Civic Summer 1955

A memoir by Steve Reichstein

On a day off from my duties as a camp counselor I hitched a ride into D.C. I wanted to visit the Capitol and experience what it was like to see Congress in session. I didn’t know who my Congressman was but I knew Senator Lehman represented New York State. The only things I knew about him were that he was liberal, wealthy, interested in the arts and had a reputation of doing good for the state. A Capitol guard informed me that I would need to obtain a pass from my senator’s office in order to sit in the Senate chamber. “Take the elevator to the third floor,” he said. Exiting from the elevator I didn’t know which way to turn.  Puzzled, I approached a short, rotund man smoking a cigar striding past the elevator.

“Excuse me sir. Could you tell me which way is it to Senator Lehman’s office?”

“Are you from New York?”

“Yes, he’s my senator.”

He took the cigar out of his mouth and extended his hand.

“Son. I’m Senator Lehman. What can I do for you?”

This man was not tall, he was not slim, he was not distinguished looking and he had an uncultured, New York, accent!

“I’d like to get a pass to watch the Senate, sir.”

“How old are you, son?”

“Eighteen next month.”

“Hmm, well, you can’t vote yet, can you?” he said as he reinserted the cigar.

“Anyway, see my secretary, first office down the hall on the left. She’ll write you a pass.” Taking a long puff, he strode off.

The public gallery was nearly empty. I took a seat in the first row. I listened to a desultory speech and was about to leave when three men entered the floor of the Senate chamber and began to converse. The acoustics were good and I could easily hear their conversation.

“You’re not going to keep us in session all night, are you?”

“It can wait until tomorrow, can’t it,” the second speaker chimed in.

There was a pause as the third man looked down at the other two, caught their eyes and, with a bit of a drawl said, “Well, gentlemen, it’s important to me and important to the country so unless I have agreement from your party to take a vote, we’ll just have to remain in session until everyone has done their homework and is ready to vote on it.”

It suddenly dawned on me who these three were—I’d seen them on television and in Life magazine. I leaned forward.

“But if we are good boys and agree to vote on it now, you wouldn’t keep us after school, would you?” said Republican Senator Dirksen of Illinois, kidding, in the voice of a pleading schoolboy.

“Yes, teacher, please, pretty please,” jovially joined in Republican Senator Mundt of South Dakota.

“Gentlemen, you do your part and I’ll do mine and we’ll be out of here shortly.” And with that, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Johnson placed a hand on the shoulders of his two colleagues and, smiles all around, they left the chamber. Five years later Johnson would become John F. Kennedy’s vice-president and three years later, following JFK’s assassination, he’d become the 36th president of the United States. And in 2003, when the biographer Robert Caro wrote a book about Johnson, Master of the Senate, I remembered the moment I had witnessed—and understood the appropriateness of the title.


Steve Reichstein likes to express himself through writing, a medium that enables him to focus, shape and craft his stories without the constraints of time.