The Way We Were
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
When you are in the congressional affairs biz in a place like the National Archives, you are also in the tour biz. Your daily goal is to use the assets of the agency to show its purpose and its worth to the American public, the Congress, and high-profile individuals who can influence congressmen and senators.
First, everyone that I showed around the Archives can be placed into two very broad categories: people who know American history and people who think the Plymouth Compact was only a car from Detroit. The first category was the fun group to tour; the second group was deadly. The documents of our national life are so incredible, so real, and so awe inspiring that to be in their presence is a truly spiritual experience. But you must understand what they are, who created them and their context in our national story. Those who do not know their American history look at the documents like they are a ham sandwich. And that is, well, maddening to those of us dedicated to their preservation and celebration. However, all were treated with the utmost respect. They were my guests, and this is their history, whether they appreciate it or not.
We had our share of celebrities come through the doors of the Archives. Kings and queens, stars of stage, screen, television, and Capitol Hill, all made us a required stop on their Washington tour. I even gave a tour once to Ken Jennings after he became famous as the then all-time winner on "Jeopardy!". I facetiously started that tour by saying, "You're so smart, why don't you give me a tour". Ken was smart, but a bit humor-challenged.
Most of my solo gigs were with Members of Congress, the unknowns and the well knowns, but one of my favorite moments was when I was part of the host team for the visit of Barbra Streisand.
It was March of 1993. Streisand was just shy of 51 years old, and had become one of the few entertainers ever to win an Academy, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award. As one writer put it, she was the only other American entertainer to have reached the iconic status of Frank Sinatra. She had been one of Bill Clinton’s biggest fundraisers in the campaign and had been a large presence during the inaugural ceremonies just two months before. All of this we knew.
What we didn’t know at the time was much more intriguing. It was later reported that the night before her tour of the Archives, Ms. Streisand had paid a visit to Bill Clinton in the White House while Hillary was back in Little Rock at the death bed of her father Hugh Rodham. When Hillary returned home and learned through press accounts of the unannounced House guest, she and Bill had one of their classic donnybrooks (later leaked by the Secret Service). The President had a very visible scratch down the side of his face when he appeared at a press conference the next day. When the press asked about the face injury the President attributed it to “rough housing” with his daughter Chelsea.
So, after her night in the Lincoln bedroom, Ms. Streisand was on a series of Washington visits arranged by the White House. The call requesting a tour was fielded by Maryanne Smith, the young woman who the Clinton Administration had sent over to babysit the National Archives. She was our White House Liaison, a new position designed to help Clinton get a grip on Executive Branch agencies. Don Wilson, Archivist of the United States had just resigned after the release of a highly critical US Senate Report and long-time staff archivist, Trudy Peterson, was filling the CEO chair. It was a very volatile and unsettled time at the Agency, but I fortunately had been identified as an asset by Maryanne and was just moving into my new role in Congressional Affairs.
Maryanne stopped by my office and invited me to be part of the Archives entourage for Streisand. I walked into the ornate Office of the Archivist and two of my colleagues were already chatting with our special guest about some of the records.
Milt Gustafson, one of our most knowledgeable and loquacious archivists, was holding court as only Milt could do. Dressed in his white archivist gloves, he revealed the contents of the boxes one document at a time. The key characteristic of these records was they had been specifically requested by Ms. Streisand. Not only did she know her American history, she knew what she wanted to see. Without a college education, but clearly educated by experience, travel, and acquaintances, she has carried a dedication to the power of education her whole adult life. When she was able, she acted on that dedication. In 1984, Streisand donated the Emanuel Streisand Building for Jewish Studies to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in memory of her father, an educator and scholar who died when she was very young.
One of the sets of records that Streisand had requested was the case file of Roe v. Wade. Milt was describing the records as she was looking at each page of testimony and proceedings.
Dating back to 1790, the textual records of the Supreme Court are preserved and provided for research by the National Archives and in recent decades, audio of the oral arguments have also been included in the holdings. The National Archives holds the records of all three branches of the American government, making ours one of the very few “unified” archives of the world and placing the Archivist of the United States in a unique position in our republic.
After an appropriate interval observing Streisand observing the documents, Maryanne interrupted the proceedings to introduce me to the star and her traveling companion. Shaking hands was one of my “Archives moments” and standing there with three of my colleagues and our staff photographer in the presence of such stardom was very memorable to say the least.
If you saw Barbara Streisand on the street and had never heard of her or her fame, you would recognize her as a unique looking person. Striking, but not beautiful. Her incredible eyes are what you’d remember long after she’d walked past.
The only other thing that stands out in my mind from that day was Streisand’s reaction to the beauty of the Office of the Archivist and her desire to capture it for her own use.
When John Russell Pope designed the Archives building, the space ran from the mundane and functional to the stately and spectacular. To house a million cubic feet of records, most of the building is equipped with metal stacks, shelves, cages, and a dimly lit maze of endless identical halls and corridors. If there was ever a place that you could get hopelessly lost, it is in this vast building, and I can attest to that fact from personal experience. But in contrast, the rotunda and some of our more iconic offices are accessible and nothing short of wonderful.
The Office of the Archivist, though not vast, is beautiful. Its majestic high ceiling, hanging roman light fixtures, intricate crown molding, federal period wainscoting and dado, make it an architectural masterpiece. Furthermore, the room’s beautiful hardwood floors were decorated at the time with a very large red Persian rug that was a gift from the Shah of Iran to LBJ. The wall behind the desk of the Archivist was dominated by a near life-sized portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt painted by Henry Salem Hubbell in 1935. Borrowed from the holdings of the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, it pays tribute to Roosevelt’s role in the founding of the National Archives and the Presidential Library System.
As we were leaving the room, Streisand stopped and looked up at the crown molding, and then turned to me and asked, “Could your photographer get a picture of that ceiling treatment and molding for me?” Knowing that the correct answer to this unusual request was “yes”, I turned to Mac McDonald, our long-time staff photographer, and nodded that it was time to take a picture of the molding for our guest. As Mac was snapping away, Streisand said that she was redoing one of her homes and would love to copy this style. Anything for you Barbra, anything for you.