Host: Brian Lamb
BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Ray Smock, what is the purpose of the Robert C. Byrd Center?
RAYMOND SMOCK, DIRECTOR, ROBERT C. BYRD CENTER FOR LEGISLATIVE STUDIES: This is a center that studies Congress, studies the U.S. Constitution. And we do research on the history of Congress.
And right now, we’re doing two big projects on the history of Congress. One is a study of congressional investigations, and the other is a documentary history of the early petitions that came to the House of Representatives and the Senate in the very beginning of the Congress, 1789 to up to about 1817, which are fascinating documents about what the American people wanted government to do for them.
LAMB: How long has it been here?
SMOCK: We started this, we broke ground – or cut the ribbon on the building – in 2002, in August 2002. And so, we’ve been in operation now for about seven years.
LAMB: What were you doing right before that?
SMOCK: Well, going back, I was a consultant before that for various historical projects, including the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where I worked on the exhibits at that Philadelphia exhibit, including the statues that are in Signers’ Hall, and was a model for Benjamin Franklin, as a matter of fact.
And before that I was the historian of the U.S. House of Representatives.
LAMB: What’s here? How big is it? And where is it?
SMOCK: We’re on the campus of Shepherd University, a very fine liberal arts college in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, about 75 miles from Washington, D.C. The Potomac River is right outside the door.
And so, this is our home. We’re part of the library here. We’re in a wing of the Scarborough Library at Shepherd University.
We have about 16,000 square feet of auditorium, classrooms, an archive with the papers of Robert C. Byrd and other West Virginia political collections, and a nice facility, a reading room.
LAMB: Who paid for it?
SMOCK: This was paid for by grants from the federal government, as well as the state government. The entire project was an $18 million project that was to renovate and modernize the entire campus library. And that involved about $14 million in federal funds, and another almost $4 million in state funds. And the Byrd Center really came from the state money.
LAMB: When you stand out on the front steps and look across the street, you see the Erma Byrd Hall – obviously, Mrs. Byrd.
The obvious question is, why is it named Erma Byrd Hall?
SMOCK: Well, that was another – this campus has several projects that have been – that have come through Senator Byrd’s office and his efforts. And one of them is a modern nursing center named for Mrs. Byrd. And that was about a $10 million facility that was dedicated about two years ago.
And also on campus is the Robert C. Byrd Science Center, which is a little older, but I think we dedicated that in about 1998 or 1999.
LAMB: In the end, is this what seniority gets you? Meaning, Bob Byrd’s been there for a long time.
SMOCK: I’m not sure it’s seniority that gets it. If you look around virtually every state in the union, you’re going to find senior members of Congress and people who have been on the Appropriations Committee and other key committees, who have highways named for them, bridges, federal buildings.
This is part of the legislative process. And some call it pork, and others call it well-placed money.
LAMB: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you this particular day is, there’s a big anniversary coming up in a few days. And it’s a record for Senator Robert C. Byrd.
Tell us …
SMOCK: Senator Byrd has so many records, because he’s been in Congress so long and has held every leadership position. But this is a big one. This is – on November 18th, he will become the longest-serving member of Congress ever, using his combined House and Senate service.
And that’s 20,774 days, which amounts to 56 years and 10 months and 16 days, thereabouts. I think that’s pretty accurate.
And so, he’s eclipsed everyone in terms of his length of service.
LAMB: Who did he just pass to become number one?
SMOCK: Carl Hayden held the record for his both House and Senate service. And Carl Hayden – he surpasses Carl Hayden by one day on November 18th, ties him on November 17th.
LAMB: And I notice that his birthday is two days later. He’ll be 92 years old.
SMOCK: Ninety-two on November 20th.
LAMB: He’s been in and out of the Senate, sick in the hospital some recently. Do you know what the current health condition is of Senator Byrd?
SMOCK: Well, he’s doing fine right now. He’s out of the hospital. He did have an infection that was – you know, it took him a while to get that straightened out. But he’s back. He’s been giving speeches about Afghanistan, and cautioning the president about making it clear exactly what we’re there – what would we be doing in Afghanistan.
And so he’s – and he’s recently chaired a Homeland Security session. And so, he’s back in the Senate, working in the Senate.
His overall attendance record for over 50 years is 97.9 percent.
LAMB: And nine terms.
SMOCK: No one has ever been elected to the Senate for nine terms. That’s – those are six-year terms. And he’s in his ninth term.
LAMB: Now, I shouldn’t ask you this question, because it would seem obvious what your answer would be. But is it a good idea for somebody to stay there that long?
SMOCK: You know, a lot of – an awful of members have served a great, long time. And there’s pros and cons on that, depending on who you talk to.
The members that I came across in my years as the House historian, I like the senior members best, the ones who had been there for 30 or 40 years. They had an understanding of the institution. They were steeped in the institution’s history, steeped in government, and usually were pretty wise souls. And I think of people in the House that are that way.
And throughout history, we’ve had people who have served for 30, 40, a few over 50 years. And ultimately, that’s not – that’s the decision of the people who elect them. And I’ve never been one for term limits, because I think that the people are the ones that ultimately have power to elect and unelect representatives and the senators.
LAMB: Why Shepherd University for the Byrd Center?
SMOCK: Shepherd University, because of its closer proximity to Washington, D.C., was an ideal spot for this center and for Senator Byrd’s papers, so it’d make it easier for researchers from D.C. to come out here. It also means that our programs related to Washington, D.C., at the Capitol, and at the National Archives, where the official congressional papers, the committee papers are stored, it makes for a nice arrangement, because we’re only an hour-and-a-half from the Capitol or the National Archives, where we’re sitting right now.
LAMB: What other papers do you have here?
SMOCK: We have Harley Staggers, who was a longtime House member from West Virginia, and Harley Staggers, Jr. We have those collections. They overlap Senator Byrd’s papers. There’s an awful lot of references to Senator Byrd in that collection.
That’s a collection that I got in a U-Haul truck and went over to Kaiser, West Virginia, and fished those out of a barn – with the family’s permission, of course. And they were sitting in a barn, virtually rotting away until we saved them and brought them here to the Byrd Center. And we’re glad to have those collections that really help fill out our collections.
LAMB: How many people work here?
SMOCK: We have three full-time people right now. And we have student workers, interns from time to time. And I’m looking to hire another archivist, which we’ll probably do after the first of the year.
LAMB: What’s your budget for a year? And who pays for it?
SMOCK: The budget is about $300,000 a year. And that comes from an endowment that we have, which is operated by the Shepherd University Foundation for us.
The Byrd Center is run and operated by Congressional Education Foundation, which is a 501c3 operation.
LAMB: And who’s your boss?
SMOCK: My boss is the chairman of the Congressional Education Foundation, who is Joe Stewart. And Joe was a former secretary of the United States Senate, and a longtime friend and associate of Senator Byrd – and many other senators, for that matter.
LAMB: Are the people here paid for by this foundation? Or are you …
LAMB: You’re not on the federal payroll.
SMOCK: We’re not on a federal payroll. We’re not on a state – we’re not on the university payroll.
LAMB: Who determined that Senator Byrd would get that kind of money to create a center like this? And what other centers are there like it with that kind of support around the country?
SMOCK: There are about – well, of course, there’s a group that we started. Actually, we started it here about six years ago. And that group is called the Association of Senators for the Study of Congress. There’s about 40 institutional members and a number of individual members that are part of that organization.
And they would include people like the – or institutions like the Carl Albert Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
LAMB: He was the speaker when?
SMOCK: He was the speaker in the, oh, 1950s and early ’60s. Well, no, a little later than that. Excuse me. He was in the ’60s.
LAMB: When you were historian in the House, who was the speaker?
SMOCK: Well, I served under three speakers – Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright and Tom Foley. And, well, I was hired by Speaker O’Neill in 1983.
LAMB: So, the Carl Albert center is in Norman, Oklahoma?
SMOCK: Norman, Oklahoma. The Carl Albert center collects widely. They have not only just Oklahoma collections, but they have 30 or 40 or 50 other congressional collections.
And some of the newer ones are the Howard Baker Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, that just opened its doors this year. And the Bob Dole Institute for Public Policy, and a number of others that …
LAMB: Well, who determines that – I mean, is it just the leadership that gets federal funding for these things? Because, for instance, I looked at the status of Speaker Sam Rayburn’s library down in Bonham, Texas …
SMOCK: Bonham, Texas.
LAMB: … which is run by the Texas Historical Society, and I gather got no federal money from anybody.
SMOCK: I’m not sure if there was federal money on there. There might have been for that building. It’s a pretty elaborate little building that sits out there in Bonham, with nice, big columns on it and everything.
LAMB: But who determines that a senator or a congressman will get a center like this?
SMOCK: That’s usually determined by Congress itself. The funds are appropriated, and usually to leaders. Congress has never really figured out a good way to deal with this issue.
Just last year, the House passed a resolution – well, a joint resolution – the House and Senate passed a resolution, saying that the papers, the private papers of members are very important, historical documents; efforts should be made to save them and preserve them for historical purposes.
We were all very glad when that passed. But that was a – no money attached to that. It was just a sense of Congress that this is a good idea.
But from time to time, money has been appropriated for the establishment of centers. Usually, there’s some sort of a pairing, as a matter of fact, when both Everett Dirksen Center – the Everett Dirksen Center is a wonderful center. They have all kinds of online services for teachers. And they’re one of the senior senators …
LAMB: And they have papers like Bob Michael’s and Ray Good …
SMOCK: They have Bob Michael’s papers. And part of their Web site is funded by a Bob and Michael Caron Foundation money.
And after Tip O’Neill passed away, there was the Tip O’Neill Center established, the Tip O’Neill Library at the University of Boston.
One of the newest ones that will come online in the next few years is the Ted Kennedy Center for the Study of the Senate, which will be built adjacent to the JFK Library.
LAMB: Who has access to this place?
SMOCK: Anybody – the public has access. We’re in the outreach business. All of these centers are interested in promoting a better understanding of Congress, using historical records to lay a foundation for good studies.
See, the official records of the Congress, of its committees, by law, go to the National Archives. And, of course, there’s a pretty good budget for that – not anywhere near the presidential library budget, but there is a budget. And there is a Center for Legislative Archives that officially keeps the records of the committees.
But all the private papers of the member, all their personal correspondence, all their office files, there’s no provision made for that, other than what can be found occasionally. Sometimes universities take it as part of their archives. Sometimes they want these papers, and then find when they get them, they arrive in two or three semi trailer trucks full of documents. They say, ”My gosh. Where are we going to put these? And we don’t have the money for them.”
And so, they end up sitting in a warehouse somewhere. So, we’re hoping to find a better way to address this problem in the future.
LAMB: What do you say to somebody that would look at this and say, these stacks here are full of papers that no one is ever going to look at, and they just sit there. And they have to be maintained, and it costs a lot of money. And what good is it for the public?
SMOCK: What good is it for the public is the importance of understanding representative democracy. And those of us who have been in these records and been through a lot of the papers, you really see how the members work, how Congress works.
And you have to rely on documentary records for historical purposes. And you can’t just, you know – it’s the fundamental touchstone for anybody that’s in the history field.
And sure, there’s a lot of junk in the papers. Part of the process that we go through when we asses a collection is to get rid of the old newspaper files and the extra copies of the Congressional Record, and get down to those records, correspondence between members and presidents of the United States, correspondence on major issues.
You also see how the members interacted with one another, the kind of notes that they sent back and forth to one another.
One of the letters that came in recently in our collection was President Reagan writing to Senator Byrd about giving partial immunity to Admiral Poindexter and Ollie North in the Iran-Contra hearings and investigation. And you see that level of information, which you might find some of that in the presidential libraries, but you won’t find all of it.
LAMB: How much of this is being digitized and placed on servers, so that people far away from here could just access it?
SMOCK: That’s the goal. That’s the future. That’s the future of these collections.
Only a handful of people really need to see the originals when they’re doing really basic research. The rest of the public will be better served if these things are placed in digital files and made accessible.
LAMB: Are you doing that now?
LAMB: How long a process is that?
SMOCK: Oh, that’s going to be a long process. Of course, in Senator Byrd’s case, he’s still in office. We don’t have all his papers.
And we also have a lot of microfilm records, 1,600 reels of microfilm, which will have to be digitized. And we’ve got to look at all that. Every one of these centers faces various degrees of problems.
LAMB: So, what do you have that’s available for the public to see? And what do you not have that’s still not there yet?
SMOCK: Well, we have a good part of Senator Byrd’s collection here, but we don’t have all of it.
LAMB: But I mean, what determines – how close to this year do you have, for instance? Is it – you know, for instance, are you up to 2005? Or how does it – how do they determine in Senator Byrd’s office that it’ll come here and be available?
SMOCK: Usually when they’re no longer active office files. And there’s a process that most members use. They have a period of time where they have courtesy storage at the National Archives at a warehouse in Suitland, Maryland. And at the end of a congress, they can move certain groups of their records, usually 200 or 300 boxes at a time, to Suitland, Maryland.
And then, we will go to Suitland, Maryland, or we will have a truck go to Suitland, Maryland, and bring them out here. Or sometimes the material comes directly to us. And so, we’re still a work in progress.
Other senators have collections where they pretty much processed a lot of them. And, of course, a lot of them have been in operation longer than us.
LAMB: How often does Senator Byrd come here?
SMOCK: He’s been here three or four times, usually to give speeches on campus or to dedicate a building. And the last time the two of us sat together, Senator Byrd and I in this room, was about three years ago.
LAMB: You were historian of the House of Representatives for how many years?
SMOCK: For 12 years.
LAMB: When was – were you the first historian?
SMOCK: Yes. I was the first official historian hired by the House.
LAMB: Whose idea was it?
SMOCK: That was – actually, it really, probably came as a result of the fact that the Senate had created an office in 1976. And the Senate leadership established that office. And as a result of that and the good work that that office started doing, the House wanted to establish a similar operation.
But it wasn’t until 1982 that the bill came forward. And then it was defeated at the last minute by members who said, we don’t need a historian. We don’t need to copy the Senate. But then, in ’82 it failed. In ’83 it passed, and with the idea that we would be there long enough to plan for the bicentennial of Congress six years later. And then it would be – it would be a temporary office.
And then, six years later, in 1989, the office was made permanent. And a lot of the objections that were made earlier about establishing the office had gone away.
LAMB: Correct me where I’m wrong. Born in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
LAMB: Grew up in Harvey, Illinois, outside of Chicago. Went to Roosevelt University. Got a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.
LAMB: What did I miss?
SMOCK: Well, that’s about it.
LAMB: So, you came out of the University of Maryland a historian. Define that. What is a historian?
SMOCK: A historian is someone who recycles stories about the past, and keeps alive important stories that we need to understand ourselves.
I always like the phrase that the great Roman historian and orator, Cicero, said. ”To remain ignorant of history is to remain always a child.”
So, the historical dimension is important. I discovered history as an undergraduate. And it was the civil rights movement that got me excited, and I wanted to know more about the whole history of African Americans. And I wanted to know how things got this way, and found it to be a fascinating story. And I never gave up on it.
LAMB: Was there anything in your past that would have been the kind of thing that triggered your interest?
SMOCK: Yes. I had – before I went to Roosevelt University, I attended a community college. And I had a professor there that was just absolutely dynamite. And he taught without using a textbook. He taught by using documents. We read original material, and then discussed it.
LAMB: What was his name?
SMOCK: His name was Dale Chapman. And, in fact, I went back for his retirement party just about seven or eight years ago, and gave a talk about how important he was in my development as a historian.
LAMB: Give us an example of the kind of things he would do. And did he have the same impact on others that were in the class?
SMOCK: Oh, yes, I think he did. I mean, I’m not sure how many of them went on and became professional historians.
But he would expect us to get into the language. And I had him for British history and U.S. history. And we were reading all of these, you know, medieval documents and trying to get into the language of them and understand them. He said you have to understand the period. Of course, he would talk about the context of these documents.
So, he would provide the story around the document and expect us to get something out of a document. And I just found that – you know, this is fundamental stuff. You go right to the document. This was like the mother lode.
It wasn’t some authority in a textbook telling you what to think. You were discovering these things yourself.
LAMB: How much teaching do you do here at Shepherd?
SMOCK: I usually teach one course a semester. I teach U.S. survey. I teach a public history course. I also teach U.S. Reconstruction history. Usually, those are the courses I teach.
LAMB: What’s U.S. survey?
SMOCK: That could be either the first half of American history up to the Civil War, or the Civil War up to present.
LAMB: Do you use any of the same techniques that your past professor used?
SMOCK: I like to use documents. I like to have – I like to use reading books that have authentic voices and let them tell their stories.
I’ve always been – most of my career I’ve been a documentary editor. I worked on the, earlier in my career, on the Booker T. Washington papers, where we published 14 volumes of the papers of the African American leader and educator, Booker T. Washington.
LAMB: I have your book on my lap here, ”Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow.”
Before we talk about this book, how did you get interested in Booker T. Washington? Where was that moment?
SMOCK: Actually, that moment goes back, strangely enough, to when I was about eight years old. And my uncle, who was a truck driver, came to visit, and he presented me with this coin that he’d gotten in change.
And it was an odd coin. It was actually a commemorative half dollar minted in 1946, showing a picture of Booker T. Washington on one side, and a slave cabin on the other side. And it said, ”From slave cabin to hall of fame.”
And so, I didn’t know anything about Booker T. Washington. I was a budding coin collector at the time. But so, this was a special coin. I started finding out about him.
I took the coin to school and did it for my show-and-tell. So, actually, probably one of the historical presentations I ever made was on Booker T. Washington.
But it was many years later, just almost by accident that, when I was at Roosevelt University, one of the top scholars of Booker T. Washington was there, August Meier. And Meier had just published a seminal book in the field, the first one to really get into the Booker T. Washington papers. And so, I studied under him, and that renewed my interest in Washington.
I went to graduate school, and by coincidence, on my first day in class there, the first day at the campus, I met Louis Harlan, who was just beginning a two-volume study of Booker T. Washington and was about to launch the Booker T. Washington project. I worked with Louis for many, many years. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for the second volume of his two-volume biography.
LAMB: I took one big thing away from your book.
SMOCK: What was that?
LAMB: The speech.
SMOCK: Which speech was that? The Atlanta Compromise?
LAMB: The Atlanta Compromise speech. But in order to get to that moment and ask you why you focus so much on that, give us some brief background on who Booker T. Washington was. When did he live? And, obviously, the Tuskegee story and how he started that.
SMOCK: Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856 on a small farm in Virginia, and then was freed, you know, in 1865 when the Civil War was over.
And he and his family then moved to Malden, West Virginia, where even as a young boy, he was a laborer in the salt furnaces there. This was the big salt industry where you evaporated salt, and then packed the salt in barrels. And so, he worked as a child, as a child laborer.
And then, he had a tremendous drive to learn how to read – to learn to read and write, as many did, you know, the first generation of freed slaves. In most places, it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write. So, the desire to learn how to read the Bible, for example, was very strong. And so, a lot of schools popped up.
He was very good at that, and later became – went to Hampton Institute in Virginia.
LAMB: Right down near Norfolk.
SMOCK: Near Norfolk. And then was picked to start a normal school for black teachers in Alabama. And so, at the age of 25, he’s off to Alabama to start a school.
There was nothing there when he got there. There was no buildings, no books, no nothing. And he had to start from scratch. And he built Tuskegee Institute, which became a model of industrial education in that region and in the world. He became a famous educator.
And he was also a shrewd politician. And he became an advisor on Republican matters to several Republican presidents, including, most importantly, Theodore Roosevelt.
LAMB: The story of the speech. How did it happen? And there was a five-minute speech in this process before he got to the other Atlanta speech, which got a lot of attention for some reason. Build up to that.
SMOCK: Washington was – he was a good orator, so he was giving a lot of speeches in the South. But he really wanted to reach the white South with his message.
And so, one time he was offered an opportunity to come South to speak. He was in Boston at the time, speaking up there. He got on a train, went all the way back to Alabama, gave a speech that lasted two minutes, just because he wanted to be there. He got back on the train, the next train back, and he went back to Boston.
So, you know, he talks about how he traveled 1,000 miles to give a two-minute speech.
LAMB: But you say there was no record of the speech.
SMOCK: The speech itself we don’t have. We have accounts of it in newspapers. And so, we pieced together his message from those newspaper accounts.
But his speech then in Atlanta in 1895, in Atlanta, Georgia, that was the speech that launched him as a national figure. So, even though he has worked hard all of his life to make things happen, suddenly he’s launched overnight into national leadership.
LAMB: Had he been to this – had Tuskegee been built?
SMOCK: Yes. Tuskegee was opened in 1881. So, he’d been at that for 14 years already, and he was building a reputation as his school grew. And he was frequently going to the North, because he was raising money. He was on the road most of the time, raising money for his school.
LAMB: His father was white?
SMOCK: His father was white. He never knew who he was. We guess it was probably one of the young men on a nearby farm. But we don’t know. He never knew anything about his father, never learned anything about his father – never was interested in knowing.
LAMB: And who was his mother?
SMOCK: His mother was a slave on the Burroughs farm. James Burroughs was a veteran of the War of 1812. And he had a half-a-dozen slaves on his property. And it was not a plantation, it was a small, hardscrabble, make-ends-meet kind of farm.
LAMB: So, what year did he make this speech in Atlanta?
LAMB: What was the politics of the country at that time? And what was the organization that invited him to speak, and why?
SMOCK: In 1895, the racial climate in the country was actually deteriorating, as more and more states legalized and implemented what they called Jim Crow laws that segregated the races. And this was trend that began during Reconstruction in the 1870s, and then just continued.
Well, by the 1890s, it was considerably well entrenched. Many of the states were rewriting their state constitutions to keep blacks from voting. And most of the politicians in the South were openly white supremacists, who argued that, elect me, and I will make sure that the white man stays on top.
LAMB: What was a Jim Crow railroad car?
SMOCK: Well, that would be a segregated car. That would be a car where black people would ride in the Jim Crow car.
LAMB: And so …
SMOCK: And usually it was, until they put separate cars on, it would be the smoking car. It would be someplace that you might not want to be anyhow.
LAMB: Would whites be allowed on there?
SMOCK: Yes, whites could go anywhere. But blacks couldn’t go anywhere.
LAMB: So, the Atlanta speech was at what occasion? What was there?
SMOCK: This was the big Cotton States and International Exposition, which was a huge fair which was trying to showcase the South.
Remember, in 1893, Chicago had this great World’s Fair, which got a lot of national attention. And as a result of that, the South wanted to sort of do something for the South like the Chicago Fair.
And so, they created this big fair. They had a separate negro building, which would be where exhibitions from Tuskegee, from other black schools in the South would be segregated, but it would be – they would be on display.
And then the question is, for the opening day ceremonies, do you have a black man speak to a largely white audience? It hadn’t been done on that scale before. But Booker T. Washington was invited by the trustees of the fair, with a lot of back – you know, a lot of efforts and lobbying going on in the back, to make sure that – they wanted him first to give the opening ceremony at the negro building. But then they moved it to the whole fair.
So, it was high drama. The newspapermen were all gathered, because a black man was going to speak to a largely white audience. Of course, there was a separate Jim Crow section. There were blacks in the audience, but they were segregated.
LAMB: Now, how well known was he across the country at the time?
SMOCK: By 1895, he was well known throughout the South and in the North as a leading educator of African Americans in the South.
LAMB: Did he have a point of view that everybody knew about?
SMOCK: Yes. He was basically a – he believed that education was the key to success, and that African Americans needed, basically, to learn how to read and write, get out of the poverty of slavery, get jobs in the trades. So, this was sort of the industrial education idea.
LAMB: But there were two camps at the time, as I remember from your book. I mean, where was William E.B. DuBois at that time?
SMOCK: At that time, at the time of the Atlanta address that Booker T. Washington gave, DuBois thought it was a good idea. His opposition came several years later. But at the time of the Atlanta address, the person who would become his chief critic among African Americans later, wrote him a letter and said, ”This is a word fitly spoken.” So, he actually praised Washington.
LAMB: Was that speech written down anywhere?
SMOCK: Yes. We have – the original is still at Tuskegee. It’s not a complete speech, but it’s in Booker T. Washington’s handwriting.
He didn’t use any notes. He had memorized it when he got up. It was about a six or seven minute speech.
But here, what he did was, in this atmosphere of racial segregation, he got up and said he wanted to – he would offer a compromise with the South, that African Americans would not agitate for civil rights, and they would not agitate for social equality. And he raised his hand. He said, we can be as separate as the five fingers in all things that relate to social life. But as one, as the fist, as the hand, in all things essential for mutual progress.
So, basically, he was saying, give us a chance for an education. Give us a chance to get decent jobs, and we won’t worry about agitating for civil rights. We won’t worry about social equality. Sitting next to a white person at an opera house was not important; getting a job was.
Well, that was the compromise. It was later called the Atlanta Compromise.
At the time, everybody just roared with the success of this thing.
LAMB: The whites and the blacks?
SMOCK: And the blacks. Everybody. It was bedlam when he finished his speech, because he had hit a tone. He had tried to find a balancing act between the virulent racism of the South, and the need for social and political and economic advancement by African Americans.
LAMB: When did that philosophy turn sour?
SMOCK: Well, it had its critics almost from the beginning. But certainly, by 1900, five years later, and certainly by 1903, when DuBois wrote his magnificent ”The Souls of Black Folk,” which had an essay in it condemning Booker T. Washington for giving away too much.
And then, there were other groups that came along later, in 1905 and 1906, the Niagara Movement, which was those who were moving away from Booker T. Washington’s view, and then the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, in 1909.
Washington stayed true to his message in 1895 for the next 20 years of his life. And so, by the time the civil rights movement came along in the 1960s, some said Booker T. Washington is an Uncle Tom, he’s someone who sold out the race. He betrayed the race, because he wouldn’t agitate for civil rights.
LAMB: You paint a picture of William E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington being on the campus of Tuskegee, and that actually, DuBois would come to this school. And even though they virulently disagreed at that point, they got along somehow.
SMOCK: Washington tried to hire DuBois to come to Tuskegee, as late as 1903, the same year that he published ”The Souls of Black Folk.”
And Washington’s third wife, Maggie Washington, was a friend of DuBois from their school days at Wilberforce. And so, there was part of the family where there was a friendship there that went back to school days.
They were political rivals. They were never complete enemies.
DuBois lived another 50 years beyond Booker T. Washington, so he kept, you know, kept the division alive. But I think they really did represent two completely divergent views. DuBois said, we’ve got to have political rights or we’re not going to get anywhere. Freedom depends on political rights, on the right to vote.
LAMB: On a personal thing, you said that he married three different women, that all three of them came from Tuskegee.
SMOCK: Well, his first wife was a high school sweetheart from Malden, West Virginia. And he married her in West Virginia, and then she came down to Tuskegee and was one of the early faculty members.
And she died shortly thereafter in an accident. It’s confusing exactly what she died of, but she passed away very soon, either from internal injuries from a fall off a wagon, is the best possible thing.
And then he married a second wife. She came to Tuskegee. She came from Ohio, and she became the lady principal at Tuskegee. And then his third wife as lady principal at Tuskegee, Margaret Washington, who outlived Booker T. Washington.
LAMB: Come back to the Byrd Center and one of the projects you’re working on when it comes to the techniques of history. You say you have a project investigating the investigations of Congress.
SMOCK: Yes. Back in 1975, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Roger Bruns did a five-volume study of congressional investigations. And what it did was bring together scholarly essays on important investigations, documents and bibliography, so that you could do further research. It was designed as a reference.
We were asked, here at the Byrd Center, to do a new edition of that, in two volumes.
LAMB: Who asked?
SMOCK: The publisher in New York, Facts On File, who knew of my background as a congressional historian and a documentary editor, so they came to me.
Luckily, I was able to get my good friend, Roger Bruns, who I’ve known – he was the deputy director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives. So, Roger came back on as part of the editorial team. And David Hostetter on my staff is also one of the editors.
LAMB: So, what’s the timeframe on this? And what are we going to learn when it’s all over?
SMOCK: Well, what we’ve got is, we start with 1792, the first congressional investigation. And we go all the way up to the Katrina investigation of what happened after, in the aftermath of the New Orleans hurricane.
I think what we find is how important congressional investigations are. And the power of Congress to investigate has been crucial at various times in our history.
And also, what we see in recent times is that Congress has not used this power very effectively over the last 10, 15, 20 years. It hasn’t, simply – a lot of its investigations, a lot of its hearings are more window-dressing, seem to be more politically motivated, and not really thorough.
LAMB: How often do you find – like right now, the Democrats control Congress – that the Democrats control the White House, that they investigate the White House while they’re in power? Or does it take a Congress of a different political party than the White House in order to get an investigation?
SMOCK: Well, the trend in modern times is that, if you’re – if the president is of a different party, Congress is more likely to investigate.
LAMB: Is that good or bad?
SMOCK: That’s hard to say as a generality. I think you have to get down to the individual investigation. What is the investigation about?
During the Bush years, there were very few investigations, even though the Congress and the presidency were in the same hands.
LAMB: But starting in 2006, I remember there were a lot more investigations of the Bush administration after the Democrats took control again.
SMOCK: Well, there was a lot more talk about investigations. And then, you know, but none of them have really gone very far, so far.
LAMB: Why is that, do you think?
SMOCK: I don’t know. I think – well, partly, it seems to me that one of President Obama’s desires was to look forward and not backward, and that it would just only add to the terrible partisanship that we’ve got, if suddenly, Congress started ripping into President Bush over the start of the war, for example.
There was talk or saber-rattling about holding serious investigations about how we got into the war in Iraq, and all the various lies and misleading information that was part of that whole scenario.
But that hasn’t happened.
LAMB: So, what have you learned so far?
SMOCK: As I say, I’ve learned about how powerful the investigation process can be.
LAMB: Do you have one in mind that was more powerful than others?
SMOCK: Well, you could go through all of American history. One of the most interesting, in some ways, is Harry Truman investigating the defense industry during World War II, and getting away with it.
And here he is. He’s a Democrat in the Senate, investigating Franklin Roosevelt’s activities and spending in the war, bringing top defense contractors in and putting them on the carpet, and saving the country billions of dollars when they looked at some of these contracts and how they were let. And also saving the lives of American troops and airmen, who were flying in airplanes where the wings and the engines were falling off, for gosh sakes.
And they would bring in somebody like Curtiss of Curtiss Aircraft. And he’d say, ”We’re building them to specs.”
And Truman would say, ”Well, the specs are wrong if the wings fall off, don’t you think?”
And now, imagine us trying to conduct a hearing like that today in the middle of a war, where Congress, even its own party, would take on how these wars are being conducted. It seems like they’re off limits, almost.
LAMB: Well, we did have, though, a lot of attention to the humvees and the lack of the up-armor and things like that.
SMOCK: Yes, they did, and relatively small things – big in terms – if you’re in one of those humvees, no question about it. But in terms of looking at all the no-bid contracts that were let in the Iraq war, no, we haven’t touched that.
LAMB: By the way, when is this going to be published?
SMOCK: It’ll be published next spring.
LAMB: In what kind of a volume?
SMOCK: It’ll be two volumes. And it’s called, ”Congress Investigates.” And Facts On File, Inc., in New York will be the publisher.
LAMB: Will it be expensive?
SMOCK: I have no idea. It’s designed for library reference, and I have no idea what the price is going to be.
LAMB: As a historian, put this in perspective. You go back and read about Sam Rayburn, longest-serving speaker in history, 17 years, and you find that he literally wouldn’t take anything from anybody. He wouldn’t even take a free train ride if he was going somewhere. You know, he wouldn’t take a free meal. I mean, it really – it looks like that he was either the end of an era, or the beginning of an era.
What happened from that kind of a speaker to what happened later on, when we’ve got airplanes being put aside for speakers, and all that kind of stuff. What changed?
SMOCK: I’m not sure. Sam Rayburn, of course, was legendary for being scrupulous about money and paying his own – he did a tour of the Panama Canal one time. He paid for his own trip down there.
And there’s – and I’ve observed many members myself and I’ve seen them in history. There are some people that have a real good moral compass about these kinds of things, and they stick to it. I think Senator Byrd is in that category.
But the moral compass shifts. Money is everywhere in politics, but far more than it ever was. It’s always been important in politics. You can’t deny that.
But politics is mass media now, and mass media costs money.
And all these other perks you’ve got. Look what’s going on in the corporate world, where you have $100 million or even $1 billion bonuses, and these corporate guys flying around on jets, and so on. In order for them to do that, you know, they’re supposed to be watching the bottom line for their stockholders. Well, they’re doing something if they can get away with all that.
Society, it seems, has changed. And money’s influence has just infiltrated everything. And it’s the new media and the new way we look at politics that is part of that.
LAMB: What was your last year as historian of the House of Representatives?
SMOCK: 1995, January of ’95.
LAMB: Are you ever going to write that story?
SMOCK: While I was there, I kept a journal, which is about 2,000 single-spaced pages. I’ve thought about – and I kept a record of things that I saw, things that I was doing. We were celebrating the bicentennial with the United States Congress. We were interacting with all kinds of folks at the Supreme Court and in Congress. And I was part of the speaker’s office. My office was attached to the speaker.
So, I did have a bird’s eye view of a lot that was going on. And I was frequently on the floor for all kinds of interesting things, and all the State of the Union speeches, and things.
Someday, maybe. I’m not sure if that’s a story in itself, but I could publish this as a journal, or if I would just simply write a different kind of story.
LAMB: What about the history of your ”firing”? I know that’s harsh language. But, I mean, you were let go …
SMOCK: No, it’s not harsh …
LAMB: … by a Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich, after you served three Democratic speakers.
SMOCK: Yes, when the Republican take-over of the House came in 1994, the election of ’94, and in ’95, when an awful lot of people changed. And that’s not surprising.
This was the first time in 40 years that Republicans had been in the majority of the House. And they had – they were euphoric. They had all kinds of reasons to celebrate the fact that they were not in the minority, for the first time in their lifetime, of a lot of these members who served in the minority their whole careers.
So, it’s not surprising that a lot of folks would be fired. And since I was part of the speaker’s office and served at the pleasure of the speaker, I was one of the first that could be fired under the rules of the House.
And Newt Gingrich wanted to bring his own person in. And so, I was let go. I didn’t know that until December 17th, and then two weeks later I was gone.
LAMB: Who told you?
SMOCK: I got it as a mimeographed letter from the House Administration Committee.
LAMB: Mimeographed letter?
SMOCK: A mimeographed letter. It wasn’t even signed by original – it wasn’t an original letter.
LAMB: What did it say?
SMOCK: It said that, after January 4th, your services will no longer be necessary. It was almost like a form letter.
LAMB: And what was your reaction? Did you expect it?
SMOCK: Well, yes, we sort of expected it. But we didn’t know for sure until December.
The Republican transition group, headed by Jim Nussle, interviewed everybody, partly to find out what they were doing, why they were there. And the last thing that the Republican transition team asked me to do was to prepare a memo on how to run a history office, if I was to have, you know – he set it up as, as you think you would really want to run a history office, what should be in a history office?
Well, I prepared a memo, and gave it to him. And that was basically the last thing I was asked to do.
LAMB: What’s the current status of the historian of the House?
SMOCK: Actually, it took several years. Newt’s person that he hired was fired a week later, because she got into trouble with the press.
LAMB: Professor Jeffrey?
SMOCK: Jeffrey, Christina Jeffrey. And so, Newt didn’t want that on his plate when he was first speaker.
So, then the office stayed empty. It stayed in the rules that there should be a historian, but it stayed empty for a long time.
Slowly, the House clerk began to take on some of those services with some of his folks. And then, during Denny Hastert’s speakership, there was interest in having a history of the House of Representatives written. And they hired the distinguished historian, Bob Remini, Robert Remini, a scholar of Jackson, Henry Clay, the early national period.
And he came in and started out as a contract job, basically, to write the history. But then, he was appointed historian about the time that the book was completed.
And he remains the House historian to this day. He’s not there very often, as I understand.
In the meantime, however, the House has created a wonderful Office of History and Preservation, which is headed by Farar Elliott, who you’ve had on C-SPAN from time to time, and has a nice staff. She’s a curator. There’s an archivist, Robin Reeder, who’s active in the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress; Matt Wisniewski, who’s a first-class historian and writer.
And so, they have a very nice office, and they’re doing a lot of the things that my office was doing. So, I’m very happy to see that the House has paid attention to its history.
LAMB: The last question. How long are you going to keep doing this?
SMOCK: I’m going to do this as long as I can, because I love what I’m doing.
And I think I still have a few more books in me. Once I get some of these big projects out of the way, I might take up what you suggest and do something about my years as House historian.
I’m also thinking – my publisher, who did the Booker T. Washington book, Ivan Dee, in Chicago, he and I have been talking about me doing a book on how politics has changed in the 24/7 news cycle. And he wants that view from a historian.
There’s been a number of books written about that, but I want to take a look at that, because I think it’s really important how partisanship has become so, so strong. And it’s fueled constantly by the 24-hour cable and talk show circuit.
Politics is a process. But you wouldn’t know that every day, whether you’re listening to the left or the right. They’re just jumping on each other. And I think that has a detrimental effect on politics.
I recently listened to Jonathan Alter, who gave a wonderful lecture about his book on Franklin Roosevelt. And he talked about the changes in the news media. And the big change is, everything’s moving to talk radio and talk TV. And Fox News is just talk, talk, talk. And MSNBC is talk, talk, talk.
And what Jonathan Alter said was, talk is cheap. Investigation, an investigative reporter is expensive.
LAMB: Ray Smock, director of the Byrd Center here in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, thank you very much.
SMOCK: My pleasure, Brian.