“Where are you from?” This was the question so often asked by John Brademas when he would meet someone new. I have never met a more gregarious and delightful conversationalist. He enjoyed meeting people and his opening question was the perfect ice-breaker for an extended conversation. When I think back on his 22 year career as a congressman from Indiana, the last four of which he served as Majority Whip under Tip O’Neill’s speakership, and his equally distinguished career as president of New York University, which he built into a major research institution, it is easy to say that he was a truly great American, a public servant and an educator in the finest traditions of this nation.
One of the positive things to come out of that first conference at the Brademas Center was the idea that the private papers of former members of Congress are significant historical resources that deserved to be preserved and used to understand how Congress works. John Brademas said the time had come to put this idea front and center. It took three years for Congress to agree to it. It was passed as H. Con. Res. 307 in 2008. Congress finally recognized the importance of congressional papers and urged members to preserve them, but provided no funds to do so. Still this step continues to inspire those of us who are engaged in the work of preserving and telling the story of Congress. We are, however, a long way from the kind of support Congress gives to the records of the presidency with its system of presidential libraries. Congress, as a co-equal branch of government, deserves equal attention and equal funding.
John Brademas understood better than most the importance of an informed citizenry, something Founders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson thought to be vital to the success of the American Experiment in Government. It has been an uphill battle to keep the idea of the central importance of Congress to American government as something taught in schools and understood by most citizens.
Despite all the efforts of historians, political scientists, the journalists who cover Congress, and those who want to understand how policy is shaped, Congress remains an enigma to most Americans. Our continued challenge is to find ways to remedy this and to provide new and insightful information to better understand Congress, especially in these difficult times when Congress is universally condemned as dysfunctional.
We need to better understand how things got this way, and how we can again return Congress to its role as the fulcrum of American government, not its whipping boy. When you were lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet and work with the likes of John Brademas as I did on this one important issue, you cannot help but to love and respect the best of what Congress has been and should be again.