Longtime House Reading Clerk Paul Hays, a devout Republican, likes to joke that he voted for Bill Clinton the first time he ran for president — of Georgetown University’s freshman class in October 1964. “I haven’t voted for him since,” quipped Hays, who attended college with the future commander in chief.
The 61-year-old Hays, who will retire today after 41 years of service to the House, famously went on to read the articles of impeachment against Clinton on the House floor in 1998.
For better or worse, those 12 and a half minutes — “The only thing I ever rehearsed,” he said — will be the moment for which Hays is best remembered.
Hays’ distinctive stentorian bass has been a fixture on the House floor (and on C-SPAN) since then-Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) elevated him to reading clerk in 1988. And last week, several Members lauded him as an institutional treasure nonpareil.
“He’s the best voice in that position maybe in the history of the House,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a former Michel staffer.
“Everyone at home who watches C-SPAN knows who he is,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who used to golf with Hays. (Hays said he’s been stopped in airports by political junkies.)
On Thursday, Hays received two standing ovations on the floor and was honored by both Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who also will host a Capitol reception for him in early May. (Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Boehner, said “no decisions” have been made yet on a replacement.)
Hays’ life story since his arrival in Washington, D.C., in 1960 at age 14 to be a Supreme Court page has been intimately intertwined with Capitol Hill and its players. Then-Chief Justice Earl Warren interviewed him for the page job. Hays, who was born in Washington but grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee, had a front row seat for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and was acquainted with Lyndon Baines Johnson. Former Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter sent him a graduation present.
It was Hays who was in part responsible for ending the tradition of Supreme Court pages wearing knickers. According to the story, Warren heard catcalls and wolf-whistles in the halls and sent a policeman to investigate. The officer reported back that the noise was coming from high school kids who had seen Hays, who is 6 feet tall, in knickers. “He does look a little bit funny,” Warren agreed, and it was soon announced that beginning in the fall long pants, instead of knickers, would be worn. (“I still own that set of knickers,” Hays admitted.)
In 1966, Hays, while still an undergraduate, was appointed assistant journal clerk by then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-Mich.). He juggled classes and work before dropping out of Georgetown University in 1967. He would go on to serve as assistant bill clerk and assistant chief of finance before beginning his tenure as reading clerk.
Hays, an elegant, bespectacled man who walks with a cane due to side effects from a stroke he suffered in 1999, said his time in the House has afforded him access to the “shrine” that is the Capitol. Fittingly, during the floor tribute to him Thursday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) presented Hays with a hand-carved cane featuring the seals of both Texas and the U.S. House.
As one of two reading clerks (Mary Kevin Niland is his Democratic counterpart), Hays has been responsible for reading everything that needs to be read out loud to the House, such as bill titles, texts of amendments and presidential messages.
And the longest thing he’s ever been forced to recite? An extensive presidential message from Ronald Reagan on the budget, which clocked in at about 35 minutes.
In between his performances, Hays — a “crossword genius,” according to Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) — had been known to work on puzzles while sitting at his desk (just below the Speaker’s chair) before the House Clerk put the kibosh on the practice a few years back when a Capitol Hill scribe caught wind of his habit.
Hays made national headlines in 1994 when Roll Call reported that Paula Jones, who was suing Clinton for sexual harassment, had stayed at the Capitol Hill home of Hays and his wife, Cindy, when Jones was in town to give interviews and meet with her attorneys. At the time, Cindy Hays served as director of Jones’ legal defense fund.
“My response to it was that No. 1, my wife has her own career, which she had before she and I got married,” said Hays. “And No. 2, I … never felt any necessity to clear … any of my wife’s clients with the Republican leadership.”
In the immediate future, Hays and his wife will do some traveling, but after that he plans to cultivate a new career as a voice-over talent for commercials, campaign ads and other projects. (In the past, he’s done a few political ads.) Despite his paralyzed left vocal chord (a result of the stroke), his speaking voice is still in tip-top shape, though he no longer can sing. And Hays already knows what he wants to put on his demo tape. He’s hoping to get a recording of himself reading Clinton’s impeachment resolution and also delivering a 1988 resolution by then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) in honor of Lady Bird Johnson.
“She specifically requested that I be called up to read it,” Hays recalled. “I really emoted and she was sitting right beside me.
“She was eating it up,” he said.