Domenici staffers -- perhaps a reflection of the Senator's own rather laid-back demeanor -- always seem to always be among the funniest and most self-deprecating people around, and I spent much of the evening, as it seems I spent much of my seven years on the staff, in one hilarious conversation after another. As I chatted with one colleague, for example, who had served as one of my Legislative Correspondents before moving on to the private sector, our discussion went like this:
Me: "...so where did you go after leaving the Hill?"That was par for the course for the evening. And also keeping with the habits that made us famous, the open bar was completely decimated -- it looked like it had been hit by a bomb, frankly -- while the free food remained largely untouched. Old habits die hard.
Him: "I got into banking, and worked for a while at Lehman Brothers. But now I work for the federal government again."
Me: "Oh really? For who?"
*insert rimshot here*
There was a hodgepodge of memorabilia for the taking -- mostly plaques and awards that couldn't be packed away, and framed artwork that had hung on the walls since . . . well, forever. And for collectors of political rarities, there was an enormous stack of campaign stickers for the 2008 Re-Election Campaign That Never Was:
The Senator himself made brief remarks, his formerly booming voice (the one I always called his "speechifyin' voice") now raspy but still authoritative. "I'm hoping I was able to give each of you a little something," he said to us, "and I think you all gave a little bit of yourselves back to New Mexico, and to the country."
The celebration was touted as commemorating "the end of an empire," but I never really felt "empire" was the right word. It sounds a bit too . . . iron-fisted or militaristic, which was never the way Senator, or his staff, did things. Perhaps "the end of an era" is a better way of putting it -- an era of unequalled service to New Mexico, to the United States Senate, and to the country, that spanned across four decades.
When we've had staff reunions in the past, we tended to break up into clusters defined, as I see it now, largely by Presidential terms. Always, it seems, standing closest to the Senator were the 70's Staff -- the cool kids, who got in the door first and went through the rough and tumble Nixon-Ford-Carter years. Then there was The 80's Staff, composed of disciplined budgeteers, who worked through the Reagan era, sometimes shepherding Reagan's budgets through, other times fighting his tax cuts. The 90's Staff were the acerbic workhorses -- an offbeat group that fenced and bantered in the tumultous politics of the Newt Gingrich/Bill Clinton era -- while "The 'Oughts", serving from 2000 on, are the committed policy mavens of post 9/11 America. Last night, however, there were no cliques or clusters; instead, it was simply one enormous, extended family.
My evening ended on an entirely appropriate and fitting note. As a colleague and I were leaving, we stepped off of the elevator on the first floor of the Dirksen Building, only to run into Senator and Mrs. Domenici, who were on their way back in. "Senator forgot his coat," Mrs. Domenici explained in that disarmingly apologetic way she has. Almost on autopilot, we steered the Domenicis off to one side, sitting them down near the security station in the care of two Capitol Police, then went back upstairs to retrieve the Senator's coat.
We delivered it to him at the front door of the Dirksen Building, then -- again, almost on autopilot -- waited until he had squirmed his way into the wool topcoat, then held open the door as he and Mrs. Domenici passed through it and into the brisk December night.
Once a staffer, always a staffer. And I wouldn't have it any other way.