Donnald K. Anderson’s 35-year career in the U.S. House began somewhat improbably before he was even old enough to vote. After reading an article in Time magazine about congressional Pages—teenagers who went to school and worked in the Capitol running errands for Members—Anderson, who was then a rising high school senior in Sacramento, California, penned a letter to his Congressman, John Moss, to say that he’d like to join the program. Moss promptly offered him a Page appointment. That response and the prospect of leaving familiar surroundings, elated, excited, and worried Anderson. Still, he remembered thinking, “It’s a window of opportunity that won’t be open very long. I probably ought not to let it pass.”
In 2006, more than 40 years after his Page appointment in 1960, Donn Anderson sat down with the Office of the Historian for a series of oral history interviews. Those first days in Washington, DC, he recalled, were a whirl: the thrill of his first transcontinental flight, finding a place to live, and seeing the Capitol dome for the first time—each event indelibly etched on his memory. His new surroundings on Capitol Hill never lost their allure. As a Page, Anderson received an education that extended beyond his early morning high school classes in the Library of Congress. Assigned to a post in the Democratic Cloakroom, Anderson spent the majority of his workdays near the House Floor. In an era before electronic voting and before congressional schedules became frenzied and packed with events, Members spent ample time in the cloakrooms and the House Chamber. Anderson used this opportunity to learn lessons that would help him in his career. “I never wrote anything down,” he remarked, “but I made a lot of mental notes about the people that I liked and why I liked them and why some were clearly more successful than others—why some people enjoyed a respect and a trust and a fondness and others didn’t.”
In particular, he took special note of the House Officers at the time, especially Clerk of the House Ralph R. Roberts. When making a delivery to his office one day Anderson quizzed Roberts about the responsibilities of his position. “And I sort of made up mind then and there being Clerk of the House has to be the best job in the world,” Anderson recalled. “And my fantasy as a 17-year-old high school senior was to be the Clerk of the House.”
On an average day Anderson answered phones in the cloakroom, connected Members with their offices, or requested a long distance line for Representatives (which in 1960 required the assistance of Capitol telephone operators). His time as a Page also provided rare access to the cloakroom's snack bar—a cozy, informal setting where Members discussed politics and brokered legislative deals away from the limelight. Anderson recalled how his Page service taught him the ins and outs of the House Floor and how Members interacted with each other.
After his time as a Page, Anderson took advantage of the House’s then ubiquitous patronage system to find employment at the Capitol. Between 1961 and 1969 he held a series of jobs that offered valuable experience. As an elevator operator, Anderson made many acquaintances among Members and staff. In what he described as a “little village on the Hill,” he quickly matched faces with names and prided himself in knowing who got off on which floors. As part of his patronage appointment, Anderson also spent time working for Congressman Jimmy Morrison of Louisiana where he assisted with mass mailings, studying the nuances and patterns of a Member office.
Continuing to amass diverse work experience in the House, Anderson next found employment as an enrolling clerk—another patronage appointment spearheaded by Representative Morrison that Anderson considered a “career-building” advancement. He enjoyed the new challenges of the job, including the precision and attention to detail required to ensure the accuracy of each bill. “It also gave me my first real insight into the legislative processes of the House in a hands-on way,” he noted.
In 1969 Anderson returned to the Democratic Cloakroom—this time as the second managerial assistant. Already familiar with the cloakroom’s inner workings, Anderson became an expert on floor procedures and scheduling. “The reason I got to be good at what I did was I did it unceasingly,” Anderson observed. “I was always there. So I became a reliable source of information, being able to make forecasts about the [legislative] program.” Members often sought out his judgment and helpful advice to navigate the complexities of the House Floor.
For decades, the Democratic Cloakroom had little staff turnover, meaning that people who worked there did so for long stretches. But Anderson arrived during a transitional period, and within four years he had risen to manage the space—a development he jokingly described as a “rather meteoric rise,” given the slow pace of advancement during the previous period.
During his 18 years in the cloakroom Anderson closely monitored activity on the House Floor. He studied parliamentary procedures and developed a thorough understanding of the legislative schedule. Anderson also implemented new technologies to improve communication with Members about the floor schedule. He recalled that in the pre-cellphone era he worked with Members to test out electronic beepers as a way to relay messages about House proceedings. The House eventually supplied beepers to all interested Members—except for a few holdouts, according to Anderson. “Like anything, there’s an upside and a downside with Members—having such a long umbilical, now being able to move about freely, confident that they receive timely notification of votes and leadership information—had a tendency to try to stretch just how far afield they could go in hopes that they could get back in time.” All in all, though, he regarded the experiment as a success because it provided Representatives with unprecedented flexibility.
As a longtime cloakroom manager, Anderson built lasting relationships with Members who relied on him for accurate information. Although he answered to the Democratic leadership he also strove to work across the aisle and assist Republican Members when scheduling questions arose, taking pride in the level of bipartisan trust he fostered.
Anderson, who never lost sight of his childhood goal of becoming Clerk of the House, quietly amassed growing influence for his dependability and even-handed approach. Year after year he pushed for updates to help Members stay informed, and participated in events like the new Member orientation program to offer assistance to first-term Representatives. Throughout it all, Anderson devoted his time to learning and preparing for whatever opportunity came next. “And then, just keep building on that the same way, discharging your current responsibilities well and faithfully, at the same time developing additional skills that will enable you to move to a higher level of responsibility.”
In the end, Anderson’s patient and methodical approach worked. On January 6, 1987, Donnald K. Anderson was sworn in as the Clerk of the House for the 100th Congress (1987–1989). “My goal for 27 years was to be Clerk of the House, and I thought in anticipation of that,” he recalled.
Anderson’s institutional outlook, which put the House above party loyalty, became a cornerstone of his time as Clerk. “After I was elected Clerk, I carried that bipartisan spirit to the Clerk’s Office, ensuring that my office was absolutely nonpartisan, that we treated all Members with the same courtesy, the same expediency, the same confidentiality, so that Members of the minority, if they had problems with the Clerk, dealt with things that had great sensitivity, that they could unburden themselves with me, even though I was a Democrat, knowing that I would never break their confidence.”
Anderson served as Clerk for eight years, retiring in January of 1995. Over nearly four decades in the House, the former teenage Page from California devoted his life to the institution, becoming something of an institution himself. It was, he said in his oral history, like a dream.
Sources: “Donnald K. Anderson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 5 October 2006.Follow @USHouseHistory