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Richard A. Arenberg: Staff to Senators Paul Tsongas, George Mitchell and Carl Levin

Photo of Richard Arenberg

“It’s the white noise of my professional life.”

Arenberg, interviewed by Senate historian Donald Ritchie, discusses how his life as a Senate staffer changed when C-SPAN began airing Senate proceedings in 1986.

RITCHIE: And then afterwards C-SPAN was on in the background. But how different was life before C-SPAN?

ARENBERG: Well, one skill I have, and people like me had prior to TV, is I knew all 100 voices. You couldn’t function very well without doing that. There was just a “squawk box” on my desk with an audio feed from the floor. Because if you didn’t hear the presiding officer recognize “the senator from Iowa,” and you didn’t know the voice, then you weren’t going to know—there was no way to follow what was going on on the floor. You didn’t know who was saying what to whom. So that’s the very first thing that was different, was I knew every senator by voice. And I think, in many ways, it was very similar even when it was on TV, where you develop a listening ability where it isn’t even about the words, it’s about the rhythms. You develop a sense—it’s almost like animal trainers. The Senate becomes an organism to you and you can sense its tones and its moods. Suddenly I would realize that I had to pay close attention.

The voice of the majority leader was one of those things that caught your attention. When the majority leader took the floor, you might very likely be about to get a very important piece of information about what was about to happen or what was going on or so forth. So certainly his voice was one of those clues. But often it was just a question of tone. Was it just another senator droning on with a drafted speech that you didn’t have to pay a whole lot of attention to or was the debate coming to a point? Was it quickening or were we about to have a roll call? Was something coming to a head? Was something very real happening on the floor? Suddenly, were two senators engaged in a real live colloquy where they were exchanging barbs or, you know, something was going on. So that was a very important thing. Then in later years, of course, the direct C-SPAN link was sitting there on my desk and one eye was on the floor, to the point now where, my wife thinks it’s hysterical, but there’s a TV on my desk in my office at home and I watch C-SPAN constantly. Because, after all those years, I just find it hard to be productive without the Senate droning on in the background.

RITCHIE: White noise, right?

ARENBERG: It’s the white noise of my professional life. That’s exactly right.