Historical Office has interviewed Senate officers, parliamentarians, clerks, police officers, chiefs of staff, reporters, photographers, Senate pages, and senators. These interviews cover the breadth of the 20th century and now the 21st century, and include a diverse group of personalities who witnessed events first-hand. Darrell St. Claire, Assistant Secretary of the Senate, offered reminiscences of senators from Huey Long to Lyndon Johnson. Ruth Young Watt, Chief Clerk to the Subcommittee on Investigations under Joseph McCarthy and "Scoop" Jackson, candidly described fellow staffers Roy Cohn and Robert Kennedy, and reminisced about witnesses such as Howard Hughes and Jimmy Hoffa. Jesse Nichols, clerk and librarian for the Finance Committee from 1937 to 1971, was the first African-American hired on the Senate’s clerical staff. He spoke of the long, slow transition from a segregated city to an integrated workplace.
Senate historians interview those individuals who can offer a unique perspective on Senate history but may otherwise be missed by biographers, historians, and other scholars. Steeped in the literature and folkways of the Senate, the Senate historians also have ready access to Senate records.
The Historical Office has also received strong institutional support from the Senate and its members. In 1984, for instance, the Appropriations Committee chairman, Senator Mark Hatfield, literally ordered the retiring Secretary of the Senate William Hildenbrand to give an interview. Hatfield humorously threatened to suspend Hildenbrand’s salary "until that oral history is either arranged or has been completed." Hildenbrand complied with the request.
Many of the earliest interviewees were men and women who began their Senate career when the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 mandated a larger nonpartisan and professional staff. They described the evolution of the Senate from a small community or "inner club," often closed and mysterious, to a complex, modern institution increasingly conducting its business in full public view.
The interviews follow a biographical format, beginning with the subject’s family background, education, and pre-Senate work experience. They explore how Senate service began, and then trace those careers from senator to senator, office to office, and committee to committee, frequently making comparisons among these many settings and personalities. Senate historians interviewed the first three chiefs of staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, covering the period of 1945 to 1977. The first, Francis Wilcox, remembered chairman Arthur Vandenberg stopping by his desk, cigar in hand, and engaging him in extensive discussions of foreign policy. Wilcox’s successors, Carl Marcy and Pat Holt, carried the behind-the-scenes action to ninety-one-year-old Theodore Francis Green, maneuvered out of his chairmanship by majority leader Lyndon Johnson, and then to Green’s successor, J. William Fulbright, who used his position as chairman to battle President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War. Reporter of Debates Francis Attig observed the change in Senate oratory from the 1950s to the 1970s. Others commented on the influence of social and cultural changes on the work environment.
Transcripts of the interviews are deposited in the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the appropriate presidential libraries and senatorial manuscript collections. Some interviews are now available on the U.S. Senate Web site.
List of Oral History Interviews Open for Research