October 16, 2009

U.S. Senate’s historian emeritus to speak at SIUC

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- For 34 years, Richard A. Baker had a front-row seat to what is considered the “World’s Most Exclusive Club.”

As director of the U.S. Senate Historical Office since its creation in 1975, Baker witnessed the debates and decisions that help shape the United States, and he also educated citizens and even senators on the body’s storied history.

Baker, who retired Sept. 1 -- the 34th anniversary of his first day on the job -- will present “Today’s United States Senate in Historical Perspective,” at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 22, in Morris Library’s John C. Guyon Auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Baker’s visit is part of the Morton-Kenney Public Affairs Lecture Series. The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Department of Political Science sponsor the lecture.

Baker “will provide us with a look at how the U.S. Senate is changing,” institute Director David Yepsen said.

“He’s also a storehouse of Senate trivia and lore and will be sharing some of those. This should be a thought-provoking lecture, with some light-hearted moments tossed in,” Yepsen said.

Media Availability

U.S. Senate Historian Emeritus Richard A. Baker will be available for interviews at 3 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 22, in the lobby of SIUC’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to cover the event, hosted by David Yepsen, institute director. For more information, contact Matt Baughman, institute associate director, at 618/201-0082.

The event will include a political memorabilia display of some presidential campaign items donated to the institute last year by SIUC alumnus Jerome M. “Jerry” Mileur. The memorabilia will be on display in Morris Library’s First Floor Rotunda about one hour before Baker’s presentation and again immediately after the lecture.

Baker, whose title is historian emeritus by Senate resolution, said that even today, the Senate “remains an enigma to most Americans, and even to some of its members.” His goal is to offer some insight into modern Senate operations during contentious times by exploring their historical roots, he said.

“The Senate is the one part of our national government that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would recognize, despite vast changes over more than two centuries,” he said.

“In the nation’s earliest decades, decisions made in the Senate generally had little impact on the lives of ordinary Americans. Today, its decisions related to health care, employment, conflict in the Middle East, and the economy affect us all most deeply,” he said.

Baker serves as curator for the exhibition gallery of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Baker said he also hopes to inspire students to consider “spending some time working in Washington -- ideally on a congressional staff -- and to consider someday running for elective office.”

Baker holds a doctorate in history from the University of Maryland and master’s degrees from Columbia University and Michigan State University. Baker said when he first went to work on Capitol Hill in 1969 as acting curator of the Senate, Congress employed no historians, curators, or archivists. Today, more than 40 people make their livings in those jobs, he said.

“I was incredibly fortunate to be ‘at the right place at the right time’ with a front-row seat on the Senate past and present,” Baker said.

Baker is an author whose works include, “200 Notable Days: Senate Stories, 1787-2002,” and a biography of former New Mexico Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, who served in the Senate from 1949 to 1973.

A New York Times profile on Baker in August stated Congress established the office after the Watergate investigation, and emphasized the importance of record keeping after President Nixon’s attempt to destroy official documents.

Baker said his most exciting discovery was a handwritten ledger that contained compensation records of every U.S. senator from 1791 to 1881. The ledgers were in a basement storeroom of the Capitol Building. The storeroom and its abandoned contents were about to be demolished prior to the construction of the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center, Baker said.

On another occasion, the 1850s shorthand journals of the Army engineer supervising construction of the Capitol’s current Senate and House wings, and its dome, was located in the Library of Congress. Baker’s office arranged to have the journal’s obscure shorthand translated. The journal’s most significant contents, which Baker’s office compiled, was published in a 900-page book.

Baker said one of his projects in retirement “is to abridge that volume, with its unique insights on life in pre-Civil War Washington to make it more accessible to a wider audience.”

The Morton-Kenney lecture series brings speakers to campus in the spring and fall of each year.

Mileur, originally from Murphysboro, is a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, retiring in 2004 after a 37-year teaching career there. He earned his bachelor’s degree in speech communication in 1955, and a doctorate in government in 1971, both from SIUC.

Mileur established the series in 1995 in honor of two of his political science professors -- Ward Morton and David Kenney -- who inspired him as a student.

More information is available at paulsimoninstitute.org, or calling 618/453-4009.