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A conversation with the Senate historian: Duels, bathtubs and other mysteries

Political Theater, Episode 89

The Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda is among the many places where the chamber’s unique history is on display. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda is among the many places where the chamber’s unique history is on display. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Politicians and pundits are fond of saying that Washington has never been more polarized and that the Senate, in particular, may never recover from contemporary hyper-partisanship and rule-bending.

But it is assistant Senate historian Daniel S. Holt’s job to remind us all that disputes in the chamber used to result in pistols at dawn instead of dueling tweets.

“What is different today than in previous eras is we are now in a period of two parties that are more ideologically cohesive, and there’s a party discipline that maybe did not exist in the past, when the two major parties, the Democrats and Republicans, were both split regionally, and sometimes had very internal disagreements over important pieces of policy,” Holt says in the latest Political Theater podcast.

Perhaps one of the biggest disagreements between the parties was first over slavery, then segregation and civil rights. 

Holt is also a font of knowledge about some of the weirder aspects of the Senate, including why there are bathtubs in the basement of the chamber (and how people had forgotten about them for a while).

“The page boys used to get tickets to the bathtubs, and so they could use them. And sometimes they would sell them to tourists,” Holt tells us.

Different times.

Show Notes:

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