Senior Senate reporter Niels Lesniewski tells the story of how each of the three Senate office buildings came to be named in this week’s edition of Undercover Capitol.
Below is a transcript of the video:
In October 1972, the Senate decided to follow the House's lead of naming its two office buildings adjacent to the Capitol. Those spaces had previously been known simply as the Old and New Senate Office Buildings.
The buildings would be designated not for great figures of the early days of the Republic, such as Thomas Jefferson, which was suggested by some.
Rather, under a Senate resolution offered by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the Senate named the first structure for legendary Georgia Democrat Richard Russell.
“I do not think any man who has ever served in this body contributed more of his intellect, his knowledge, and his extraordinary skills to enhance the integrity of the Senate, which he so deeply revered,” said Byrd.
The building next door bears the name of Everett McKinley Dirksen, the late Republican minority leader from Illinois.
Dirksen was a national figure known for his public speaking skills and deal-making ability. He even once followed Bob Hope as the grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, California.
Each man had recently died, and so they were, in effect, contemporaries to some of the lawmakers still serving in 1972.
Perhaps ironically, the lone senator reported to have objected to naming the buildings for senators so recently departed was Philip Hart, who it seemed wanted to have a better sense of Russell and Dirksen's places in history.
The Democrat from Michigan came to be known as the “Conscience of the Senate” for his advocacy for civil rights, including leading the effort to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Of course, it is Hart’s name that now adorns the newest Senate office building that was commissioned in 1975 but named in 1976 after Hart had recently died.
The name of the oldest of the three buildings has been the most contentious recently, considering Russell’s role as leader of the segregationist Southern bloc.
Russell’s storied career as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a talented legislator was respected even by his most fervent critics of the era.
Perhaps his most notable accomplishment outside the realm of defense policy was as lead author of the law establishing the national school lunch program, which also bears his name to this day.