Read With Resonance

Yielding the Floor After 19 Years as Voice of the House

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 11, 2007

In the three days leading up to the impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton, Paul Hays studied the words closely. "High crimes and misdemeanors," those criteria that make a president eligible for impeachment. He wanted to understand the words fully -- "misdemeanor" didn't have the same meaning it does in court, he concluded, but was a more forceful word, a "bad act."

As reading clerk of the House of Representatives, Hays would be the first to pronounce the articles of impeachment against Clinton, and that he did for 12 1/2 minutes on Dec. 18, 1998. "All that work I put into it, and I don't think I changed a single vote," Hays quipped in a recent interview.

Hays, 61, was feted on the Hill yesterday after retiring last week as Republican reading clerk. He had held the post for nearly two decades -- and spent nearly 41 years working in the House. He became a fixture over the years, members recall, his authoritative voice projecting the text of legislation, messages from the president and other congressional business to the chamber and over C-SPAN for, sometimes, 13 hours a day.

"Paul is much more than a reading clerk. Paul is somebody who understands the legislative process," says Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who as chief of staff to then-Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) helped hire Hays as reading clerk. "People like Paul Hays have been willing to give their life to the House of Representatives. He may be a dying breed."

There's no word on when a successor might be chosen for the $90,000-a-year job. That task falls to Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). There's also a Democratic reading clerk, Mary Kevin Niland, though the reading clerks play virtually no partisan roles.

The impeachment proceeding was the only time Hays got to rehearse a text; he usually received texts only moments before they were to be read. Hays, an ardent Republican who once served as the head of the District GOP, also had to try to repress the impulse to treat the episode personally, he said. Hays's wife, a GOP activist, had led the legal fund for Paula Jones, who sued Clinton, alleging sexual harassment. And Hays had been classmates with Clinton when the future president of the United States was president of the freshman class at Georgetown University. "I voted for him when he ran for president -- the election of 1964," he says.

Hays came to Washington from Tennessee on his 14th birthday, in 1960, to apply for a job as a page at the Supreme Court. Interviewed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, he served a four-year appointment at the court, then went to Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. At the end of his sophomore year, he won an entry-level Republican patronage job as an indexer in the House clerk's office, and he never left.

In 1988, Hays became the reading clerk. His first major task was to read excerpts of President Ronald Reagan's 1988 budget, a 35-minute exercise that was a lesson in the endurance needed in this new job. "Later one day, one of the old-timers passed me and said, 'Paul, I just want you to know that . . . it was the first time in all my years that the reading clerk actually believed what he was reading.' That was what I intended, and it set the tone for all 19 years I did that," Hays recalls.

Hays, an amateur historian, sometimes passed the time by doing crossword puzzles -- until the House clerk told him he shouldn't be scribbling away in the well of the House. "He's a genius. I've never seen anybody as good as he is on crosswords. He'd give me helpful hints," said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), one of Hays's close acquaintances in the House.

"Paul brought an awful lot of history to the House," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).

One day in 1999, golfing with Hays, Simpson noticed that Hays appeared disoriented, and he encouraged Hays to see a doctor. Soon after, Hays had a stroke that paralyzed his vocal cords. He couldn't speak.

"Everybody thought that was the end of my career," recalled Hays, who over six months regained his voice.

But this year, Hays decided it was the right time to retire, having passed early-retirement age, maxed out on the benefits he could receive, and tired of coming home a few nights a week near midnight. Though the demands of the job have changed -- progress in audio equipment means a stentorian voice such as Hays's is no longer required, and members more frequently decide to waive reading -- he expects the job to exist for many more years, if just for ceremonial purposes.

And although he now plans to expand with voice-over work for commercials, he expects his time as reading clerk to stick with him. A few years ago, he was in York, S.C., sitting at the county archives. When Hays briefly spoke to an archivist, someone asked whether Hays was from Washington. "Why, yes, I am," Hays said.

"Do you work on Capitol Hill? " the man asked.

"Sir, I do," Hays said.

"I thought I recognized you, but when I finally heard your voice, it clicked."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company