Looking Back on a Political Life
Looking Back on a Political Life
"Washington is broken." It's a common refrain these days, echoed by figures as wide apart on the political spectrum as Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Mitt Romney. It's a sentiment that's even echoed by the man on the street, as a recent McClatchy News poll shows that 80% of Americans identify themselves as frustrated by Washington's gridlock. It seems, even from Washington insiders, as if a broken political system is here to stay.
Nonetheless, few people who know Washington know it quite like Darrell St. Claire. For one, at 103, he enjoys a perspective of American politics that starts before the Great Depression. And, as he sits in his living room surrounded by the Annals of the Senate in hardcover, it's not hard to imagine him in younger days, working in the offices of the Secretary of the Senate. Yet to the surprise of today's generation of politics watchers, St. Claire looks back on his years in government as some of the best of his life. He remembers a government that, for the most part, worked. Listening to his memories even offers up the hope that maybe those days could come again, that perhaps Washington is not so broken that it can't one day be put back together.
A native of Arizona, St. Claire didn't set out to be a political figure. Unsure of what profession he wanted to pursue, he took five years to finish at the University of Arizona. "My father was patient," he explains. "We didn't have Pell Grants back then." While getting his degree, St. Claire had plenty of time for misadventures. From Arizona, he and his buddies would ramble down to the border towns of Mexico, where they would eat venison, "which was actually burro", and enjoy the only available liquor during Prohibition, then carefully drive back north. Later, as a reporter for the Arizona Republic, he tried out journalism school, studying in Missouri under the great Walter Williams. An encounter with an editor at the Kansas City Star convinced him that he would learn more by staying on the job, and he returned to the newspaper office.
As the Great Depression loomed- "it deserved a capital t-h-e, as bad it was," he reminds- the young reporter lost his job. In 1932, "at just the right time," he was asked to accompany Carl Hayden- then running for his second term as Arizona Senator- throughout his primary campaign. The offer could not have come at a better moment, as he had only the money in his pockets left to his name.
Throughout his career, St. Claire never hesitated to remark on how lucky he was. Indeed, his luck started early, as Senator Hayden won re-election and was invited out to Washington to become a staff member. He can still remember the exact month he got the job- February 1933. He quickly learned how things were done in D.C. The system of patronage- in which a political figure would appoint loyal supporters to their staff- was the law of the land. St. Claire had a good eye for people, and Hayden headed the Democratic Patronage Committee, which was tasked with appointing Democrats to government jobs. Thus, it was not long before St. Claire became the secretary for the committee, charged with helping the most qualified- and most connected- members of the Democratic Party into government service.
Working in the New Deal years, St. Claire often came into contact with Franklin Roosevelt, who never failed to impress. "He was a great man. He had a great handshake, great voice, and never forgot your name." In a world built on connections, it always felt good to have your name remembered by the President. Out of all the Presidents he worked alongside, St. Claire remembers FDR most fondly, as a man rather than a figurehead.
Like everyone in the United States, St. Claire's world was jolted with the outbreak of World War II. As most able-bodied men were swept up into military service, he found himself assigned to the U.S. Navy headquarters in London. Though he was proud to serve his country, London was not the most choice of assignments during the war. For long hours during the second wave of the Blitz, St. Claire would wait out the bombings with his colleagues. Once, during a speech, "I was in the middle of talking," he remembers, "and the bombs started flying overhead, shaking the building with their engines. I just kept on talking, trying to ignore them!"
The bombs missed St. Claire and his headquarters, and at the close of the war he was eager to resume his career in Washington. Supported by Senator Hayden and others, he secured a position as a legislative liason at the State Department. Yet the Washington he was returning to would turn out to be quite a departure from the one he had left. A few months into the job, he was asked to become a member of one of the newly-formed Loyalty Security Boards- "though God knows why." Under Senator Joe McCarthy, the boards were set up to weed out Communist sympathizers from the government. St. Claire and three others were put in charge of determining the loyalty of a husband and wife pair. He thought little of the proceedings, and based on the evidence at the time, was the only one of the board to vote in support of their loyalty.
Needless to say, his support for the pair did not sit well with the Communist-hunting McCarthy, who vilified St. Claire in the Senate and the press. Though the public accusations made headlines and caused a brief uproar, he looks back on it now with a smile. "I ended up better off- he ended up in the dictionary, I ended up in the Congressional Record." There's little doubt about which side of history he prefers to be on.
Washington once again took a more civilized turn when St. Claire was welcomed back into the Senate as the Assistant Secretary, a position he would hold for the remainder of his career. As he remembers his years there, his memories of good times far outweigh the negative. His eyes brighten as he goes over names and events from the past, and runs through a laundry list of personalities that he worked with- Albert Gore ("my friend and supporter"), Lyndon Johnson ("if youopposed him, you'd hear about it"), Hubert Humphrey ("the best Senator that ever lived"). Yet his proudest moment is reserved for a boyhood friend. When Barry Goldwater- whom St. Claire had grown up with in Arizona- was sworn in as a Senator, St. Claire was the man who entered his name into the Congressional ledger. As he added the new Senator to the list, Goldwater leaned over and said," I bet you never thought, back in high school, that we would be doing this."
Though Darrell St. Claire's Washington was a different one- a place where "Democrats and Republicans actually spent time with each other, telling jokes and smoking cigars"- he hopes that today's system can change. "It used to be that Senators were country lawyers or county officials before they held office," he laments. "Now, they are businessmen who aren't even present to vote." He defers any notion that his own success- and even his own longevity- has to do with anything other than good fortune. "I have been so lucky in my life- to work where I did, and to live without pain," he says. And, though he has his doubts, he certainly wishes that same luck upon our newest crop of political personalities.
Home Care Assistance has been lucky enough to help Darrell St. Claire maintain his independence in his home for several years.