For the Record

Congress’s day-to-day proceedings and debates can be found immortalized in the official Congressional Record. The record’s nearly 2,000 books, comprising more than 150 volumes, line the brick walls of the Senate Library and preserve the words of presidents, ambassadors, legislators and Bert Caswell, a 54-year-old Capitol tour guide from Baltimore.

Caswell may seem like an odd addition to the Record of floor speeches, inaugural addresses, scholarly essays and research studies. But his unflinching patriotism as captured in his accessible and unpretentious poetry is consistently submitted to honor America’s diverse heroes.

“I never thought I was a writer,” Caswell said. “I thought writing was punctuation and spelling, and I can’t do either.”

But when former Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) resigned from the Senate to run for president in 1996, Caswell was so moved that he wrote the poem “The Measure of a Man” in Dole’s honor. After the poem was casually distributed around Capitol Hill, then-Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) officially inserted it into The Congressional Record.

“And from that moment, my life was changed,” Caswell said.

Caswell had written only two poems before and has since composed more than 500 in tribute to lawmakers, presidents, veterans, entertainers, athletes and others. About 20 of his poems have wound up in The Congressional Record, after having been submitted by members from both sides of the aisle.

In memory of Sean Taylor, the football star who was recently killed by intruders in his Miami home, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) submitted a new Caswell poem to the Record on Dec. 4 entitled “Taylor Made.” Meek’s spokesman Adam Sharon said Caswell and Meek talk as friends practically every day about their comings and goings. He said Meek is impressed with Caswell’s “big heart” and willingness to go above and beyond his regular duties — not only writing poetry, but giving Capitol tours to special visitors like wounded veterans and children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“The congressman finds that extremely commendable,” Sharon said.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) submitted a Caswell poem last month to honor Gunnery Sgt. Angel Barcenas, a Marine whose legs were amputated last year after sustaining injuries in Iraq. Barcenas had previously served Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on Marine One, and he recently led a group of Marines, police officers, and firefighters in a formation run to ground zero in New York City.

“Poetry has been a medium for not only documenting history but also upholding the principles that have made our nation great — principles such as courage, honor and perseverance,” Sessions said in an e-mailed statement. “I applaud Bert for using his gift of poetry to honor America’s bravest.”

Listening to Caswell talk about his poetry is like taking a crash course in American history and culture. He has written about sports legends, political leaders, war veterans, firefighters, entertainers, civil rights leaders and Holocaust survivors.

“I write about heroes, people that inspire me,” he said. “I really am impressed with the people who have power and fame, and yet they wield it and they make the world better. And that’s what it’s really all about.”

Caswell’s subjects include sports stars Steve Young, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mario Andretti; civil rights leaders Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.; reporter David Bloom; entertainers Bob Hope, Jason Alexander and Tom Hanks; Congressional Gold Medal recipient Dorothy Height and former astronaut and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio).

Caswell wears his patriotism on his sleeve. He makes an ideal tour guide, welcoming Capitol visitors with instant anecdotes about their home states’ or cities’ contributions to the greater national identity. He will seriously discuss their college sports teams’ strengths and vulnerabilities, impersonate California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), or crack jokes about the highest court in the land not being the Supreme Court, but rather a basketball court up the street.

Caswell has worked for the Capitol Guide Service for 21 years, although he did not plan it that way. As an all-American lacrosse star, he played on the national champion University of Maryland team in 1975. Before becoming a regular contributor to The Congressional Record, he was listed in NCAA record books as a top scorer at the 1975 Division 1 lacrosse tournament. He later coached the Maryland team for five years.

He earned two graduate degrees from Bowie State College, one in education and the other in administrative management. He then taught high school physical education and science for about 10 years.

In addition to being included in The Congressional Record, Caswell’s poetry has been presented at official ceremonies and posted in government buildings. Several of his poems are posted in the amputee ward at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One of his poems is on display in a memorial to the police officers who were killed when a gunman entered the Capitol in 1998 and opened fire.

“I see more in three months than most people see in a lifetime,” Caswell said, drawing a connection between his job as a tour guide and his passion for writing about American heroism. He said working at the Capitol exposes him to people from around the world and also gives him a unique first-hand view of lawmakers, who he says are underappreciated for their service. He is currently compiling his poetry for a book that will include anecdotes about the many famous people he has encountered in Washington.  

“I have had the privilege of getting to know Bert during my time in Congress,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who has inserted three of Caswell’s poems into the Record this year. “As a Capitol Hill tour guide, [Caswell] is instrumental in sharing the rich history of our beautiful Capitol Building.”

Caswell writes his poetry on a small laptop so he can write wherever and whenever inspiration strikes. His writing process is simple: He records what’s on his mind, lets it sit for a while, and returns typically only once to double-check his work. He said the average poem takes no more than 30 minutes to complete.

“Mostly everything the first time comes out great,” he said. “And then I go back and tweak it. … Normally the first draft’s pretty good.”

He does not have a favorite poet or style of poetry. He actually avoids reading other poetry to keep his own work pure.

“I don’t read other people’s work, hardly, because I don’t want it to change my words,” Caswell said.