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After 45 years on the Hill, David Carle has seen it all

Unless your name is Grassley or Markey, he’s been there longer than you

David Carle saw media change dramatically over his decades on the Hill. “There was a lot of manual labor involved with being a press secretary back then,” he says.
David Carle saw media change dramatically over his decades on the Hill. “There was a lot of manual labor involved with being a press secretary back then,” he says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When David Carle started out as a press secretary on the Hill, the mimeo machine was still in the attic of Longworth and Democrats still dominated in places like Utah.

When the longtime aide retired this month, only three lawmakers could beat his 45 years of service: his (also retiring) boss Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., plus Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. 

In between, fax machines came and went, along with thousands of his fellow staffers, but Carle stuck with Congress.

Carle spent the last 26 years at Leahy’s side as his communications director, where he witnessed firsthand how both the Senate and the media that covers it have changed, for good and ill. 

Carle took a few moments to reflect on his lifetime in the Capitol with CQ Roll Call late last year. He shared what first drew him to Congress and what kept him there for so long.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: What drew you to Congress?

A: I’ve been on the Hill since 1977. I was born in Utah, but moved away to Ohio when I was 5. My dad initially was the press secretary for Akron Public Schools, and so journalism was always in my blood.

I took advantage of a lot of internships in college and graduate school. I was a governor’s intern in Utah, and I won an internship with the Deseret News. Later I worked at the big powerhouse Clear Channel station in Salt Lake City.

So I’ve always had an interest in both politics and journalism. Back then it was less common to cross over between the two, and I was concerned about that. 

Q: How did you end up making the leap?

A: Over the summer of ’77, I had a fellowship at the Interior Department. I thought I would only be in Washington for a little while, so I literally went to every single Smithsonian museum and took in as much as I could. 

The fellowship was running out, and I was due to go back to graduate school that fall. I thought, well, let me just sound out somebody I’ve admired in the Utah delegation, Gunn McKay.

Back then, if you can believe it, Utah had a three-to-one Democratic majority in Congress, and now it’s become one of the most Republican states. I was hired as a press assistant. I still belong to Sigma Delta Chi, the journalism fraternity, but I’ve stayed in politics ever since.

Q: What made you stay? You could have cashed out. 

A: That’s a common pattern with communications directors: work here for a while and then move downtown to a public affairs firm. But I’ve always been more interested in working in government. For those firms, you have several bosses, several clients. I liked finding somebody I really respected.

Q: You’ve been here longer than most actual senators. What’s it been like seeing this institution evolve and change?

A: When I first started with [Illinois Democratic Rep.] Paul Simon, he had a weekly column. He was a publisher of a small newspaper in Illinois. And my job as press secretary was to take the column up in the dark, hot attic of the Longworth Building where we had a mimeo machine and also an addressograph, where you put cards in and the envelopes are addressed. 

There was a lot of manual labor involved with being a press secretary back then. You were dealing with newspapers and TV stations by mail, and sometimes by fax — you know, those stinky round machines that you clip a page in, turn it on and it spins, and then it’s got coated paper that stinks. We also used alligator clips on a regular phone to send radio actualities to radio stations.

When Paul moved over to the Senate in 1985, we had a dozen major media markets in Illinois, and all of them had a presence in Washington. The Sun-Times alone had 17 people at one point in their bureau. And now it’s down to one person, Lynn Sweet. But there has also been an explosion of other news organizations, given what’s happened with the internet. I think there are more reporters covering the Hill in one way or another now than there were back then.

Carle, left, huddles with Sen. Patrick Leahy and other aides in 2017. He worked for the senator for 26 years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Q: Your next job was with Leahy, and you worked for him for 26 years. What moments stand out?

A: After the plane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, we [evacuated the Capitol] and walked to my house a few blocks away. It was the senator and a few other senior aides, and all we could do was watch television to try to find out what was happening. This was before everyone had BlackBerries. 

He tended to have people stay longer on staff than other senators do. And he also had a reputation for attracting good people, like John Podesta, who went on to be Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, and George Tenet, who went on to be CIA director.

It was very rewarding to work with him on what I call the white hat projects, like the Innocence Protection Act and the landmine crusade.

I’ve been on very few CODELs, but the first one I went on was to Ottawa, where Lloyd Axworthy, the foreign minister of Canada, picked up on Leahy’s legislation — the first in the world to ban the export of landmines. And Leahy still pesters every president to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. Some recent Democratic presidents have inched toward that, but there’s always a big carveout for South Korea. 

Q: How do you feel about the direction things are going on the Hill?

A: I feel, as Sen. Leahy does, as he said in his farewell speech, that the Senate in some ways is broken. It was never perfect — he entered at a time when segregationists were running committees, and he was part of the reform effort that Walter Mondale led to bring the filibuster threshold down from 67 to 60.

But now we have the rancor and the bumper sticker politics, with people playing for a soundbite. Senators don’t spend as much time with each other and each other’s families as they used to, and the filibuster is abused.

Q: You’re still playing press secretary, after all these years. What are your own thoughts on where Congress is headed?

A: When I was in ninth grade, our English class learned what propaganda is and how to look at sources. So I’m kind of shocked at how little media literacy there is these days. I think people need to be more discriminating consumers of news. I’m concerned about anti-science bias and media literacy. 

Q: What’s next for you?

A: My dad is 92 years old, so I’ll spend more time with him. And I’ll do some writing. 

I’ve enjoyed the work. I’m a generalist by nature, and being a press secretary, you have the opportunity to learn something new every day. I feel so grateful for this experience that I had. This has been a dream job with a dream boss, working on issues that really made a difference. And I’ll never tire of seeing the Capitol lit up at night.

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