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The Hill’s Dirty Secrets

Self-Made Historian Details Scandalous Culture of Capitol Hill

Robert Pohl isn’t your typical historian. He didn’t attend an Ivy League school or decide in his youth that he was destined for a life of studying history.

Rather, his interest in Capitol Hill history came after he moved to the area eight years ago and peaked when he lost his job as a computer programmer two and a half years after that. The loss proved more sweet than bitter.  

“I always sort of joked that I would enjoy staying home. But I never made the jump because it seemed like such a big change. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made or the best decision that was ever made for me,” Pohl told Roll Call.

The author of two self-published books, Pohl, through an outside publisher, released his latest effort, “Wicked Capitol Hill: An Unruly History of Behaving Badly,” last week.

The book chronicles some of Capitol Hill’s most legendary scandals, ranging from duels to murder to sex.

Pohl writes about Rep. William Taulbee, a 19th-century Kentucky Democrat who carried on an affair with Emily Dodge, a woman in her 20s.

Initially reported by the Washington Post in 1887, the story gained little traction, and Taulbee’s political standing remained intact, though he would retire from Congress in 1889.

However, the episode served as a cudgel for Charles Kincaid, a journalist from the Bluegrass State who took the Post’s original story and reported it out in greater detail.

Relations between the two men greatly soured in the years after the story broke. Following one particularly nasty exchange in February 1890, an infuriated Kincaid hunted Taulbee down on the steps outside the House chamber, shooting him. Taulbee died days later.

His death ensured that he would be remembered less for his actual service than for the distinction of being the only Member to have been killed in the Capitol.

Pohl points to the more contemporary examples of Rita Jenrette and former Sen. and presidential contender Gary Hart to illuminate how a political sex scandal can be a pathway to either sustained fame or a hasty demise.

Rita Jenrette was the wife of former Rep. John Jenrette, a South Carolina Democrat whose career came to a close in 1980 because of the Abscam bribery scandal.

Following her husband’s fall from grace, Jenrette posed for Playboy in 1981, infamously telling the magazine that she and her husband made whoopee on the Capitol steps one enchanted evening.

While the veracity of the claim was questioned in many quarters, it became a professional and personal boon for Jenrette, Pohl noted.

Subsequently, she and the Congressman divorced. She later married an Italian aristocrat and is now known as the Principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. Last year, she told the New Yorker that she lied about getting down on the Capitol steps.

The fusion of politics and sex wasn’t as beneficial for Hart as it was for Jenrette, Pohl writes.  

Hart was tagged as the early Democratic presidential frontrunner in the spring of 1987, but his campaign ended before it ever began.

In April of that year, two Miami Herald reporters camped outside the Senator’s Capitol Hill townhouse spotted Donna Rice, a woman in her 20s who was not Hart’s wife, visiting the residence. Confronted by the reporters, Hart denied any sexual misdeeds. But more reporting yielded the now-infamous photo of Rice on Hart’s lap in front of the boat Monkey Business. His campaign collapsed.  

For Pohl, writing about scandals makes great storytelling.

But as he discovered in his research, some scandals become intertwined with myth. Through his book, he said he did his best to separate fact from fiction.

“The story tends to achieve a connotative form at some point and everybody kind of knows, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how it happened.’ And the Taulbee story is exactly like that. The more I researched it, the more I realized that the connotative telling of the tale, in fact the one that I had been telling, wasn’t quite true.”

Some of the untruths in the Taulbee scandal that have taken on a life of their own include the idea Kincaid originally broke the story (he did not) and that the Congressman’s wife harbored a lifelong hatred of him once the affair came to light (she did not).

As for why the public is drawn to political scandals, Pohl chalked it up to a desire to know more about the personal lives of people in power, arguing that the public never would have tuned into the extramarital affairs of an average joe.

“[Hart] decided that he’d rather have a pretty girl sitting on his lap,” Pohl said. “If he had been anything but a Senator for the presidency, people wouldn’t have cared. But people are always looking for these kinds of insights into the character of the people who are running the country.”

And as Pohl further explained, the simplicity associated with scandal resonates with the public in a way that intricate policy details never do.

“The other thing is that scandals are easy. Health care is difficult. Who really understands the mandate or whatever else? But writing dirty texts to a Congressional page, everybody understands that,” he said.

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