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‘I pay you for policy advice, not politics’: Angus King remembers his Senate staffer days

It was an eventful few years, with a cancer diagnosis, lifelong lessons and a ’70s haircut

“In the days when I was here as a staff member, the senators hung out together on weekends,” says Sen. Angus King, who worked as an aide in the 1970s.
“In the days when I was here as a staff member, the senators hung out together on weekends,” says Sen. Angus King, who worked as an aide in the 1970s.

Angus King still has his old ID card from his first job on the Hill. Forty years “to the day” before he became a senator himself, he started as an aide to the late Sen. William Hathaway.  

“The first thing you’ll notice is the haircut,” the Maine independent says, handing over a laminated badge featuring a shaggy style from the 1970s, along with his signature mustache.

It was a formative experience for the young lawyer, who found himself on the receiving end of some blunt feedback.

“I sent [Hathaway] a memo once and mentioned some political considerations — you know, how the vote would be taken,” King said. “And he sent it back to me, and he had this unmistakable scrawl. And in the corner, it said, ‘I pay you for policy advice, not politics.’”

Diagnosed with malignant melanoma at the age of 29, King says he still remembers waking up from surgery and seeing his boss at his bedside. “Other than my dad, he was probably the most influential person in my life,” he says of Hathaway.

King sat down in his Hill office last month to talk about his staffer days. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: How did you get started working for Hathaway?

A: I lived in rural Maine and was practicing law with the legal services program, which was part of LBJ’s war on poverty. 

Bill Hathaway was our congressman, and he decided to run for the Senate against Margaret Chase Smith. I didn’t know him, but I put in a resume. My wife was a very capable secretary, and we offered our services to the campaign for 150 bucks a week for the two of us. 

At first I was the driver, and I drove Bill Hathaway around as he campaigned. And then I ended up writing press releases, doing field organization, and other things.

On election night, we were at the Ramada Inn, and everybody was excited. And he turned to me and said, “Angus, you want to come to Washington?” 

Q: Hathaway took office in 1973, and you came with him. What was your job? 

A: He was appointed to what was then called the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, which is now the HELP committee. I was counsel to the Subcommittee on Railroad Retirement, and the claim to fame there is that one of my predecessors in this job was a guy named Ted Sorensen, who was John F. Kennedy’s chief speechwriter. 

The committee was a really wonderful committee. Walter Mondale was on it. Ted Kennedy, Richard Schweiker (a Republican of Pennsylvania), Jacob Javits (a Republican of New York), Bob Taft of Ohio — it was terrific. 

At that time, significantly, all committee markups were closed. Now, only the national security committees are closed. But anyway, we were in a closed markup on education, and one of the staff members stuck his head in and said, “They just interrupted the Mets game to announce that Vice President Agnew has resigned.” 

There was this dead silence in the room. Nobody knew what to say. Walter Mondale finally said, “What was the score in the game?” And it was one of the funniest moments of my life. 

Q: And from there you moved to the Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics?

A: That was the next subcommittee after Railroad Retirement. And I’ll tell you a funny story from that experience. At one point, I was setting up a hearing for the subcommittee, and I called OMB for a witness. We needed a witness from the administration to talk about an alcohol or drug issue. And the guy said, “OK, we’re sending you the deputy undersecretary of such and such.” 

I said, “Well, I don’t know the titles very well, who is this guy?” And he said, “He’s at the highest level where they still know anything.” And I’ve always thought if I ever write a book about Washington, that’ll be the title.

Q: What was Hathaway like as a boss?

A: I had cancer when I was here [as a staffer] and had surgery at NIH, as a matter of fact, because it was a kind of unusual cancer. And when I woke up from the surgery, there at the foot of the bed was Bill Hathaway in green scrubs. 

And that’s the kind of guy he was. He was so principled. All he wanted to do was try to figure out what the right thing was. 

I remember talking to him about a complicated issue — how the Fair Labor Standards Act never applied to fish cannery workers. There was an amendment to [change that], and I remember saying to him, “The people who work in those canneries will never know what you’re gonna do here for them, but the owners certainly will, and they’ll try to hurt you.” And he said, “Angus, you’ve been through those canneries with me. You see the way those women work. That’s the right thing to do.”

Sen. William Hathaway, D-Maine, is seen near the Capitol in 1975. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Q: You stayed on the Hill just a couple of years. Why did you want to leave?

A: Should I give you the honest answer? One day, I was in the elevator with Sen. Hathaway, and he told a joke. The joke was mildly funny, but it wasn’t all that funny, and I found myself laughing more enthusiastically than the joke deserved. And I suddenly realized I was like a lawyer with one client, and it wasn’t really a healthy thing. I said, I think it’s time to move on. 

I don’t want to sound like I’m knocking any of my colleagues, but one thing I noticed was the senators who had done things other than politics had a deeper well of experience to draw on.

I never ran for public office until I was 50 years old. I wasn’t in the legislature or city council or anything else. My first first run for public office was for governor in 1994. 

Q: You’ve been in the Senate since 2013. What differences do you see from the 1970s? 

A: I was sworn in as a senator 40 years to the day after I started service as a Senate staff member. And frankly, having been a staff member has informed my work — number one, by appreciating the staff, realizing their importance and the role they play. 

And number two, it’s helpful to have worked in the boiler room before you start steering the ship. 

But the starkest difference for the Senate is the schedule. When I was here in the ’70s, all the senators lived here. Hathaway lived in McLean, his kids went to school there. Now, nobody lives here — or very few, because the first vote is Monday at the end of the day, the last vote is Thursday afternoon. The result is everybody goes home for the weekend. 

In the days when I was here as a staff member, the senators hung out together on weekends, they would have potlucks and go to their kids’ games and all that. There were relationships. 

Now, there’s no opportunity for informal, bipartisan hanging out. If you don’t have relationships, you don’t have trust — and if you don’t have trust, you can’t get things done.

Q: Do you remember your last conversation with Hathaway? 

A: Yes. When I visited, he was dying. When I first joined the campaign, as I mentioned, I was the driver. And I would pick him up at the airport on Friday, and we’d spend the weekend driving throughout Maine. I did that for two or three months, and then suddenly, Al Gamache, who was the campaign manager, said, “Angus, we’ve decided we need you more in the office.” I always had the funniest feeling that I had been fired as the driver. 

And so flash forward to the late ’90s, and Al Gamache is in the Maine legislature, and he was dying. I went to see him at his apartment in Lewiston, and I said, “Al, was I fired as the driver?” And he said, “Yes, you drove the boss crazy, because he’d get in the car and this aggressive 28-year-old would immediately want to start talking policy. ‘What do you think about Vietnam? And why don’t we do this?’ And he just wanted to relax when he was in the car. He didn’t want to be interviewed by some kid.” So they liked me enough that I was worth keeping, but not annoying the boss. 

So when I went to see Mr. Hathaway, he was on his way out, and I asked him the same question. I said, “Was I fired as the driver?” And he was a politician to the end. I’m pretty sure Al was telling the truth, but one of my clearest memories was Bill saying, “Oh, no, no, we loved you, but we needed you somewhere else.” He was a wonderful guy.

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