–by Joanna Hallac
Now that the holidays have come and gone and everyone is back to work, I thought it was time to return to our continuing series of interviews with various Capitol Hill insiders, with this being the third such installment. Congressman Jason Altmire, a third-term Democrat from Pennsylvania’s fourth district, sat down with me before the holidays to talk history; we ended up having a rather lengthy and enjoyable conversation (in fact, due to the length of the conversation, we have decided to post it in two parts).
Congressman Altmire’s district is in the western portion of Pennsylvania, an area steeped in the history of America’s Industrial Revolution, something the Congressman is most certainly aware of, not only because he is from the Pittsburgh area, but because he happens to be a history junkie with a fondness for that very period in our nation’s past. As will become clear throughout my interview with him, Congressman Altmire is one elected official that is highly attuned to the important role that history plays in all of our lives, especially for members of Congress, who more than anyone must be willing and able to learn the lessons that history has to offer as they attempt to guide our country through some tough economic, social, and political times.
I hope you enjoy reading the first part of our exchange and that you will return in a few days to catch its conclusion!
JH: OK, so I obviously have your home state and district, but where did you go to school, go to college?
Congressman Altmire: I went to Florida State for college and I got my Master’s at George Washington.
Congressman Altmire: And I got my undergraduate degree in political science and my Master’s degree is in health administration.
JH: Oh, ok. And you were in health care before you ran?
Congressman Altmire: Yeah, health policy and I was a staffer here. When I was at college at FSU, I worked on a political campaign after I graduated, a challenger running against an incumbent. He won and brought me up to DC with him, and I worked on his staff for six years doing his health care policy.
At night, I went to school at GW to get my Master’s degree. When he (Congressman Douglas “Pete” Peterson, FL-2) went on to become ambassador of Vietnam, I moved over to the Federation of American Hospitals here in town and did that for two and half years. I then went home to Pittsburgh and worked at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center from ’98 to ’05, and then I ran for this seat.
JH: Excellent! And before I forget, I think I remember reading that you played football at FSU, right?
Congressman Altmire: Yes, yes.
JH: Nice, very nice. I was a college athlete, certainly not anywhere close to that level, but I can certainly appreciate it.
Congressman Altmire: Well, I’m sure you were closer to that than I was…I was pretty low on the totem pole.
JH: Yeah, I was kind of low on the totem pole too but it certainly sounds better to say you played football for FSU rather than playing soccer at Lafayette College.
Congressman Altmire: What position did you play?
Congressman Altmire: Oh really?
JH: Yeah, I’m a little short obviously, but the women can get away with that more than the men.
Congressman Altmire: Were you good?
JH: I was good enough, I guess, I mean I didn’t start, but it was fun; I really enjoyed playing sports in college. Anyway, so were you always interested in working in DC and in politics? Was this always a goal of yours?
Congressman Altmire: Yeah, well, I was always interested in history and politics growing up, but when I left D.C. in 1998 to go back to Pittsburgh, I thought I was putting politics behind me. I didn’t go home thinking I was ever going to come back, and certainly not in this capacity, so it was a surprise that I got back into it.
Once I turned 30, my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, so we said “you know, let’s start our life.” So we moved back home and got normal jobs, but eventually it worked out that I found my way back here.
JH: Good. And what led you to eventually run for the seat?
Congressman Altmire: I was pretty active in local boards and just traveling around; I had a job that took me out into the community, so I did a lot of work with different groups, and just heard different opinions about political issues and other issues. Then, after the ’04 election, I was disappointed in the outcome nationwide, but also in our district, and I sensed there was a lot of frustration out there.
So I spent the first six months of 2005 trying to find somebody else to run—talking to elected officials, local leaders, business folks—and nobody wanted to run. It was a heavily Republican district, there was an incumbent who was perceived to be very popular, and finally I just said, “If nobody else is going to do this then I’m going to do it myself,” and that’s how I got into it.
JH: Great, great. So, in going back to the history side of things, since we are from the historical society…
Congressman Altmire: See? [Pointing to his book shelves lined with biographies of historical figures] I put all of these books up here for you.
JH: (Both laughing) Perfect! In terms of your favorite kind of history, what’s your favorite period, area of the world, U.S.? What are you most into in terms of history?
Congressman Altmire: The short answer is that if I could go back and live in any period of time, which is, I think, kind of what you’re asking, it would be the late 1800s era, and I’ve always been interested in that period.
When I read books I purposely switch eras—I won’t read Adams and Jefferson back-to-back, but I’ll go from Adams to Woodrow Wilson to Reagan to Andrew Jackson because I just like to mix it up. In American history, of course, compared to world history we have a much shorter time span for our history, but I think that 1800s era is my favorite. Maybe it’s because I’m from Pittsburgh and it was the Industrial Revolution, but—you know, all of the old pictures of London from that period of time too, so it’s not just America—I’ve just always been interested in that era.
JH: Yeah, I enjoyed teaching the 19th century in world history. I actually taught a lot of world history in particular before coming here, but it was definitely an interesting time in the history of the world. So, why do you think history is so important?
Congressman Altmire: Well, it’s critical. You learn from the past so you don’t make the same mistakes in the present. And maybe it doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but the same situations occur over and over again, and if you don’t learn the lessons of the past you’re doomed to repeat them. I’m not the first to say that obviously.
You know, I think there are some people here that just don’t understand history. So, what you’ll find is—and this is not a partisan statement, this is just my observation of reality—that some of these Tea Party folks who came in claiming to represent the Constitution, and holding up the Constitution thinking that it’s their point of view, I don’t think they understand history. If you go back and read the Federalist Papers, which they [Tea Party] always quote—Madison, Jay, and Hamilton—this is what they say; however, that was a discussion, a national discussion, sort of the equivalent of a back and forth on an email at that time, with one side publishing something and then the other side responding. So, you had George Mason and Patrick Henry, folks like that on the other side, and if you go back—it was a very public debate—and read what the Patrick Henry group was saying, what the Anti-Federalists were saying, that sounds a lot more like the Tea Party than the Madison group.
Now, history is written by the winners so they have that point of view and that’s their frame of reference, and the current, modern folks read that and say, “oh that’s my point of view too;” but the George Mason and Patrick Henry crowd was saying, “I want you out of my life, I don’t want the government to be a part of anything, get it out. I don’t want any taxes, stay away from me and let me do my own thing.” That sounds a lot more like the Tea Party philosophy, so I don’t think they understand it.
Then a guy like Thomas Jefferson, who lived to be 83 years old, every waking moment, every thought he had he wrote down on paper from the time he was 16, so you can find something Jefferson said or wrote to back up anything. Over the course of anyone’s lifetime you change your mind, you have different frames of reference based upon what period you’re writing it in. And so they [Tea Party] go back and they pull quotes out from Jefferson, but you can just as easily do it from the other side, out of context no less.
JH: Sure, yeah. Do you think that history is…?
Congressman Altmire: …also, I would point out, if you don’t mind…
JH: …no, go ahead.
Congressman Altmire: Something like the immigration issue—you want to talk about history repeating itself, go back and look at what we said in WWII with the internment camps in relation to what happened after September 11th and there’s that. With illegal immigration along the southern border you could go back even further and look at the Italian immigrants and the Irish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. The Chinese immigrants on the West Coast were greatly mistreated when they first got here, which is a very similar analogy, and that was in the Theodore Roosevelt era that that happened. You can go back and pull one name out of the history books and insert a modern name and in a lot of cases it fits right in.
JH: In terms of education and what’s being taught in schools, do you think history is emphasized enough today in schools?
Congressman Altmire: It’s not. I’m on the education committee and we deal a lot with No Child Left Behind, where we only test in math, science, reading, and writing and we don’t test in history. So, schools have no incentive to teach history or to even ensure their students are competent in history because they don’t benefit from good scores and the students aren’t tested for it, which is a big mistake. I think that history and civics also need to be tested for, along with the arts, which are critically important. You know we talked about athletics before, and you hear so much about our obesity epidemic in this country, so physical education should be a part of any school experience. That’s a much longer discussion, however, but no, history isn’t emphasized enough.
JH: Oh yes and I have plenty to say myself on the issue of No Child Left Behind (laughing).
Congressman Altmire: Yes, I’m sure you do (laughing).
JH: How conscious are you of the history of Congress in your job on a daily basis?
Congressman Altmire: Well, I don’t know comparative to other members and certainly not to a historian how much depth I have on history, but I think I have a fair amount, and I do think about it all the time when I walk around. I mean, there are so many references to Henry Clay, and so I think about him. When I walk past the old Senate chamber and I can’t help but hear the echoes of Daniel Webster, even Andrew Jackson when he was a Senator, and all of those folks. So, yeah, I think about that, I think all of us do when we walk around. You can’t help but know that others have walked before you. That’s why I have that picture of Lincoln right there [pointing to a framed picture on his office wall] and that’s from when he was in the House.
JH: Yeah, I was going to say it must be from when he was quite young.
Congressman Altmire: Yeah, it’s not a well known picture and there are very few prints of those so I had to ask for a reprint of that. I just like that picture because it puts it into perspective, you know, he would obviously become something much greater than he was at that moment, but he served one term in the House, and you walk in Statuary Hall with his name on the floor tile where his desk was…
JH: …I know, and all the way in the back of Statuary Hall there and you realize, hey, he was just a regular representative when he was there.
Congressman Altmire: Yeah, just one term, that was it.
JH: And no one realized at that point what kind of impact he would have upon history at that point.
This concludes part one of my sit down with Congressman Jason Altmire, with the second half appearing on Friday. As I mentioned in the introduction to this interview, Congressman Altmire definitely has a firm grasp of history, which is on full display in the first portion of our conversation and will be just as evident in the second part. I hope you enjoyed this and that you check back Friday to hear about his favorite anecdote of congressional history, as well as some other fun and interesting stories from the Congressman that no history buff will want to miss!