Although I have yet to meet a vice president of the United States, in 2015 I did meet a vice presidential candidate. That summer, through Bryant University's relationship with The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, I landed an internship with the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. When I interviewed for the position over the telephone in May, my supervisor-to-be informed me that the primary duty of interns was to conduct research for the society's fact-a-day calendar, but that they assisted with other tasks when needed. She mentioned that included in those tasks would be helping out with an annual dinner that honored members of Congress. The description and all its duties greatly intrigued me, and thankfully I was offered the position.
I subsequently drove from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C. and, on June 1st, I started my internship. Over the first two weeks with the society, my fellow intern and I assisted with a variety of tasks, such as prepping for a book talk with David and Jeanne Heidler, authors of Washington's Circle: The Creation of the President. We also toured the Capitol Building, which was the first time I had entered it since my father and I saw Ronald Reagan lie in state in 2004. Then on June 11th, Victoria, a society employee, asked me to help her deliver invitations at the three House office buildings. She explained to me that the annual USCHS dinner honors one congressional committee each year, on a rotational basis. In 2015, it was the House Committee on Ways and Means. Victoria and I divided the envelopes, and at my request she allowed me to personally deliver the invitations for Representatives John Lewis and Paul Ryan. Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia's 5th congressional district, was a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Ryan, the committee's chairman, was Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate on the 2012 Republican ticket. None of the representatives were present when Victoria and I visited their offices, but we left the invitations with staff members.
That was the extent of my involvement with the event until it was held on July 15th. After work, several employees and I walked to the Longworth House Office Building. The setting of the dinner was Longworth's recently renovated House Ways and Means Committee Hearing Room, which had two main entrances. Name tags for guests were set up at the doorway in the right hand corridor, and the primary responsibility for me, the other intern, and a USCHS volunteer was to direct guests toward that entrance. Among the people I guided were New York's Charlie Rangel and political commentator Cokie Roberts, who was the event's keynote speaker. The person I talked the longest with was Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who read my name tag and discussed the food selection with me. Paul Ryan, engaged in discussion with someone, walked by me early on in the evening. John Lewis, who I hoped to meet and was marked as attending, unfortunately was absent.
Once it appeared that most guests had arrived, I took a seat by the rear of the hearing room and the dinner commenced soon after. Recorded by C-SPAN, the event began with remarks by Ron Sarasin, the USCHS president. To start, he introduced the evening's speakers and former committee chairs that were in attendance (former committee members and event sponsors were also invited). Then, to my surprise, Mr. Sarasin read aloud a letter of regret from former President George H.W. Bush. Bush was appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee in 1967 during his first congressional term. The ninety-one-year-old was unable to travel from Maine to Washington for the dinner, but he sent his regards to the present committee members (unbeknownst to us, the frail former president fell that day and broke a vertebrae in his neck, adding to the list of ailments that likely prevented his attendance).
Thomas Coleman, chair of the USCHS, spoke after Mr. Sarasin, and he was followed by Paul Ryan. Ryan delivered a compelling address, which included a relative amount of humor. Ryan noted that the distinguished list of chairs that preceded him was intimidating, so he tried to see what he had in common with them. To him, "the most striking resemblance" was to John Randolph, who chaired from 1801 to 1805. "He was tall, he was lean. He had hunting dogs, I have hunting dogs. And he looked really young for his age," the chairman said. On the other hand, Ryan remarked that his staff picked Thaddeus Stevens because "He was a Republican, he was the youngest of four children, and he liked to wear large, ill-fitting suits." He also threw in an appropriate House of Cards joke. The Republican was serious at times too, as he talked about public policy and the committee's impact on the lives of Americans. After Ryan, ranking member Sander Levin of Michigan's 9th district spoke about his time on the committee. The last speaker of the evening was Cokie Roberts, who was on the USCHS Board of Trustees and whose father, Hale Boggs, served as a member of the Ways and Means Committee from 1949 to 1971. "I grew up in this room," Roberts declared as she recalled her early years as "a child of Congress." She fondly recalled her deep connection to the committee and also warned Paul Ryan about emulating John Randolph. "Yes, he had hunting dogs," Roberts stated, "but he was crazy! And he constantly challenged people to duels."
Once the speeches concluded and guests began to file out, I helped to gather up programs and discarded name tags. After a few minutes, I saw that Chairman Ryan remained and was talking to a USCHS volunteer. Following a contemplative moment, I decided to approach the congressman. As I walked over, the volunteer asked Ryan to take a picture with him, which Ryan agreed to. The volunteer had his smartphone set on video, and as he struggled to switch it to photo mode, Ryan motioned toward me and said, "Give it to young guy," and remarked that I would know what to do. The volunteer handed me his phone, I switched it to photo mode, and took a few photographs of the pair. When I was done, I seized the opportunity and asked the chairman if I could also get my picture taken with him. Again, Ryan agreed. I handed my phone off and two photos were taken of us together.
Before we parted, I gave Ryan my business card and explained that I was possibly the only person who had been to all sixty-six presidential and vice presidential burial sites, given the general inaccessibility of one. The chairman seemed impressed and asked whose grave that was. When I replied it was Nelson Rockefeller's, he asked if it was on private property. I acknowledged it was, but told him that I was able to visit it because of connections. The former vice presidential candidate then turned over my business card and saw the recreated image of Lee Harvey Oswald's shooting with a Super Soaker. After I explained that I interviewed James Leavelle, who survived Pearl Harbor and was handcuffed to John F. Kennedy's assassin during his ill-fated transfer, Ryan again expressed he was impressed. We then shook hands and went our separate ways.
At the end of the night, I emerged with a few mementos apart from my pictures with Ryan. With permission, I was allowed to take home John Lewis' unused name tag, as well as Sander Levin's, which he left behind at his dinner table.
On October 29, 2015, a little over three months after I met him, Paul Ryan succeeded John Boehner as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Content copyright 2009-2017. Kurt Deion. All rights reserved.