When Myron Fleming arrived on Capitol Hill in 1963, he recalls a woman hurling a racial remark his way not long after he was hired.
“Hell, if she thinks I’m uppity, she ought to see the rest of [my family],” said the voluble 72-year-old African-American, who retired last week as Senate director of doorkeepers. “I can’t do anything but pray for her. Perhaps she’ll change someday.”
Sadly, it was not uncommon for the time. “I really don’t think members knew how ugly it was,” Fleming said.
Over the course of 40 years on Capitol Hill, however, he has witnessed a sea change in American race relations, from the struggle for civil rights to the election of President Obama.
During that time, the Senate Office of the Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper has grown significantly, he said. The Capitol constable now commands a platoon of doorkeepers. “The way of the world today is you manage more guests,” Fleming said.
Fleming grew up in Cleveland, the son of a contractor. “We were always considered very middle-class; my father provided well. We had everything we were supposed to have.”
He credits his ninth-grade social-studies teacher, Cornella Coulter, with steering him toward politics. She was an imperious but benign instructor. “If you got the spelling of the name wrong, a point was taken off,” Fleming recalled. “She was a no-nonsense teacher and very young—hell, she hadn’t been teaching more than three years.”
Fleming came to Washington as an aide to his hometown House member, the late Democratic Rep. Charles Vanik of Ohio, but left after seven years to work for Random House and McGraw-Hill in New York. A decade later, he returned to Capitol Hill as a staff member for Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio.
“During that period, there were not a lot of blacks in big positions on the Hill,” Fleming said. “Senator Metzenbaum told [then-Senate Sergeant at Arms F. Nordy Hoffman], ‘I’m sending you one of mine. He’s from my home. I know his family. He hasn’t been accustomed to a broom or a mop in his hand. Give him something good.’
“It was just like that; nothing else. Poor Mr. Hoffman did what he was supposed to do and took care of me.”
Fleming started as a driver for Hoffman while the sergeant at arms tried to find him a job on the Senate floor. When Republicans gained control of the Senate in 1981, Hoffman was succeeded by Howard S. Liebengood, who moved Fleming to the “pass desk,” which issues credentials so that staffers can go on the floor. Fleming remained there for 15 years. “In that particular job,” he said, “you’re dealing with the people who really run the Senate—the chiefs of staff and the directors of the committees.”
When Gregory S. Casey was elected sergeant at arms in 1996, he placed a call to Fleming. “Myron, why didn’t you apply for the big job [director of doorkeepers]?” Casey asked. “Greg, I’m not even interested in it,” Fleming replied. “If you leave me here and give me $10,000 more, I’ll stay put and be quiet.”
“No, we can’t do that, because we have the [Congressional] Accountability Act now. Can’t I interest you in the job?”
Five minutes later, Casey summoned Fleming to his office.
“We sat and we talked in his office for about two hours or longer,” Fleming said. “He just knew everything that had happened and what was going on, and he felt that I was the person to run the entire doorkeeper operation. He said to me [that] the reason he had wanted me to have the position was because he had checked around on both sides of the aisle, and everyone thought I was perfect for the job, that I showed no partisanship—which I never did. I couldn’t give a damn if someone was a Democrat or a Republican. I always left party to the members.”
Fleming accepted the position.
As Fleming prepared to exit last week, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., praised the garrulous director of doorkeepers on the Senate floor. “He has a wonderful personality,” he said. “He is someone who helps keep order in this institution, and his presence in the Senate is one that is calming. Everyone who knows him likes him. It just will not be the same without him.”
Some years ago, when Reid was managing floor operations for then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., “There was this big crash,” Reid recalled. “Myron was rushing around doing the work he did, and he could not have done a better pirouette if he [had] been a ballerina. He flipped in the air and came crashing down.… Myron just got up, smiled, and walked away.”
This article appears in the March 19, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Closing the Door on the Senate.