'Super Bowl' is Tuesday for House doorkeeper

January 26, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday night, millions of Americans will gather in front of their TV sets to hear President Bush detail the state of this union.

But first they'll be hearing from Jim Molloy.

Mr. Molloy, the doorkeeper of the House, has been introducing men who need no introduction for nearly two decades. Before every State of the Union address, he ambles down the center aisle of the House chamber, straightens his beefy frame and bellows: "Mr. Speaker! The President of the United States!"

"Do I worry about it? Yeah," says the fast-talking 55-year-old former longshoreman, munching on a toothpick in his cluttered Capitol Hill office. "But I worry about it when it's over; it moves too fast."

Right now he is working 14- to 16-hour days trying to arrange seating -- not to mention media coverage and logistics -- for this joint session of Congress. It is no easy task to stuff what amounts to virtually the entire U.S. government, along with official family members and foreign ambassadors, into one room.

"We fill every nook and cranny," says Mr. Molloy, who first organized and announced President Ford's 1975 address. "It's show business and we're the producers. It's our Super Bowl."

Hundreds of ticket requests come from around the capital and the country, from lobbyists and embassy staff members to students. "We try to get some element of fairness," says Mr. Molloy, noting that a snappy letter might get a respondent a ticket.

Presidents "shall from time to time give to Congress information on the State of the Union," the U.S. Constitution states, but most just sent their speech by carriage to Capitol Hill. It was President Woodrow Wilson who institutionalized the more formal address Americans have come to expect.

Mr. Molloy's job and others like it have been around since before the earliest days of the republic, "a throwback to the days when they had powdered wigs," he notes.

Mr. Molloy can recall no major glitches during his stewardship over the past two decades. But there have been some humorous -- and tense -- moments.

Before Mr. Molloy introduced President Ford's Cabinet before one address, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger poked his head inside the chamber and whispered, "Tell them Henry and the boys are here." Mr. Molloy was afraid he'd blow his lines, but he didn't.

Another time, when the Supreme Court was ready to stroll down the aisle, Mr. Molloy announced: "Mr. Speaker! The Supreme Court!"

The next day, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger called, and he wasn't happy. The correct introduction, he informed Mr. Molloy, was: "Mr. Speaker, the chief justice and associate justices of the Supreme Court."

"He told me he was disturbed, felt that I showed disrespect for the court," said Mr. Molloy, who apologized and wrote to Mr. Burger. "He was a decent guy. . . . It was like a teacher talking to a student."

Working in the Capitol -- with a nice view of The Mall from his window -- is "the major league" for this "political creature" from Buffalo, N.Y., who recalls endless talk of unions and candidates at his Uncle "Fuzzy" Molloy's saloon.

He worked the South Buffalo docks as a longshoreman and then as a fireman. During that time, he also earned a law degree and rose quickly in the Democratic Party.

At 27, Mr. Molloy was the youngest Democratic ward chairman in New York state, and he was involved in the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and the Senate campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. Soon, he rode the patronage train from Buffalo to Washington, where he became the House of Representatives' top finance officer in 1969.

With the election that followed the Watergate scandal in 1974, reform-minded freshmen Congress members wanted to flex their muscles against the old order. As part of their plan -- and with Mr. Molloy's enthusiastic participation -- they ousted Doorkeeper William "Fishbait" Miller, a wise-cracking Mississippi native who had held the job for 28 years.

Besides organizing the State of the Union address, Mr. Molloy's $115,000-per-year job is largely an administrative one, overseeing some 500 employees, including pages and doormen, and keeping watch over House mail, photography and official documents.

He also announces all visitors to the House, from kings and queens to presidents and prime ministers. And he refers to them all as if they were beer-and-a-shot buddies at a South Buffalo bar.

"A super guy," he says of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney; the Dalai Lama, "I just liked him"; and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, "a very nice lady."

Mr. Molloy soon bounds from his chair, ready to put the finishing touches on another State of the Union extravaganza, and then pauses: "I'm probably the luckiest stiff in the world."

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