History's witnesses

When four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in the House chamber in 1954, all Bill Goodwin could do was watch in disbelief.

Goodwin, a House page at the time, narrowly missed becoming a casualty in an attack that wounded five members of Congress.

“I remember just standing there in the archway, too dumb to drop to the floor and hide, and too surprised,” Goodwin says. “I could hear those bullets going alongside — phht-dut, phht-dut, phht-dut — and one of them landed to my right, about eight feet away from me.”

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Goodwin retells what he witnessed that day as part of the House Office of History and Preservation’s oral history program, which launched a new multimedia website in December. Anyone with Internet access can now watch, hear or read Goodwin and eight other longtime employees and observers of the House describe their insights on the otherwise unknown details and historic events of Capitol Hill.

The website, oralhistory.clerk.house.gov, is the latest addition to the House’s five-year-old oral history program, an effort to tap into the institutional knowledge of the thousands of people who have worked in Congress in order to enrich and deepen the understanding of the legislative body’s monumental occasions as well as its quotidian rhythms.

The site features oral history presentations from Goodwin and eight others: Donnald K. Anderson, a former clerk; Joe Bartlett, a former minority clerk; Frank Mitchell, the first black House page; Cokie Roberts, the daughter of two former members of Congress and a former congressional correspondent; Glenn Rupp, a former page; Irving Swanson, a former reading clerk; Tina Tate, a former director of the House Radio-TV Gallery; and Benjamin West, a former superintendent of the House Daily Press Gallery.

Kathleen Johnson, the House oral historian, said she and her colleagues decided to focus the project on congressional staffers and other Capitol Hill observers because, unlike members of Congress — whose stories often get told in myriad outlets — their illuminating accounts and experiences often go unheard.

“We knew that there were all these people — staffers, especially — that have important stories to tell that would better help people understand the complicated inner workings of the House,” she said. Johnson and her colleagues have already interviewed 20 people for the oral history program. She estimated that they have 100 recorded hours of interviews.

She said the website, which presents the interviews in short video or audio segments and also includes photos and transcripts, was designed to help anyone find something appealing about learning about the House.

“We’re thinking it can reach many, many people and hopefully generate more interest in House history,” Johnson said. The site also includes lesson plans and other online resources for teachers to use in classrooms.

The role of House pages not only as lawmakers’ messengers but also as key eyewitnesses comes to light on the new website. In addition to pages Goodwin, Mitchell and Rupp, Anderson and Bartlett were also pages before they became clerks.

“One … thing we discovered was that during the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, it was not uncommon for people to begin as a page and then to stay on and make a career on the Hill,” Johnson said.

In one of his interviews, Goodwin, who was a page from 1953 to 1955, talks about a time he was asked to sing in the House chamber. Rep. Louis Rabaut (D-Mich.) asked Goodwin to come to the well of the House floor after other lawmakers had been impressed with Goodwin’s vocal performance at the page school graduation a few days earlier. Goodwin sang “The Lord’s Prayer.”

“That was a great thrill, and I got a good ovation for it, too,” he says.

The highlighting of House pages in the website’s first installment is merely coincidence, House Clerk Lorraine C. Miller said. She and her staff are looking for former aides with the best stories and have lined up future oral histories from committee staff directors and other people who held various positions on Capitol Hill.

“It’s going to be expansive and inclusive legislatively,” she said. The office plans to update the site three or four times a year with new oral histories.

Tate, who retired in 2007 from her post as director of the House Radio-TV Gallery after working in Congress for 34 years, told The Hill her grandchildren inspired her to participate in the oral history project.

“As a grandmother and as someone who has respect for the office I served in, I thought it was a worthwhile thing to do,” she said.
With this project, the House is now in step with the Senate, which has been doing oral histories since 1976, Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie said.

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Ritchie has advised the House Office of History and Preservation in getting its oral history project off the ground.

“The House has developed some attractive means of presentation that we will be considering as well,” he said.

Miller said she thinks one of the project’s best attributes is that it adds a human touch to the history of one of the country’s democratic pillars.

“Everyone has a different take,” she said. “It makes it much more interesting, and it’s fun and it’s enlightening.”