By Jerald Lee Watts, M.D., House 1950
Our job put us in contact with young Congressmen who would later lead our country, including second-term John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), second-term Richard Nixon (R-Calif.) and first-term Gerald Ford (R-Mich.).
Mr. Kennedy frequently stopped by the Democratic Page bench and chatted with us. Even though he had served in the War, he didn’t really seem much older than we were. His staff was also young and bright and we loved to visit his office, feeling like we were among our peers.
Kennedy often left his seat on the Floor and ventured to the back of the Chamber, where he stood holding onto the brass rail. Years later, I realized he was suffering severe back pain, and it was simply more comfortable to stand rather than sit for lengthy periods.
During my military service, I was sitting at the Navy officer’s club at Leeward Point, Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, and watched on rabbit-ear TV as then-President Kennedy announced that he was reinforcing our Guantanamo garrison and patrolling the waters around Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I glanced at my fellow officers and casually remarked, “I used to work for him.” Years later, I sat in front of another black-and-white television set, mourning his death.
As a Democratic Page, I had little to do with Republican Rep. Nixon. But even in 1950, he was a political figure who polarized opinions. Page friend Dan McKinnon’s father was a Democratic Congressman from the 23rd California district, next door to Nixon’s district. When I went to Dan’s home for the weekends, he admonished me not to mention Nixon in front of his dad. “He would have a spell.” I didn’t.
Cong. Gerald Ford was another story. He was a tall, husky former Michigan football plyer and Naval officer whom we all respected. He was quiet though I heard his great laughter more than once. We rarely went to his office since he was a Republican, but we never minded because of his friendly staff. He was to prove his good image years later when he rescued the Presidency from the shame of Watergate folly.
There were many excellent debaters in the House. When Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) took to the well for comments, the phones would ring off the hooks advising the Members to be present for his remarks. He was known for his ability to get disparate groups together in order to move legislation, and his motto was, “To get along, go along.”
At the time, Georgia Congressmen chaired three of the most powerful committees in Congress, and I was proud to have letters of introduction from my dad’s boss, who was a prominent Atlanta businessman and Alderman, that allowed me to meet each of them. Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga.) headed the Senate Armed Services Committee, while Sen. Walter George (D-Ga.) chaired the Senate Finance Committee. On the House side, Rep. Carl Vinson (D-Ga.) headed the House Armed Services Committee. Many years later, a Navy aircraft carrier was named after Mr. Vinson, the USS Carl Vinson.
The People’s House
Lobbyists are not a new phenomenon. They seemed to come out of the woodwork on certain legislative days. “Rotten Woodwork!” we thought. As a “Door Page” who sat outside the House Chamber doors, I would receive all visitors who wished to consult with a Member of Congress. This where many of the true lobbyists would come in the early days before they had such personal access to the Congressmen as they have today. The area outside the House Chamber, a huge hallway, was called the “Lobby,” hence the name given to them. They used to stand around with hats in hand. Now they are more likely to be standing with sacks of cash in hand.
There were legitimate lobbyists representing associations, companies and even the military, all of whom had real business with the Members. The “lobbyist” I remember, however, was a scruffy elderly gentleman who appeared weekly with some new scheme to present to various Members of Congress.
He was short and chubby, had stringy unkempt hair, a shaggy gray beard, dressed in shabby clothes, wore thick steel-framed glasses and carried a worn brown leather satchel stuffed with protruding papers. He would walk right up to the Door Page, get as close to his face as possible, glare through his thick glasses and spew the name of the Congressman he wanted to see.
“Well, just fill out this card if you will, please,” the Page would ask.
The “lobbyist” would take the card, scribble some illegible information and hand it back to the Page to take it into the Chamber and deliver it to the named Congressman.
“Who shall I say is calling?” was the standard question the Page would ask, since no one could read the “lobbyist’s” writing.
“Just tell him, Billy Whiskers is outside to see him!” he barked.
“And what organization do you represent, Sir?” the Page would ask with a silly smile, having heard this many times before.
“I represent poor people, and they can’t organize,” Billy Whiskers always answered.
Some of the Pages mocked him. Me, I figured that he was one of the people who belonged in the place known as “The People’s House.”
Jerry graduated from Atlanta High School in 1952, attended Tulane University in New Orleans and graduated from Atlanta’s Emory University School of Medicine in 1959. He completed a surgical internship and residency at Grady Memorial Hospital before military duty. In the early 1960s he served in the U.S. Air Force as a general surgeon and flight surgeon. After military service he completed an orthopaedic surgery residency at Grady, Emory University Hospital, Atlanta #48 Veterans Hospital and Egleston Children’s Hospital. He practiced orthopaedic surgery for more than 32 years, and earned a law degree from Woodrow Wilson College of Law – Atlanta in 1987. Now retired, he lives in Peachtree City, Ga. With his companion, author Ellen Hunter Ulken and his English Setter, Scout.