Library Interview: U.S. Senate Historian Donald A. Ritchie

For political and historical junkies, jobs don’t get much better than Donald A. Ritchie’s.

“I have a front-row seat for the best show in town,” Ritchie, Historian of the United States Senate, observes during a phone conversation from his office in the Hart Senate Building.

Ritchie and his staff are charged not only with collecting information on today’s legislative events, but also with making information about the Senate’s long and colorful history available to lawmakers, journalists, and the public.

“Usually, whatever the Senate is doing today has been done before,” Ritchie says.  “But perhaps not for decades. So the Senators come to us asking how to handle it.

“Take impeachment. When Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, legislators weren’t sure how to go about it,” Ritchie explains. “The last time it happened was in 1868, so they had lots of questions about how the process was handled back then. We provided the answers.”

Ritchie discusses a crucial element of the legislative process in his program A Conflicted Legacy: Presidents and Congress from Truman to Obama on Monday, February 20, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

A reception precedes the free event at 6 p.m. RSVP online or at 816.701.3407.

Congress and Truman

It goes without saying that these are contentious times in Washington, with much blame being tossed around for what many are calling congressional gridlock.

But partisanship, Ritchie said, is a luxury he cannot afford. As the “institutional memory” of the Senate, he and his staff members deal in facts, not perceptions or prejudices.

“Years ago I asked the Senate parliamentarian, Floyd Riddick, how he could have done his job for so long in such a supercharged political setting,” Ritchie says.

“He told me, ‘I only answer the questions asked me.’

“And that’s the approach I take, too. Reporters, senators, staff members … whoever you are, I’ll give you all the same answer, the answer that as far as I understand it is pure fact.

“How you interpret and implement that information is up to you.”

Ritchie, whose most recent book is Congress and Harry S. Truman: A Conflicted Legacy, says he takes satisfaction in the knowledge that whatever his personal political beliefs, they are never apparent to those he serves.

“That’s one reason why journalists are always calling us. We’ve been called ‘straight shooters’ because we don’t try to spin the facts.”

Ritchie, who joined the Senate historian’s office in 1976 and became the chief historian two years ago, is also in the business of collecting history, frequently in the form of oral testimony provided by legislators and congressional staffers.

“Once it’s recorded and collected people can make use of it. We provide it to anyone who asks, even the general public. People will often see something on C-SPAN and call the Capitol operator to ask a question. And the operator sends them on to us.”

The actual process of making laws and running the Senate hasn’t changed much in 200 years, Ritchie notes.

“What senators do today is often determined by what was written and implemented in the late 1700s. Even the language used on the Senate floor goes way back. You can hear people exhorting today using language that hasn’t changed much since the time of Henry Clay. There’s an officious style that has prevailed over the decades.”

When the Senate does change, Ritchie said, it’s usually the result of external rather than internal forces.

“The digital age has had a huge impact on the institution. So have developments like the jet plane, which meant members could go home to their districts on weekends.

“The women’s movement has certainly been influential – of our 100 senators, 17 are women,” he adds. “And certainly advances in communication – television, the internet – have changed the ways members campaign for office and deal with their constituents.”

If you’re looking for an explanation of the current legislative logjam, Ritchie says it’s not because Congress has changed but because the two major political parties have.

“Barack Obama is facing political parties very different from those faced by Truman in the ‘40s,” he says.

“Back then, both parties were internally divided between right and left. All votes back then tended to be bipartisan – conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats would team up against the liberals in their parties and try to win over the moderates.

“Today, though, the two parties are very internally cohesive. Republicans are conservative, Democrats liberal. Their members think alike and vote alike. Today everything is about the party line.”

This is particularly important since the Senate doesn’t operate by a majority vote.

“You need a supermajority to get legislation approved,” Ritchie says. “That means negotiating to find common ground, and that’s much harder to achieve in this current atmosphere.”

The good news, he says, is that the Senate “isn’t as fiercely partisan or ideological as you’d think. Senators tend to like one another even if they don’t vote together. 

“After all, it is a very exclusive club with only 100 members. It takes a lot of effort to get there, and your fellow senators respect that.”

Donald Ritchie’s presentation is co-sponsored by the Harry S. Truman Center for Governmental Affairs at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes the Library's From the Film Vault blog. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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