Thursday, August 27, 2009

Remembering Senator Kennedy


My blog is usually about dogs but today I am going to remember my days in Washington, D.C., as an intern in the United States Senate. My boss was Franklin Zwieg the chief of staff to the Chairman, Senate Committee On Labor and Human Resources. He had two interns and decided that we were useless to him with that status so just treated us as legislative staff - really. Threw us into the deep end of the pool. We went to the intern seminars but other than that were treated like staff - (except no salary of course). So we had our choice of working on health legislation - (which he said would not likely pass in that session -no kidding here we are 30 years later and no health legislation), or a small bill that had failed in previous sessions, The Women in Science Bill. This bill he said would have a slim chance if we could find a ammendment appropriate for the Chairman and slip between the warring parties working on the National Science Foundation Re-Authorization Act - and by the way - the chairman of NSF was against the bill. NICE.

So, with my usual lack of respect for the establishment I went for the Women in Science Bill. To find a way in I needed data and called to find out how many grants to women were given in each science field? No can do, they said, we don't keep that data. So, the next day, delivered to Senate Courts was a book the size of the New York Yellow Pages, listing all the names of every grantee. Thousands of names. I set out to tabulate these names by hand, disregarding those names that were not gender specfic like Robin. It took weeks. My colleagues started to poke fun at me. So, one night going home on the Capitol Hill Express I looked pretty dejected. Our neighbor in Chevy Chase worked for the Washington Post. He asked what the problem was and I told him. "Do you remember the movie "All the President's Men?" he asked. Yes, but what does that have to do with me? "Well, remember that part in the movie where they were going through all the research?" Mmm, yes. "In the movie it took a few minutes, it really took almost a year." I kept tabulating. The results were stunning and potentially alarming to NSF, in some fields female grantees were less than .05%.

Finally, I had my data, and my boss told me to take it up to Senator Kennedy's office and meet with his staff. We went over the data together and my ammedment which called for the board of the NSF to be balanced in representation by gender, race, etc. At the last minute my boss didn't come and sent me alone. Let me explain that one of the reasons, among many, for Senator Kennedy's success was his superb staff. They were brilliant and driven - and they were feared. Luckily I didn't pay much attention to this because I was also driven and had my research and my lack of appropriate fear. The upshot was Bob Knouss, Sen. Kennedy's staff person looked at me and said, "Where in the world did you get this stuff?", I said, "I tabulated it from their grants register". He picked up the phone and called the chairman of NSF, who when heard the data said "I'll be a @#$%#%##!" The hearing was the next day and he decided to testify for our bill.

Later that week we met with the Senators on the committee in Sen. Claiborne Pell's, office in the Capitol building. Apropos because the research was done in the Senate library which is just under the dome of the Capitol and looks right down the mall to the Washington Monument. There wasn't a lot of seating in the beautifully appointed room in the Capitol old paintings and persian rugs but not many chairs. In these situations the staff just usully sat on the floor, Senator Kennedy saw me hesitate and said smiling, "Here just sit right here" and pointed next to his chair to cushion on the floor. So, sitting between Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Javits, I held my breath while they voted to suport the first Women in Science Bill. The bill has been included in the NSF reauthorization act in some form ever since, and the ammendment creating a balance of women and minorties on NSF Board has survived even though it has been slightly altered. As we left the meeting that day, Franklin, (the spitting image in looks and behavior of Toby Zigler on the West Wing) looked at me and said, "Well, how does it feel to make policy?" Good, really good.

None of it would have happened without the support of Senator Kennedy's staff - he had his faults and his triumphs - the Senate will miss him greatly. One side note the staff building we used Senate Courts was in sad repair and was soon torn down to make way for new offices. It had been an old hotel and the elevator sometimes stopped between floors. One day Sen. Kennedy came over to meet with someone on the upper floor. He was driving as usual his ratty old station wagon, but also as usual was accompanied by several secret service agents. As we went to get on the elevator his agents stopped and said, "No, Senator we will take the stairs". They thought the old station wagon way okay but the elevator - no way!

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