MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Senator Rand Paul did get a lot of attention for his nearly 13-hour filibuster, but the Kentucky Republican wouldn't even crack the top five for the longest talking filibusters. The top spot goes to South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond back in 1957. He held the floor for over 24 hours. For more on that and other notable filibusters, we talked to Senate historian Donald Ritchie. He says back in 1957, Senator Thurmond came to the Senate floor ready.
DONALD RITCHIE: Well, Strom Thurmond was - he was a physical fitness buff, and so he was actually in very good shape. And he came prepared with lots of books on the subject. They will come in with a stack of law books and other books. There's sort of a myth that senators read the phone directory. But actually, during most debates, they take it very seriously. And the issues that they read tend to be things about the subject that they're concerned with, so when you read the record the next day, most of it is on point.
BLOCK: You know, it's worth noting that the number of filibusters in the past, including Strom Thurmond's from 1957, were used to stop civil rights bills, before that, anti-lynching bills.
RITCHIE: That's right. It became a tool that Southern senators used to prevent the federal government from intervening in racial segregation in the South. In the 1930s, it was anti-lynching laws. By the 1950s and '60s, it was civil rights legislation. And as a result, other senators chose not to filibuster for the most part because they didn't want to support this tool that was being used by those who were trying to prevent an end to segregation.
BLOCK: I had a good time reading about a filibuster from Senator Huey Long of Louisiana back in 1935, talking, as a Louisianan would, about food and talking about how to make pot liquor. He said if you had a pot of turnip greens about two-thirds the size of this wastebasket - holding up a wastebasket - you ought to put in about a 1-pound hunk of side meat and then went into great detail about just how to create a perfect pot liquor.
RITCHIE: Yes. Huey Long was known as the kingfish, and he was a very colorful senator. He also quoted a lot from the Bible during that filibuster. He liked to quote from Shakespeare. And, in fact, the reporters of debate in the Senate still have the biblical concordance and the copy of Shakespeare that he gave them to make sure that they got the quotes right when they transcribed his speeches. He was very particular about that. But his recipes, his folk humor, that was a part of his persona and part of his filibusters.
And he filibustered quite a bit against both the policies of Herbert Hoover and the policies of Franklin Roosevelt. He was a little out of step with everybody else at that time.
BLOCK: You mentioned that it's a myth that senators actually go and read the phone book in a filibuster. What are some of the more colorful examples of things people have read as part of a talking filibuster?
RITCHIE: Well, I know that in the 19th century, there were complaints that they were reading novels by Charles Dickens. "The Pickwick Papers," apparently, were a favorite. People were a little more aware of current literature, and they would refer back to - people talked about Shakespeare. They talked about things that they had memorized. They - these were senators who had classical educations. You know, senators throughout history have liked to talk. And they've usually found no shortage of subjects to talk about.
BLOCK: Now, as we spoke with Senate historian Donald Ritchie, we also wanted to explore one mundane but important fact about Rand Paul's filibuster. He said this at the very end of his very long speech.
SENATOR RAND PAUL: And I would go for another 12 hours to try to break Strom Thurmond's record, but I've discovered that there are some limits to filibustering. And I'm going to have to go take care of one of those in a few minutes here.
BLOCK: And with that, Senator Paul left the floor and presumably went to the men's room. As he pointed out today on CNN, bathroom breaks are not allowed during a filibuster. Technically speaking, he is right, but historian Donald Ritchie told us senators in the middle of a filibuster have found workarounds for that little complication.
RITCHIE: There have been all sorts of devices that senators have used to avoid that.
BLOCK: What kinds of devices?
RITCHIE: Well, there were catheters that were used...
BLOCK: Oh, come on.
RITCHIE: ...at various times. I kid you not.
BLOCK: You're joking.
RITCHIE: No. That's - we have oral histories with some of the staff who were involved in those debates at the time. And senators tried everything possible to make sure they could stay there as long as possible.
BLOCK: Are you going to name names?
RITCHIE: Well, Estes Kefauver, apparently, once had to ask special permission from the presiding officer to leave the chamber and not lose the floor during a filibuster because, apparently, his device had come undone during the debate.
BLOCK: Oh my. That's not - that's - well, that's a whole new image when - now when I think of Senator Kefauver. Senate historian Donald Ritchie there telling us some of the more quirky facts about filibuster history. Filibuster, the word filibuster, by the way, derives from the Dutch word for freebooter or pirate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.