–by Joanna Hallac
As promised, here is the second part to my sit down with Congressman Jason Altmire, third-term Democrat from Pennsylvania’s 4th district. If you enjoyed the first half of the interview, my guess is you’ll like the second half even more, as it is filled with some fun and interesting historical anecdotes. The Congressman’s devotion to history as a means through which to view and solve our current problems is a model that should be used by more elected officials, business leaders, and the like as we continue to navigate our way through the rapidly changing and often challenging 21st century.
I again thank the Congressman for his willingness to sit down with me and share some of his insights about how history impacts his job as a member of the House of Representatives, as well as some of his favorite stories about Congress and the Capitol. I hope you enjoy the conclusion to his interview, as I believe you will.
JH: So, how much do you think history impacts your job, if at all?
Congressman Altmire: Well, every day. It impacts the precedent, it impacts the process, it impacts the way we all think about it. The issues continue to reoccur. So, always.
JH: Right, good. So, who held your seat before you did?
Congressman Altmire: Melissa Hart was a three-term Republican member, and before that was a guy named Ron Klink. I could give you others before that, but Melissa Hart is who I beat in 2006, and then in ’08 she ran against me again.
JH: OK. Is there any historical significance to your particular district or your particular seat that people aren’t aware of?
Congressman Altmire: Well, I think there is a historical significance to the 4th district; it’s a technicality, you understand, but James Buchanan, when he was in Congress, represented the 4th district (of Pennsylvania). Now, it was a different part of the state at that point, but it was still the 4th district. So, if you look at a list of predecessors in the number four, he’s one of them, and so I like to make the claim that I hold seat the Buchanan did.
JH: As you should (laughing), good. Alright, so, I’m going to make you the high school history teacher for a second… if you were asked to teach a lesson, it could be history or government, but what period—and you had mentioned your favorite period—but what kind of a lesson would you teach and why?
Congressman Altmire: You mean unrelated to Congress, just history in general?
JH: Yeah, just history in general. American history, world history…
Congressman Altmire: How about if I phrase it this way—if I was to get a PhD in history and do my thesis or dissertation, I would do it on what we talked about with the Federalist Papers and the sort of lack of understanding of the dialogue. You start with the Philadelphia convention, which everybody knows, and Madison’s role in 1787. But then it goes to the states and all of the state capitals had these debates on the Constitution—and it was those same factions—and lastly the national debate with the Federalist Papers. I don’t think that story is well understood in history.
JH: Great. Alright…
Congressman Altmire: Oh, and while I’m thinking about it…
JH: Yeah, go ahead…
Congressman Altmire: …I should have thought about this, but on July 4th, I did an op-ed for our local paper on the Declaration of Independence and the travels it has made over time as a physical document. So it’s not the history or the theory behind it, but just where it’s been in the past 200 plus years. It [the op-ed] was in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette if you want to pull it up and look at it…you just might be interested in it.
Congressman Altmire: I did an open house—they had one for us members at the Archives—and they put out all of these documents and the Declaration was there. It just occurred to me, you know, “ok here it is, how do we know, you know, what happened between 1776 and now,” and he [the guide from the Archives] said, “well, I’ll give you some information,” and he gave me this huge document on all of the places it’s been, so, yeah, it’s a great story.
JH: Yeah, that’s great. And that’s something that people don’t probably think about when they think of the Declaration.
Congressman Altmire: No, and it’s really interesting how it was mistreated over the years.
JH: Yeah, I bet.
Congressman Altmire: They hung it for 35 years across from an open window with direct access to sunlight in just a glass frame, and that’s why it’s so faded now.
JH: Yeah, I’ve gone there [the National Archives] a few times and it is just so tough to actually see it because it’s so faded.
Congressman Altmire: It used to be stored in a rolled format, you know you just roll it up and put it away (mimicking rolling up a document), so…
JH: I’m sure the poor people at the Archives shudder to think of that. OK, so since you’ve been a member of Congress, what’s your favorite congressional anecdote or story of congressional history that you’ve heard?
Congressman Altmire: Yeah, there are so many, but the one I tell on—I’ll give Capitol Tours, right? This is one, so it might not be my favorite, but this is a good one, and it is that Rayburn “Board of Education” room…you know that room? Right underneath on the first floor (of the Capitol).
Congressman Altmire: So, there’s all kind of, I’m a big fan of Lyndon Johnson, so I’ve read a lot about him and he spent a lot of time in that room, which is interesting in and of itself, but the story I tell about that room, which you probably know, is the time Harry Truman came in; he was Vice President, and he had just presided over the Senate.
So he walked downstairs and walked all the way across and walked in the room and they said, “Hey Harry, you have a phone call from the White House—it sounds pretty important, you ought to call them back.” So he picks up the phone and he calls back and he just turns, according to the people in the room, he just turns ghost white and says, “I’ll be right there.” He hangs up the phone, he says, “I gotta go,” he turns and he runs. They could hear his heels clicking because of the marble floors as he was running into the distance, fading, and then he makes the right turn to go out and gets into the car and he goes to the White House, and they greet him as Mr. President. And you think that that moment occurred in that room right there, and we walk past it every day. That’s a pretty significant moment in American history.
JH: Yeah, that’s a good story.
Congressman Altmire: And also the John Adams story or I mean Quincy Adams, John Quincy Adams, and the spot where his desk was when he collapsed.
JH: Yes, that’s an often-cited story, and certainly a good one, and one I like to tell for sure.
Congressman Altmire: And if you, especially late at night cause we can walk through after the tourists leave, and it’s just quiet, nobody around. And so you walk past that old Senate chamber you can hear the echoes of all of those folks we mentioned.
JH: Wow, yeah, sure. What’s your favorite part of the Capitol building?
Congressman Altmire: Hmm…Well, just as a citizen I’m sentimental to the House chamber just because I’ve had a wonderful experience there; but I would probably say the old Senate chamber or Statuary Hall because that was the House chamber. When I first got here, December of 1990 was my interview for the job that I started, and security, of course, was different then and you could walk around. It was around Christmas time, so no one was around and I remember as a 22 year old, walking into that Statuary Hall for the first time and looking at those statues, and you can see them and you think about the history.
I like the current statuary hall too, not just the history of it but the significance of the different eras that are represented there. And you have people like Jefferson Davis who many people would say probably doesn’t deserve to have a statue, but he’s there because that’s who Mississippi chose. And you have Huey Long, and you have Hannibal Hamlin, and all the different parts of history there.
JH: Yeah, it’s quite a collection, the Statuary Hall Collection, and it’s interesting to see all the choices that all the states made… yeah they are always fun to look at. So, I came up with one other question just this morning…um, just in terms of down the road, when—
Congressman Altmire: Let me—
JH: Yeah, go ahead
Congressman Altmire: Just on the last one because this is a good thing if you haven’t done this. Outside the House chamber on the side that is closer to the Rayburn building, not the side that comes out towards the Library of Congress but the other side, there is a bust of an Indian, an American Indian, and he’s looking up, and he’s bronze I guess, and he’s looking up, but he’s got a very sad sort of look on his face. And when you turn around and look at the big picture that’s on the wall [that he’s looking at], it’s of the expansion of the American West (the painting is titled, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, by Emaneul Leutz), and it’s kind of a hat tip to the fact that we didn’t handle that situation as well as we should have.
JH: Oh, wow…I never knew that.
Congressman Altmire: Yeah, and the Capitol has so many of those things that you would never know when you walk by. But it’s an acknowledgment, an overt acknowledgment that, you know, that we understand that this is part of our history.
JH: I never knew that…that’s great.
Congressman Altmire: Check it out the next time you’re in the Capitol.
JH: Yeah, I definitely will, thank you. And so, like I was saying, just thinking about what, in terms of, you know, we’re talking about history here, when people look back upon your years in public office, what is it that you hope stands out to them or that they’ll say about you. Kind of like, how would you hope history will judge you, I guess.
Congressman Altmire: Yeah, well, I would want them to know that I served my district first. These are momentous times, so who knows how history is going to write about this period that we live in, but just that I was here, that I was a part of it, and there have been some big issues that I’ve been pretty heavily involved in like the health care bill last year, we played a pretty big role in that. Pennsylvania, and our area in particular were very important in the presidential primary in 2008, so as a super delegate we played a pretty big role in that too. So there’s some things that I think maybe, in a very small way, we influenced history in this period.
JH: Yeah, well, no matter happens you’re down in the books.
Congressman Altmire: Yeah.
JH: Great. So that’s it, and I don’t know if there’s anything else you want to add, but that’s all I have.
Congressman Altmire: No, I think we’ve covered it.
JH: Great, thanks so much.
If you’ve been following our blog regularly (we hope you have been, but if not why not start today?) you may have noticed that prior to the holidays I wrote and posted a story about the Rayburn Board of Education room referenced by Congressman Altmire in his interview and have subsequently obtained a photo of the room, as it currently appears, from the AOC’s office that I included in this post. That room, as you now know, certainly has some fascinating history that took place within its walls; as we often like to do here, we turned one interesting piece of a larger story into its very own blog post and research project as was done here with the Board of Education room, and for which we will be doing the same next week when we post a story about the bust of the Native American and the painting that the Congressman had referenced as well…be sure to stay tuned for that!
In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this latest interview in our “Insider’s Guide to Capitol Hill” series, and be on the lookout for more conversations to come in the future. If there is someone specific you would like to hear from, please let us know and we will try our best to accommodate your requests. If you have any insights or comments to share, again, we welcome the feedback. A final thanks to the Congressman and his staff, and be sure to keep reading our posts!