Oral History Project Peeks Behind Scenes

Posted September 29, 2010 at 4:32pm

For decades, the gavel used on the day Congress declared war on Germany and Italy during World War II sat in a shoe box in Irving Swanson’s house.

It wasn’t until Matt Wasniewski interviewed Swanson for the Clerk of the House’s oral history project that it even came up.

‘You want to see it?’ Swanson asked Wasniewski. ‘I can go upstairs. I think I know where it is.’

Swanson, who served as reading clerk in the House on the days that war was declared on the main Axis powers, seemed nonchalant as he explained that Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) signed this gavel and, no, it isn’t the gavel Rayburn used on the day that Congress declared war on Japan. That was a different gavel, and Rayburn kept it for himself, Swanson said.

Swanson and Wasniewski’s conversation took place in 2004, but a transcript is available on the project’s website for those who want to hear Swanson’s words for themselves.

That’s the point of the oral history project, after all ‘ to allow people who have only read the stories in history books to experience them through someone else’s eyes.

The official title of the project is the Oral History of the U.S. House of Representatives. But for Wasniewski, the Office of History and Preservation’s historian and deputy chief, and Kathleen Johnson, the office’s oral historian, the focus is on the people who work behind the scenes of the House, such as clerks and pages, instead of the Members themselves. After all, most Members usually have their stories told, whether in biographies or in libraries. It’s the people who make the House run who are often forgotten.

‘We take such a big institution and put it on a human scale,’ Johnson said.

That’s what Swanson’s story highlights. Born in 1912, Swanson was a young man when World War II began. In 1940, Swanson became a reading clerk in the House of Representatives under Rayburn.

Just a year later, on Dec. 8, 1941, he was reading the roll call of the House during the joint session of Congress called after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Swanson witnessed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declare the day before as a ‘date which will live in infamy.’

‘You could hear the drop of a pin,’ Swanson said. ‘Easy to take the roll call, I can tell you. Everybody was very quiet.’

Swanson also watched as Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.) became the sole vote against declaring war on Japan.

Just a few days later, he was again the reading clerk on the day war was declared on Germany and Italy. He read Roosevelt’s message to Congress, asking them to declare war, and he again read the roll call.

That was the day Rayburn gave Swanson the gavel that sat in his house for so long. A couple of people asked about the gavel over the years, but Swanson wanted to donate it when he died. He ended up giving it to the Clerk’s office for the project.

Off the Official Record

For Wasniewski, finding out small details, such as Swanson’s role during World War II, is what the project is all about.

Wasniewski arrived on the scene in 2002 as a publications specialist, when the Office of History and Preservation was created by the Clerk. The oral history project was authorized two years later, after Johnson came on board, to ‘capture the color that the official record doesn’t reflect,’ Johnson said.

The next few years were spent tracking down people such as Swanson, who had been involved in some way with the House and had something to share. These efforts resulted in more than 100 hours of recordings with 40 individuals, including the first African-American page in Congress and Donnald Anderson, the Clerk of the House from 1960 to 1995. Nine of these interviews, including the biographies of the interviewees, audio and video, images and transcripts, are on the program’s website.

In addition to finding the people to interview, Wasniewski and Johnson ‘ the only two people working on the project until publications specialist Albin Kowalewski was brought in last year ‘ spent hours transcribing the interviews and editing the audio and video.

The design of the website took another year. It was officially launched in December, and since then it has received 6,000 to 9,000 hits a month.

A main goal of the project is for teachers and students to use it as a resource in their lesson plans and research, as well as to make the website as accessible to the public as possible, Johnson said.

‘I get so excited when I realize people are visiting our website, as we’re still sitting here down in the basement,’ she said.

A Family Affair

Cokie Roberts, Congressional correspondent and daughter of Democratic Louisiana Reps. Hale and Lindy Boggs, is one of the people the program contacted. Johnson had a list of things she was interested in finding out from Roberts, from growing up on the Hill to learning about the institution of the press galleries.

‘I’ve been looking at these things for 60-plus years,’ Roberts said. ‘That was the kind of perspective [the project] wanted.’

Johnson interviewed Roberts in two parts, once in 2007 and again in 2008. Roberts described her experience as a child of politicians as ‘totally interesting and fun.’

‘They pretty much understood that their family life and their political life were one and that there was no separating them,’ Roberts said in her 2007 interview. ‘We pretty much did everything. We went on campaign trips, we made speeches, we went to the blessing of the fleet or the opening of the headquarters. … I mean, it was very, very much an active involvement.’

Roberts also described sitting in the galleries as a child to listen to speeches given by her father, who was a Member in 1941-42 and again from 1947 until his death in 1972.

‘When he would speak, of course nothing was broadcast, so you’d have to come to the chamber to hear somebody, and it would kind of circulate through the office buildings,’ she said. ”Boggs is up.’ So people would come to the galleries and listen because he was such a fine orator.’

Roberts visited the website after its launch, and as a journalist, she loved seeing not only her stories told but those of others as well.

‘Oral history is just fabulous,’ she said. ‘It’s storytelling at its best.’

An African-American Pioneer

Johnson also sat down with Frank Mitchell in 2008. Mitchell, who grew up in Springfield, Ill., was selected by Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.) to be the first African-American page of the House, with approval from then-Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-Mich.).

In his interview, Mitchell said it was a concerted effort to get an African-American page working in the House, right in the midst of the civil rights movement. Mitchell was appointed on the eve of the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

‘You were aware that you would be the first African-American page,’ Johnson said to Mitchell.

‘Right,’ he replied.

‘Were you interested, at that point, in making history, or did you just want to become a page and serve for the House?’

‘I guess I wanted to become a page,’ Mitchell said. ‘The fact that it was history-making didn’t really affect me, because you don’t feel or sense history while it’s being made. You’re just going through the motions of living your life.’

The Oral History of the U.S. House of Representatives website is oralhistory.clerk.house.gov