The setting for Senate Historian Richard A. Baker’s retirement ceremony on August 6 was as grand as it was appropriate. Only a few steps from the Senate chamber, Room S-211 is one of the most elegant in the U.S. Capitol. Its grandeur radiates from above, where four magnificent frescos surround a gleaming crystal chandelier. Constantino Brumidi painted these ceiling lunettes during the Civil War era to represent the four fields of knowledge. One depicts History in the form of a woman recording the saga of the Revolutionary War while Father Time sits beside her.
For years, Dick Baker addressed the weekly Democratic Caucus luncheons in S-211, sharing "historical minutes" of the Senate’s rich past. Some of these lectures surely recounted the history of the room and the events that had occurred within its walls.
Although planned as the Library, S-211 initially served as the Senate Post Office before housing the District of Columbia Committee for almost a century. In 1958, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson appropriated it for his command post, and it became the scene of his legendary arm-twisting. To distinguish S-211 from LBJ’s collection of less opulent offices on Capitol Hill, staff members informally dubbed it "the Taj Mahal." It was officially designated the "Lyndon B. Johnson Room" after its most famous occupant moved to the White House.
The timing of Dick Baker’s retirement ceremony was also exquisite, as it immediately followed the Senate’s historic confirmation vote elevating Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The two Senate leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, who had sparred only moments before, now stood together along with a dozen of their colleagues to salute Baker, the longtime keeper of the Senate’s institutional memory.
History is important to a body that is shaped by tradition and governed by precedent. As Baker once observed, "When confronted with institutional change, the Senate instinctively looks to the steadying forces of its history and traditions." Many senators and staff are serious students of history; Dick Baker and Donald Ritchie, the talented associate historian, have assisted them with their speeches, publications, and questions of legislative and procedural precedent. The orientation schedule for each new class of senators includes a presentation by the senate historian. His office has also been the institution’s primary resource for ensuring the preservation and accessibility of its official records as well as the personal papers of individual senators.
In the late 1980s, Baker was centrally involved in planning the Senate’s participation in the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. As part of that endeavor, he and then House Historian Ray Smock were instrumental in recruiting editors, preparing content, and securing funding for the four-volume Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, a project sponsored by The University of Texas at Austin and the LBJ Library and Museum. More recently, Dick played a central role developing the historical exhibitions in the new Capitol Visitor Center.
Dick Baker’s longevity is a measure of his accomplishments. In May 1974, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote to then Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, urging the establishment of a Senate Historical Office to facilitate the preservation and availability of important legislative records, predicting that it would "contribute enormously to better public understanding of the role of the Senate in our national policy." The following year, Baker became the first senate historian. During his thirty-four year career, he served under nine Senate majority leaders—five Democrats and four Republicans. Since the First Congress convened in 1789, there have been thirty-two secretaries of the Senate, the body’s chief administrative officer. Baker has worked for twelve of them.
Dick Baker’s service extended far beyond the Capitol. In the course of his career, he shared his encyclopedic knowledge with hundreds of scholars, journalists, and students. His office’s prolific publications have set a high professional standard for accuracy and thoroughness, while providing invaluable historical and bibliographical information. As a leader in the field of public history and a founder of several professional organizations, Baker has been a strong advocate of openness, working to make government records more accessible to the public. He has been a frequent participant in enrichment seminars for classroom teachers, including Humanities Texas’s 2004 Institute on Congress and American History. We hope that Dick Baker’s richly deserved retirement will give him time to participate in many of our educational programs in the coming years.
Humanities Texas is pleased to reproduce Senator Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary tribute at Baker’s August 6th retirement ceremony and Senator Patrick Leahy’s eloquent floor speech of the same date, commending Baker’s service.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell offered the following remarks at Baker's retirement ceremony:
". . . Thank you all for coming today to honor Dick Baker. Over the last thirty-four years, Dick has learned just about everything there is to know about the Senate, and he’s shared his vast knowledge of this place with anyone who’s asked, and with many who haven’t. He’s shared it with tourists, because he never forgot that most of the people who visit the Capitol are here for the first time, and maybe the last, and that what they see and hear is likely to stay with them for a lifetime. He’s shared it with reporters, who always knew he’d find the right answers, on deadline. He’s shared it with senators and staff. And he’s shared it with countless authors, who’ve come to him for years expecting that at some point he’d run out of patience. But he never did. Dick’s a noted author in his own right, but he’s spent so much time helping other people write their own books you wonder where he ever found the time.
"David McCullough tells the story of how he called Dick one day with a most unusual request. He was wondering if it’d be possible to arrange an after-hours run from Sam Rayburn’s old office over in the House to the Vice President’s office next door. Dick said he knew exactly why McCullough was asking. He wanted to recreate Truman’s run through the Capitol the night FDR died and Truman became President. And, of course, he was exactly right. Dick said he’d be happy to arrange it—on one condition—that he could run with him. McCullough still remembers that night, and he says he remembers realizing two things when it was over: First, that Truman must have been in darn good shape. And second, that Dick Baker was, and is, in McCullough’s words, "infinitely, endlessly, irrepressibly interested," that he’s completely caught up in the love of learning. Another historian of the Senate once wrote that Dick Baker and Don Ritchie had heard from him so many times in the twelve years it took him to write one of his books that he was sure neither of them would ever want to hear from him again. Well, they weren’t so lucky, because when that particular author learned of Dick’s retirement last week, he penned the following letter, which I would now like to read.
"Here’s what he wrote: 'When I heard that Dick Baker was retiring, all I could really think was: What will history do without him? During his decades as senate historian, Dick made the Senate Historical Office not just a storehouse but a treasure house of information about America’s great deliberative body—about its history, its rules and precedents, its procedures, and about the men and women who served in it. I of course have been a principal beneficiary of his knowledge and insights, for I wrote a long book on the Senate, and during the years it took to complete, I badgered Dick, and of course his colleague, Don Ritchie, year after year—more times than I can count—for information about both the great events in which the Senate was a central institution and about the small details of the Senate world which are so vital to understanding this great body. The thing that impressed me most about Dick was not merely the extent of his knowledge about both the Senate and about American history—although his knowledge of both is so vast that he is a great historical resource in himself—but rather his willingness, whenever I asked a question to which the answer was not readily available, to find the answer, no matter how much work it took. That determination to learn the truth, and his insistence on accuracy, make Dick a historian in the truest sense of that word. I thank Dick for those qualities, and I know that history will thank him for them, too. . . . Signed, Robert A. Caro.'
"One thing that David McCullough, Robert Caro, and Dick Baker have in common is that when one of them walks into a room like this, they see more than we do. They see LBJ sitting at his desk, with his back to the window, or staring at the window, as he sometimes did, even when the blinds were closed. They smell the smoke. They hear the voice. They know the plaque over the door says "LBJ Room." But to them, it’s the Taj Mahal, because that’s what it was called it when LBJ was here. Dick Baker sees more in this room and this side of the Rotunda than just about anyone alive. But what really distinguishes him, as David McCullough put it so well, is his desire to learn more, and his willingness to share it with the rest of us.
"Everyone who speaks about Dick Baker talks about this great generosity of his, and they also point out that he never, ever loses his cool—except about one thing. Dick hates the fact that the Senate gallery is closed during recess, that tourists, especially those who’ve traveled long distances, can’t see the chamber once they get here. Well, the more we thought about, the more we agreed with him. So as a parting gift I’d like to present Dick with two things: First, I’d like to leave him with one of the tools of his trade: a book he wrote about the place to which he’s devoted so much of his life. Inscribed inside are notes of gratitude from a roll call of senators. Second, I’d like to announce that next week, at the request of Leader Reid and I, the Senate gallery will be open to tourists during recess. Dick is right: anyone who visits the cathedral should be able to see the sanctuary. Dick Baker’s contribution to the Senate is so valuable that he’s become a part of Senate history himself. He leaves a legacy of his own. And by any measure, it’s tremendous."
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) delivered the following speech on the Senate floor on August 6, 2009, the date of Baker's retirement:
"Mr. President, I rise today to speak about a man who has been serving the U.S. Senate for almost thirty-five years. Now that is how I and many other Senators may begin remarks about a colleague who is retiring. My remarks today are indeed about a colleague but not about a fellow Senator. These remarks are about Senate Historian Richard Baker, an important member of the Senate community who has made the Senate a better institution during his tenure.
"Remarkably, until 1975 the U.S. Senate did not have a Historical Office charged with preserving the institutional memory of this great body. Dick Baker is the original and only director and the chief historian for the past thirty-four years. Under his leadership, the Historical Office of the Senate has worked to recover, catalogue, and preserve the history of the Senate.
"Building this office from the ground up required Dick Baker and his team to collect and maintain records on current and former senators, record oral histories, document important precedents, statistics, and Senate activities. And as a photographer I must point out that this work included the cataloging and preservation of a huge trove of Senate-related photographs.
"From the beginning, Dick Baker knew his responsibility at the Historical Office was not only to preserve the history of the Senate but to make it more accessible. That included providing access to records for members, staff, media, and scholarly researchers. He exposed more of the Senate and its rich history to the general public through exhibits in the office buildings, presenting materials via the Web, and working with C-SPAN to incorporate Senate history into its programming. And as an author, Dick Baker disseminated information with his publications on Senate history, including a biography of the former Senator from New Mexico, Clinton P. Anderson.
"His greatest impact on me, however, and I believe the Senate as a whole, has been his placing of our work here in proper context. Most Senators and I look forward to the historical "minutes'' that he presents at the opening of many of our caucus lunches. He has also been accessible to me and other Senators in providing presentations of the Senate history at many different venues. My staff and I thoroughly enjoyed a presentation he provided to us on the history of the Vermont Senate delegation. His alacrity and care for describing Senate history has reminded all of us about the significance of our work here.
"As much as visitors feel the weight of history when they enter this building, it is no less important for those of us who represent them to be well aware of the two hundred-year history of the Senate. It is important to remember that although great men and women preceded us, and even greater ones will undoubtedly follow, our words and actions will continue to echo through these halls long after we are gone. Dick has reminded us of that regularly, and for that we thank him and wish him well."