Benjamin C. West
“On slack days and non-event days I used to spend a lot of time in the attic of the Capitol building. Not many people know there was an attic. And I would rummage through old ledgers and I’m surprised I have any respiratory system left... A lot of the old payroll handwritten records were bound and some were not. Some were just stacked. Some would be in an old paper bag that disintegrated when you lifted it. And so I spent a lot of time rummaging through those things... And the result of all that kind of rummaging about is that it manifested itself into an intense interest in the House of Representatives as an institution. And also as kind of a press gallery historian.
— Benjamin West, August 24, 2005
Benjamin West joined the staff of the House Press Gallery in 1942 when he was 15 years old. His 44-year career spanned the pinnacle and the decline of the newspaper as Americans’ primary source of information and the ascendancy of electronic media. In this series of interviews, West discussed the evolution of the House Press Gallery, particularly as the press sought to explain federal actions and policies that had become increasingly important in Americans’ everyday lives. He described the structure of the gallery, related its early history, and detailed its daily operations under its second and third superintendents, William J. Donaldson, Jr., and Richard (Dick) Embly. West explained the role of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, mentioning many of its key members, and its dynamic relationship with the gallery. He recalled pioneering women reporters and African-American reporters in the 1940s and historic events such as the 1954 shooting in the House Chamber and the 1974 Nixon impeachment hearings, both of which he witnessed. West also provided insight into the complex role of the gallery staff—particularly the superintendent—in its efforts to serve “two masters”: the press and the Members and staff.
Benjamin C. West was born on December 27, 1926, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He grew up near the Capitol and was educated in District of Columbia public schools, graduating from the D.C. Evening High School in 1945. West served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. At an early age, he began delivering newspapers to support his family. In 1942 at age 15, West took a three-month position as a part-time electrician’s helper in the Office of the Architect of the Capitol. He then worked as a Senate elevator operator for four months and subsequently secured a position in the House Press Gallery, where he remained for the next four decades. West began as a messenger and worked his way up the ranks before becoming superintendent of the press gallery in January 1969.
West oversaw the daily operations of the House Press Gallery during his 17 years as superintendent. He also supervised the remodeling and the modernization of the gallery, implemented a detailed reference system to facilitate reporting, and played a leading part in major gallery functions such as providing on-site management for national political conventions before his retirement from the House in April 1986 during the 99th Congress (1985–1987). Benjamin C. West died on June 13, 2014, in Cheverly, Maryland.
Eyewitness to History
Benjamin C. West provides a detailed account of the shooting in the House Chamber on March 1, 1954.
Meeting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Description of a chance encounter with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945.
The Nixon Impeachment Hearings
Background on the decision to hold the Nixon impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee Room in 1974.
Keeping a Log of the House Proceedings
Historical overview of the practice of keeping a legislative activity log in the House press galleries.
Remodeling of the House Press Gallery
Detailed description of the 1967 remodeling of the House Press Gallery.
Serving Two Masters
Personal account of the delicate balancing act performed by House Press Gallery directors in their role as mediators between the Members and the press.