Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Growing up in the last Century: WASHINGTON IN THE 1970s; FIRST TASTE OF CAPITOL HILL

US Capitol, circa 1970.

1973 had been a big, messy, turbulent year in my life.  That January, I’d gone to Rome, Italy, for a study abroad semester, then promptly dropped out of school.  I spent the next six months floundering.  I landed first in Israel where I lived mostly on a beach in Eilat with hippies and other dropouts, doing day labor, putting my parents through purgatory.  Back home, I managed to graduate college (Brown University) without showing up, relying on old Advance Placement credits and snubbing my own graduation ceremony. 
  I moved in with my parents in upstate Albany, New York, and refused to get a job.  I rebelled against anything that came to mind.  Tempers flared; thank goodness for my amazingly patient older sisters and brothers-in-law who ended up acting as reluctant buffers.  I saw a “shrink” for the first time (yes, that’s what they called them back then) who accomplished nothing. 

            Then, after all the ups and downs, the turmoil and consternation, I landed finally in a weirdly logical place, at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

How did that happen?  It’s been fifty years now, half a century, since I first came to settle here in the DC area.  Here I would put down roots, meet my wife Karen of 38 years, have multiple careers, buy cars and houses, grow older.  But back then in 1973, who knew what might last, if anything?  We were all still shockingly young, me, my friends.  The city was old but changing.  Hardly recognizable from today, we and it both. 

From Hippie to Law School

I had never actually wanted law school.  My Dad was a lawyer, and he never seemed to like it much.  But Washington itself was another matter, especially during that unique period of the 1970s. 

Before 1973 I had been to Washington only twice in my life.   And, no joke, both times I’d had tear gas thrown at me by the National Guard.  I had been a student protester against the Vietnam War, first in November 1969, then May 1970 after the Cambodian invasion and the shootings at Kent State University.  (See earlier blog:  Growing Up in the Last Century: Tear-Gassed in Washington DC, May 1970.)  These marches were fabulous events, drawing  hundreds of thousands, the political Woodstocks of that era.  I hardly realized at the time that they were shaping me, planting seeds in my mind.             

What I looked like on first arriving in Washington D.C. in August 1973,
 fifty years ago, to start law school.     
Then, by summer 1973, like millions of others, I became mesmerized by the next new drama from Washington: Watergate, and especially the day-by-day soap-opera-like hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee under its chairman Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC).  I watched them obsessively sitting at home in Albany, stewing over what to do with my life, fascinated both by the TV journalists and by all the Senate staffers sitting just behind the Senators and seeming to pull the wires.  Who could imagine a better job than that, right at the center of the action?  I couldn’t help but wonder.  How do you become one of them? 

Back in college, my parents had pushed me to take the Law Boards and I agreed, mostly just to humor them.  I was so dismissive that I didn’t bother to prepare, didn’t study.  Still, I scored well enough – perhaps because I felt no real pressure - that my parents again pressed me at least to apply, at least as a backup.  So, fine, I applied to two law schools, one on the East Coast, one on the West.  Georgetown said yes, the other said no.  All of which led to my third trip to Washington, D.C., in June 1973, to see this Georgetown Law School for myself.  I’d never visited or had an interview at the school while applying, so I made an appointment for one now.   

On to Washington

I took the train from New York, traveling by myself since I had alienated most of my family and friends by then.  Reaching DC, I walked the few blocks from Union Station.  Georgetown Law had recently moved into a new building on New Jersey Avenue at the foot of Capitol Hill.  That day happened to be the day John Dean, President Nixon’s recently fired White House counsel and now chief accuser, was testifying before the Ervin-led Senate Watergate Committee, just a few blocks away.  The law school had me wait in the faculty lounge for my interview, and here I watched a gaggle of professors mingling around a TV watching the hearing, chatting about it.  What struck me was this: their banter made clear that virtually every one of them was connected somehow to the big show.  This one was advising the Senate, that one the White House.  Another was best friends with a key staffer and repeated some delicious gossip, yet another had a column in that day’s Washington Post or Star.

Georgetown Law School, as it looked in 1973, about half-a-dozen
blocks from the US Senate Office Buildings,

All this, not to mention Sam Dash, yet another Georgetown Law professor and friends with all the others, his face right there on the TV screen as Senator Ervin’s committee chief counsel.  Here they all were at Georgetown Law School.  Before my interview even started, they’d sold me on the place.  

            All the angst and floundering of the prior year, my neurotic 1973, seemed to resolve itself with this choice.   Maybe I had just been looking for control over my own life, a chance to call my own shots.  My parents seemed relieved, and so did I.  They’d foot the tuition bill; I committed to stick it out.  And so it went.

On one level, Washington, D.C. seemed like a scarred city when I moved there in August and found an apartment within bicycling distance of the law school (since I didn’t have a car).  The apartment was between 6th and 7th Streets SE on Independence Avenue on Capitol Hill.   Just five years earlier, in 1968, riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King had come within a few short blocks of this spot.  Many parts of the city remained unrepaired from the fires and damage.  Capitol Hill rowhouses that today sell for multiple millions of dollars sat on the market untouchable.  The term “gentrification” wasn’t being used yet to describe changes in the wind for neighborhoods like Capitol Hill; it would take another decade or so for those to take root.  But walking the streets or shopping in the local stores, tensions were inescapable.               

Richard Nixon still sat in the White House, J. Edgar Hoover had only recently vacated the FBI by dying in office, and memories of recent police confrontations at anti-war protests and in the riots after the killing of Dr. King remained fresh.  

              But a new energy also seemed to permeate the city in 1973.  New waves of people had come here during the Kennedy and Johnson years, and the Watergate scandal itself brought a certain glamour to Capitol Hill.  Scores of young people wanted to work there and in the press.  A Washington music scene was bubbling in places like the Cellar Door in Georgetown, WHFS on the radio, Irish music at the Dubliner, jazz at Blues Alley, bluegrass at the Birchmere in Arlington, dancing at Déjà Vu, folk at the Chancery across the street from Georgetown Law, plus all the big rock concerts at RFK stadium, the Warner Theater, and on the Mall.   

Finally, Capitol Hill

              It took until my third year of law school before I finally had the chance to plant my flag on Capitol Hill itself.  I signed up for a “clinical” program on Legislation where I would get course credit for working as a Senate intern while taking seminars team-taught by a professor, Roy Schotland, and a working Hill staffer,  Michael Pertschuk, the future FTC chairman and then-chief counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee.  Finding a Congressional internship meant knocking on doors in the Senate office buildings, no appointments, no friends or contacts, just carrying my sparse resume and asking for a chance. 

After many tries and failures, I finally got lucky and landed a spot in the office of Senator Chuck Percy (R.-Ill.).    Percy was then the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Government Operations, soon to be expanded and renamed Governmental Affairs, today Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.   

Senator Percy at the time was a leading national figure, a liberal Republican back when those existed: conservative on finance but anti-war, anti-Watergate, pro-civil rights and political reform.  He looked and spoke like a Senator straight from central casting, handsome, baritone voice, articulate enough to debate William F. Buckley on his Firing Line TV show one day, then tangle with Nixon’s White House or Chicago’s autocratic Mayor Daley Sr. the next.  And the Governmental Affairs Committee itself, under its chairman Senator Abe Ribicoff (D.-Conn), was experiencing something of a renaissance.  It had recently produced the landmark 1975 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act, was considering high-profile reforms stemming from the Watergate scandal, and would soon handle key proposals from President Jimmy Carter to create new Cabinet-level Departments of Energy and Education.  Its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired in the 1950s by none less than Joe McCarthy (R.-Wis.), held eye-popping investigations that often grabbed headlines.   

The Senate Government Operations Committee, circa 1973, when I first came to D.C.  Henry Kissinger is the witness; Senators include (from left) Jacob Javits (R-NY), Bill Roth (R-Del), Chuck Percy (R-Ill), and chairman Abe Ribicoff (D-Conn).

The 1975-76 academic year would be brutal for me, working by day on Capitol Hill, night classes at Georgetown Law, then followed by an even-more-brutal summer of 1976 preparing for the bar exam while taking two more courses needed to finish school.  All this was capped by a mid-summer week that included the two-day bar exam, a term paper, plus two final exams.

 After that last exam, I was spent.  All I could manage was to stagger back to my small apartment and polish off a bottle of Wild Turkey while staring into space, no drugs needed. Those were the days.  A few days later, I remember joining some friends at the Bicentennial fireworks on the National Mall amid a crowd estimated at a million people. I still remember the brownies we ate and how they made the fireworks extraordinary.

              With law school now finished, my Capitol Hill internship soon turned into an actual job as a young committee staff counsel working for Senator Percy.  There is a popular Washington stereotype of all those young Congressional staffers in their twenties pretending to run the world, thinking they’re smarter than everyone else.  That was me in the mid-1970s walking about the US Senate, arrogant, entitled, mostly scared to death that I was totally out of my depth, faking the whole thing.

The Last Great Senate

                The Capitol Hill of the 1970s is hardly recognizable compared with the hyper-partisan, dysfunctional Congress of today.  My friend from those years Ira Shapiro, who was also a staffer on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, captured it in a book he wrote called The Last Great Senate.  It was a wonderful place to work, especially as a first job out of school.  Like those old Upstairs-

TV dramas, the Senators promenaded the national stage while their staffs behind the scenes mingled together in their own world.  Partisan divides existed, but we were all friendly back then, Republicans and Democrats.  One friend compared it to a college campus, the lawns and buildings and restaurants, the different committee staffs like the different academic departments.      

On our Committee, Governmental Affairs, the Democratic Chairman Ribicoff and Ranking Republican Chuck Percy, my boss, saw eye-to-eye on most big things, despite a long list of policy differences.  Sen. Percy’s favorite catch phrase, repeated after any tough meeting, was simply this: “always disagree without being disagreeable.”   And what a kick it was to sit at a table (or rather just behind it) with the likes of Ribicoff, Percy, Jacob Javitz (R.-NY), Charles Mathias (R.-Md.), Lawton Chiles (D.-Fla.), Tom Eagleton (D.-Mo.), Sam Nunn (D.-Ga.), John Glenn (D.-Oh.), so on – all household names back then and members of the Governmental Affairs Committee.  Seeing them interact, these smart, strong-willed people, each eccentric in his own way, haggling over issues and legislation like a sophisticated game of three-dimensional poker, counting votes and hatching schemes, put all those dry theories of legislation in an entirely new human light. 

It wasn’t all flowers and roses.  Senators had big personalities, with temper tantrums and egos to match.  We staffers saw plenty.  Some Senators were prima donnas treating their staffs like maids and servants.  Some showed up drunk at hearings or floor debates (alas, no more with C-Span on the job).   Others failed to do homework, then botched simple questions or speeches or sat clueless in key meetings.  Once, while we were having a staff meeting in a committee hearing room, an aging senator walked in and wandered around totally bewildered, unaware of where he was or what he was doing, until Senator Percy tactfully spoke with him, calmed him, and walked him to his destination down the hall.

I was the youngest lawyer on the staff, so I was assigned at first to cover issues involving the Post Office and Civil Service.  For Senator Percy, the most important of these was to keep an eye on the Federal Hatch Act, which bars partisan politics by career civil servants.  Percy came from Chicago, then ruled by old-time Democratic Boss Mayor Richard Daley Sr., and Percy had made fighting political corruption a major theme in his campaigns.   My directive on the Hatch Act was this: “Don’t let them do to Washington, D.C. what Mayor Daley does to Chicago.”  Hands off!!    

Oddly, this assignment would place me in the middle of two major events of the Jimmy Carter Administration: the Bert Lance hearings and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. 

The Lance Hearings

Things had started badly between our committee and President Carter’s White House.  In mid-1977, a scandal erupted involving T. Bertram Lance, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a top job in any administration and overseen by our committee.  Lance, before coming to Washington, had headed the National Bank of Georgia, and Federal bank regulators identified several irregularities at Lance’s bank.  The scandal escalated into hearings and accusations.  Newspapers assigned teams of investigators to dig up dirt.  Percy and Ribicoff presented a united front on the controversy, both demanding that Lance resign. But Lance refused and the issue turned bitterly partisan. 

It all culminated in public hearings that September of 1977, covered gavel-to-gavel on CBS network television, the first such televised hearings since Watergate.  For our Governmental Affairs Committee, this meant all hands on deck.  Even as the junior lawyer on staff, I soon found myself poking my face onto the TV screen, one of those staffers sitting behind the Senators as the hearings unfolded, the ones who had impressed me so much during Watergate. 

The publicity was glaring; given the enormity of it at the time, it is remarkable how this event is so largely forgotten today.  It was fun at first.  When I spoke to my parents at home in upstate New York, they reported how their friends had seen me on TV and, of course, had focused on the important points: “Why can’t Kenny get a haircut?”   “His suit looks terrible on TV?”     

Bert Lance before Governmental
Affairs Committee in 1977.

But when Lance himself finally came to testify, the hearings turned highly confrontational.  We received death threats, directed at Senators and staff alike.   At one low point, Carter’s White House accused Senator Percy of taking illegal gifts, free airline flights, from a lobbyist.   Fortunately, Percy was able to produce a cancelled check within hours proving he had paid for the flights himself and the story was fiction, but Carter’s team never retracted nor apologized.  To poison the well further, several Senators made public accusations against senior committee staff members before it was over. 

Within days after the hearings, Lance resigned his post at OMB and tempers started to cool.  Now I learned another lesson: how politicians make peace.  After all the bad feeling from the Lance hearings, Senators Ribicoff and Percy wanted to heal the wound.  Senator Percy was facing re-election in 1978 and eager to find a good positive issue to present the voters in Illinois.  

Civil Service Reform

The opportunity came in early 1978 when President Carter announced his landmark proposed Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which he hoped to make a centerpiece in his post-Watergate commitment to reform government.  It would be the first major rewrite of civil service rules since 1883, when Congress passed the original Pendleton Act after the 1881 assassination of President James A. Garfield by a purported disappointed office seeker.  (The experience would later lead me to write a book about the Garfield story called DARK HORSE.)   

And as the bottom-of-the-totem-pole lawyer handling Post Office and Civil Service issues on the Committee, I found the project landing squarely on my desk.  

Congressional staff members can spend decades working in the House or Senate without ever having the chance to handle a major bill from start to finish, from hearings to markups to floor debate to conference committee, all in a single year.  But  so it was for me with the Civil Service Reform Act, an amazing learning experience.  There were many high points.  Probably the most entertaining was the conference with the House, where we squared off against our counterpart House committee, led by Congressmen Mo Udall (D.-Az.) and Ed Derwinski (R.-Ill.), two smart, funny, creative legislators who knew how to cut a deal.  Their antics lit up the room.

The most lasting impression, though, came earlier.  At one point just before reaching the Senate floor, the bill became stuck as two Senators, Ted Stevens (R.-Al.) and Charles Mathias (R.-Md.), put “holds” on it, trying to win concessions for their Federal-employee constituents.  We staffers negotiated for weeks with no progress.  Then the Senators got involved personally, but again no progress.  Finally, President Carter, seeing his high-profile initiative in jeopardy, decided to intervene personally and try to break the logjam himself.  Carter invited the four key Senators, Ribicoff, Percy, Mathias, and Stevens, for a face-to-face, private meeting at the White House.  As the Senators and President spoke behind closed doors in the Oval Office, we staffers were directed to sit and wait in the nearby Cabinet Room - my first time in the West Wing.  After the meeting ended, the Senators came out and told us that they’d reached a deal.  Then they drove off, leaving us staffers behind to scratch our heads and figure out the details. 

The President Steps In

There we sat in the Cabinet room, joined by some White House staffers.   After a few minutes, as we were trying to decipher what came next, a door opened at the far end of the room and in stepped a familiar-looking man in a suit.  I was at the far end of the table and it took a minute to recognize him as President Carter.  We were all a bit startled; we weren’t expecting him.  He had come by himself, standing alone, no staff at his side.  He seemed shy, introduced himself in a quiet voice, told us he really appreciated our work, then went around the table and shook hands with each of us.   

I had never met a President before in a small group setting like that.  Maybe it was the day, but he seemed tired, face drawn, too many meetings, compelled to go through the motions for this one more group.  Maybe one of his aides had insisted.  Maybe he just didn’t want to say no.  Carter stayed for just a few minutes, then left through the same door where he’d entered, again thanking us.  Nobody took snapshots.  

It’s always dangerous to read too much into a single brief encounter, but I always took this day as a cue for why Carter became a one-term President.  Perhaps he just didn’t enjoy it enough.  (Click here, by the way, for my take on the Carter presidency.]

We finished the bill.  They held a big signing event for it at the White House for the Senators, Congressmen, and key lobbyists.  And yes, Senator Percy would use it in his reelection campaign that year – a surprisingly close race, but that’s a story for another day. 

White House signing ceremony for Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

End of an Era

For me, the 1970s ended abruptly on Election Day 1980.  It wasn’t that Ronald Reagan won the White House.  All the pollsters predicted that part.  The surprise came later that night when Republicans captured control of the Senate, the first Senate party flip in 25 years.  I had spent that night watching election returns at a house party for staffers from our Governmental Affairs Committee, mostly Democratic.  It was a wrenching, emotional affair.  As the hours passed, many people in the room saw their jobs disappear,  their future plans turned upside down.  Our group of friends was being broken up.  I would avoid election-watch parties for years after that.  

The next morning, Republican Senators and staffers were elated.  There were celebrations among the winners, shell shock for the losers.  In one Democratic office, pink slips were circulated at the staff Christmas party.  Senator Percy, on the winning side, became head of the Foreign Relations Committee, a longtime aspiration.  In the new regime, I was assigned at first to a new Governmental Affairs subcommittee where Percy become chairman.  One of my first assignments was to hand out parking spaces to the staffers, including the now-minority Democrats.  My instructions: “Treat them the exact same way they treated us.”  On our subcommittee, there were sixteen parking spaces and the Democrats had previously given the Republicans three.  So, with mathematical precision, I returned the favor - another lesson in partisanship.

Within months, my time on Capitol Hill came to an end.  That June, I joined the Reagan Team, taking a job at a small financial regulatory agency called the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, but, again, more on that some other time.


I would return to Capitol Hill many times over the years, including another round as staff counsel, this time to the Senate Committee on Agriculture working for Democratic chairman Senator Patrick Leahy (D.Vt.).  In the 1990s when I became an agency administrator (USDA crop insurance chief), I would appear regularly, presenting testimony at committee hearings and markups, finally sitting at the adult’s table and participating in my own voice, having staff support of my own. 

But what a difference those half-a-dozen years made.  By 1980, I was still immature, mixed up, wouldn’t meet my wife for another couple of years, and still had only the vaguest sense of direction.  But I also knew that I had something important under my belt, a taste for living history, being part of my own era, having an impact.  It made me hungry for more.  Stay tuned.  

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