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Lady Gaga's No Match for the Senate's Telephone System

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, September 17 2010

Lady Gaga used her time in the spotlight at MTV's Video Music Awards last Sunday to wage a one-woman protest against the U.S. military's Don't Ask Don't Tell ban on service by openly gay servicemembers, and she's since gone about recruiting others to the cause, working with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, including shooting the video above in which Gaga explains how you go about doing personal advocacy against the ban.

Idaho Senator K.I. Perky back in the good old days before United States senators were forced to dial their own phones.

Ben Smith picks up on one twist in the video. Even Lady Gaga is flummoxed by the United States Senate's in-house telephone system. After the New York dials home-state senator Chuck Schumer, the line rings for a while before turning into a busy signal. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's voicemail box is full. Gaga handles it well, adlibbing, "try calling after nine a.m. tomorrow morning -- I'll be on the phone, too." Perhaps Lauren and Ellie would stick with it, but one wonders if other off-camera activists Lady Gaga's recruiting will be so diligent.

Twenty-first century digital advocacy meets a Senate infrastructure not quite ready for it. After the jump, history provides a hint at the context for what awaits Lady Gaga on the other end of the line, in the form of the remarkable tale of United States senators' 1930's uprising against the introduction of operator-less dial telephones to the Senate.

In the spring of 1930, the Senate considered the following resolution:

Whereas dial telephones are more difficult to operate than are manual telephones; and Whereas Senators are required, since the installation of dial phones in the Capitol, to perform the duties of telephone operators in order to enjoy the benefits of telephone service; and Whereas dial telephones have failed to expedite telephone service; Therefore be it resolved that the Sergeant at Arms of the Senate is authorized and directed to order the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. to replace with manual phones within 30 days after the adoption of this resolution, all dial telephones in the Senate wing of the United States Capitol and in the Senate office building.

Sponsored by Virginia's Carter Glass, the resolution passed without objection when first considered on May 22, 1930. Arizona's Henry Ashurst praised its sponsor for his restrained language. The Congressional Record would not be mailable, he said, "if it contained in print what Senators think of the dial telephone system." When Washington Senator Clarence Dill asked why the resolution did not also ban the dial system from the District of Columbia, Glass said he hoped the phone company would take the hint.

One day before the scheduled removal of all dial phones, Maryland Senator Millard Tydings offered a resolution to give senators a choice. It appeared that some of the younger senators actually preferred the dial phones. This angered the anti-dial senators, who immediately blocked the measure's consideration.

Finally, technology offered a solution. Although the telephone company had pressed for the installation of an all-dial system, it acknowledged that it could provide the Senate with phones that worked both ways. But Senator Dill was not ready to give up. In his experience, the dial phone "could not be more awkward than it is. One has to use both hands to dial; he must be in a position where there is good light, day or night, in order to see the number; and if he happens to turn the dial not quite far enough, then he gets a wrong connection."

Senator Glass, the original sponsor, had the last word before the Senate agreed to the compromise plan. "Mr. President, so long as I am not pestered with the dial and may have the manual telephone, while those who want to be pestered with [the dial] may have it, all right."

To think what would happen if they were as passionate today about their voicemail not working.