You can't judge any book by cover in House lounge

Refuge: A library atmosphere but not a library, legislators relax and strategize in its comfort.

March 29, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In the lounge adjoining the grand House of Delegates chamber in Annapolis, there's a 1931 history titled The Epic of America. It stands in the corner of a bookshelf, perfectly concealing two cans of hair spray: Rave Ultra Hold and Mega Hold.

The juxtaposition is apt. In the hairdo-mussing final days of the General Assembly session, the House and Senate lounges are where some of the legislature's most important and most mundane moments occur.

Lobbyists aren't allowed in the lounges, and reporters can go in only so long as they don't report. The atmosphere is akin to that of a gentleman's club, where serious business might be at hand -- and so might a stiff scotch.

A recent eavesdropper in the House lounge would have heard Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, tell members of his Economic Matters Committee that his Catholic guilt was nagging him about a discussion from the day before.

A few steps away, Baltimore Del. Talmadge Branch was urgently explaining to a colleague that his bill to recognize Maryland Indians had nothing to do with gambling. Nearby, three high school girls working as pages mixed themselves hot cocoa and whispered about how busy they were.

Lawmakers hold high-stakes negotiations on warring bills in the lounges. They sometimes take naps there or escape boring debates. They gossip, eat and flirt. Last session, the black and women's caucuses gathered to plot strategy for a minority business bill and sang "We Shall Overcome."

One delegate got married in the House lounge.

What almost no one does in the lounge, though, is read.

"I've never seen anyone pick up a book. Are they real?" asked Baltimore Del. William H. Cole IV as he relaxed before session in a winged armchair.

Unlike the stately Senate lounge, decorated in dark woods and scarlet leather sofas, the House side has books. In 1997, when House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. oversaw a renovation of the space, he decided to add bookshelves at either end.

"Without turning it into a library, I was trying to give it a library atmosphere," Taylor said, adding that he hoped the tomes would remind lawmakers that their role is august.

"An important part of what this institution is all about is historic continuity."

Virginian Thomas Jefferson spent time in the Maryland State House, for instance. "The mob (for such was their appearance) ... were divided into little clubs amusing themselves in the common chit chat way," he wrote of his first impressions of the legislature. "In short every thing seems to be carried without the house in general's knowing what was proposed."

As it happens, Jefferson's writings, and all the other lounge books, were chosen by Alex Clymer, a woman whose specialty is neither political theory nor Maryland history, but interior design.

"So we had all these shelves, and the speaker really wanted it to look like a library, private clubroom, conference area kind of thing," the decorator said. "I went to several different bookstores, antiques stores, used-book stores. We were under a budget, too, don't forget."

The screen savers on the two computers in the corner show a candlelit 19th-century library. Clymer also put in a three-paneled standing screen that depicts the leather spines of classics -- by Dante, Proust, Tolstoy. Those fake books prompted Del. Kumar Barve of Montgomery County to check out the others.

"They are real books!" he declared, picking up one titled Lucy, about an eponymous archaeological find. "You know, I bet nobody's read this -- ever."

Clymer chose fusty, decorative volumes for the upper shelves, too high to reach or even to discern titles. For the lower shelves, she picked books someone might read.

"I tried to get a good mixture, because you never know who's going to be in office. I tried to be politically correct," she said.

That would explain why biographies of Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson are shelved within inches of each other. There's The Odyssey of the American Right and The Arrogance of Power -- and Done Crabbin'.

Many of the books Clymer bought have the ex libris stamp of H.A. Gunther Jr. Harry Gunther of Severna Park died about five years ago, his family said. He was an engineer and inventor who knew Jacques Cousteau and Stephen Ambrose and many politicians. And he was a bibliophile whose house could barely contain his collection.

Gunther's family had no idea part of his library was at the State House. "I think he would be really happy that they ended up where people would be exposed to them," said his granddaughter, Kim Wolf, 26. "But if he knew they were just sitting there, he'd probably be upset. He'd probably try to get people to read them."

A few people do read from the lounge collection. Taylor is one. He has borrowed from Winston Churchill's five-volume series on World War II. So has Del. John Arnick of Baltimore County, who's also borrowed books about Jefferson. ("I think about him all the time," Arnick said.)

Probably the lounge library's best patron was former House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole. He read Arthur Schlesinger on political cycles, Machiavelli's The Prince ("It was necessary if you were going to negotiate through the Prince George's delegation," Poole said) and a Henry Clay biography.

During particularly long and fruitless debates, he'd sometimes take his reading to the House floor, pointing out relevant passages to colleagues.

For Poole, the books in the lounge offered much-needed perspective during the end-of-session frenzy. So, one year, did a few shots of scotch. "I don't know if the taxpayers were better served by that or not," he said.

Those speakeasy days, when smoking and drinking were almost required lounge activities, are pretty much over. Smoking, at least, is banned. As for the hair spray, Taylor doesn't know a thing about it.

"Not mine, not mine. I don't have any hair," he said.

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