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Sixty-Something: Witnessing History While Celebrating Being Young

T.J. Clemente

The author during his congressional internship. (Courtesy Photo)

The best thing about memories is making them. In a life there are good times, there are bad times and there are the best times. As we grow older the best times always seem to conjure up more easily when we recollect the adventures of our past.

In the summer of 1973 I had a front seat to history. I worked daily in the U.S. Capital building being an intern to a congressman during the Watergate/Nixon Impeachment fiasco.

When I was 20, my world was all about great music, adventure, young pretty girls, and how to be awake as many hours in a day as possible. The future was an appointment I had to go to when I grew up, but living in the now was amazing. Being 20-years-old just four years after "Woodstock," was experiencing the high season of a world changing in almost every way and I was part of the change.

My dream for that summer was to work at Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado. I passed by there during the summer of 1972 and thought I would love to experience the place again. Going to George Washington University in Washington D.C. had me very familiar with going to visit Congress to cover hearings for certain Political Science classes. Many times I would be the only person witnessing a hearing on Dams and sit with the US Senators on the big conference table as folks testified about "Dam Safety, Effectiveness and Needs." Honestly, it was usually very boring. So in February of 1973 I wrote my congressman about summer employment at Rocky National Park. The reply letter informed those positions were already filled but I could apply for a congressional internship in his Capital Hill office. I truly wanted a summer out west not in hot sweaty D.C. I actually never followed up.

In March I received a letter to come into the congressman's office to interview for the internship, and I went but to again request a job out west. I remember I arrived at his office in the Cannon Office Building after classes wearing blue jeans and my favorite "The Band" tee shirt. I was ushered into the congressman's private office and told he was on the floor voting and would be in shortly. On his desk was every New York newspaper so I started reading them. Soon I was sitting in his big leather chair with my feet actually on his desk reading the Daily News when the door opened and in limped Democratic Congressman Mario Biaggi of the N.Y. 24th Congressional District. Having never met I had no clue who he was and asked why he was limping. He explained it was from an injury suffered while saving a woman's life when he was a NYC Police officer. He asked me to please take my feet off his desk and pointed to a chair for me to sit in. He asked me questions about where I lived and about my folks and why I wanted to be an intern. I told him I didn't want to be an intern that I wanted to work out west in any National Park. He said he would see what he could do. So I was very surprised when I received a letter instructing me to report to be sworn in by Speaker of the House Carl Albert as a congressional intern and I was to be paid $100 per week for eight weeks.

The author (right) with Congressman Mario Biaggi. (Courtesy Photo)


While I was doing my internship I became very familiar with filing and picking up new bills, motions, at the clerk's office right next to floor of the House of Representatives. I wrote phrases for some House speeches, (the speech writer said I was a wordsmith). Peter K. Ilchuk, the Congressman's Administrative Assistant (my daily boss), insisted I see as much of the Watergate Hearings as possible going on in the Senate Caucus Room (now called the Kennedy Caucus Room) and report back and tell the whole office what went on. With my credentials I was assured a great seat as I watched, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, and H.R. Haldeman testify as Senator Sam Ervin, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Campaign Activities (Watergate Committee), ran the show. Later I sat in the intern section of the gallery as members of the House of Representatives introduced their "Bills of Impeachment." It was high drama and to this day I remember the speeches and debate including Dan Kuykendall, a Republican congressman from Tennessee, who brought an actual noose and held it up and called Congress a "lynch Mob." Eventually, a year later on August 9, 1974 President Nixon resigned.

It was a very turbulent historical time in Washington. During Watergate I sent two letters to the Editor of the Washington Post and both were printed. Ben Bradlee himself called me on the phone and spoke to me both times to verify I wrote them, not the usual protocol back then. I still have copies of them. To this day I remember daily walking to the U.S Capital. Hearing the magical echoes, knowing the secret hallways, elevators and grand halls. When a distinguished guest came to the office I gave them tours, I knew the U.S. Capital building that well. I had my own private parking spot underground and was allowed to use the underground trolley. I knew a few congressmen who used to talk small talk with me, including the House Minority Leader, a nice regular guy named Gerald Ford. 14 months later he became the only President of the United States who was never elected President or Vice-President. In the 1990's I ran into Mario Biaggi and we posed for a photo, he actually remembered my feet on his desk moment and also us sharing a bottle of wine (with no glasses) in his office on his birthday and as everyone was talking Watergate, he told me his Joe DiMaggio stories. He somehow remembered this from all the way back in 1974. Who knew?




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