Traveling through history

The House historian returned last month from a 10-day visit to the Middle East, but only after friends urged him to take the trip. Former Commerce Secretary William Daley was one of those friends who told him, “You have to go.”

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His friends didn’t lead him astray. Remini, 88, said he was in heaven during his maiden voyage to Jordan and Turkey, where he sank his teeth into centuries of preserved antiquity — and more lamb than he had ever eaten before — and received unexpected appreciation from the locals for his position on Capitol Hill.

While Remini, who paid out of his own pocket for the journey, explored the ancient city of Ephesus and the geological wonders of Cappadocia’s 1,500-year-old rock-cut churches, he said he also discovered a reverence for his role as House historian that he rarely detects stateside.

In Turkey, Remini met with several scholars and political aides, and he also got to spend one afternoon with Ahmet Rifat Okcun, Turkey’s former ambassador and current foreign policy adviser to the parliament’s Speaker. Remini also spoke with the president of the Turkish Historical Society, Dr. Kemal Cicek.

He was surprised by their reaction to him — and how it contrasts with his daily life on Capitol Hill.

“The fact that I was a Ph.D. and an historian impressed them a great deal,” Remini said during an interview in his hideaway office. “They were really deferential, as though I was a really important figure, when most of the important people in our government don’t even know my name or know who I am or if I’m even here.”

In 2005, Remini became the U.S.’s first official House historian, but you wouldn’t know it from the location of his workspace. His office is tucked in the narrow 10 feet between the doors of the Cannon House Office Building’s northwest entrance and the metal detectors where hundreds of visitors, staffers and members stream past daily.

He has occupied the office and the position as historian for nearly five years. And in addition to publishing an award-winning history of the House, Remini’s office lends its hand to a variety of House activities. He helps educate tour guides on the Capitol’s history and conducts ongoing oral histories with sitting members of Congress.

Remini wasn’t in the deserts of Jordan and the mountains of Turkey in his official capacity.

“I was there to enjoy myself,” he said. He also brought his 56-year-old daughter with him.

Nevertheless, Washington is in his DNA and Remini couldn’t resist discovering how Turks view America and its political climate, especially President Barack Obama and his recently being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

“They’re very conscious of what we do and how we act and behave in the world,” he said. “They’re crazy about Obama. They really are. They can’t understand how people in this country had doubts about his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. They see him doing what needed to be done in terms of devoting more toward diplomacy than brute force.”

Though Remini’s job as House historian is nonpartisan, he said he was pleased to hear from numerous locals that they felt Obama has helped restore some of the “prestige” of America abroad and has helped generate more open discussions with other countries.

He also took the time to consider Turkey’s political situation from its own point of view.

He said that, in time, he felt Turkey would become a member of the European Union, but that it’s a tricky balance for the Turks.

“They want to be accepted for what they are, and they are very nationalistic,” he said. “But they also recognize the value of Western ways.”

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Remini said that he didn’t see too much evidence of America’s influence in the Turkish political structure, because they use a parliamentary system, which he said draws heavily from the European culture.

But it wasn’t all seriousness for the native New Yorker and former Navy sailor. In the Turkish city of Troy, Remini couldn’t resist playing the part of tourist as he climbed up a set of stairs that rose through the belly of a fake wooden Trojan horse. In Istanbul, he endured a traditional Turkish bath, which included a trip to a steam room, the scrubbing-away of dead skin and being splashed with buckets of water, among other treatments.

“Had I known what I was getting into, I might not have done it,” he said with a smile. “But in hindsight, I’m glad I did.”

While Remini said he thoroughly enjoyed himself on the trip, he said he also came back home with a bittersweet feeling that America was not doing enough to enliven the historical education of future generations.

“There is a lesson, I think, about knowing the history of your country and learning from it,” said Remini.

“I found that most of the Turks I spoke with knew a great deal about the history of their country. And I don’t think the American people really know and understand the checks and balances, how bills are introduced, why they have to have a rule to get to the floor.”

But, as if catching a second wind, Remini said the trip replenished his desire to change that.

“I think we need to do more to educate students on how we put together this country and how it operates,” he said. “And that’s part of why I’m here.”