As it was being made ... he typed history

Court reporter Ed Johnson’s post is now at his keyboard in front of the bench of Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Malloy, but it was once in front of the rostrum of the president of the United States. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

As a court reporter for the U.S. House of Representatives for 12 years, Ed Johnson of Port Washington recorded discussions that would become laws affecting the entire country, creating transcripts from the words of political leaders and celebrities championing various causes.

“I loved the process of legislation being made. You were a witness to history,” he said.

In 2015, Johnson nearly made some of his own.

He was the court reporter for the State of the Union Address, sitting right below President Barack Obama and transcribing what he said on national television.

Johnson arrived at the House chamber early to set up. He noticed a glass on the shelf above him that someone came in to polish. It was later filled with water for the president, who shook his hand before and after the address.

During the speech, Johnson was working away on his stenotype machine when he started coughing. The fit would not go away. For a fleeting moment, he had a horrific thought that the president may actually interrupt his speech and turn to offer him a sip of water. Johnson figured that would be the end of his career — not to mention the subject of countless memes.

But with 35 years of experience in the field at the time, Johnson knew enough to keep a cough drop in his pocket. He quickly took it out, popped it in his mouth and kept typing. The coughing subsided, and the most memorable part of the event turned out to be Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg apparently falling asleep.

While that was his most public near-miss, Johnson had another moment of hilarity during intense debate in the House.

Not long after he began the job, the tripod on Johnson’s stenotype machine struck a door on the way into the House, and one of its legs broke. Johnson didn’t notice until he got set up and the machine fell forward. He balanced it in his lap as he typed during a discussion on the Affordable Care Act.

That’s when Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from New York, said something to the effect of, “The Republican party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the health insurance industry.”

Another representative asked that Weiner’s statement be removed from the record due to a violation of decorum. Johnson had to take his busted machine to the reading clerk to have the statement written out longhand.

“Sure enough, this is when my machine breaks,” Johnson said.

House reporters work in 15-minute segments so they can finalize their drafts to be ready for the Congressional Record the next morning. His replacement was supposed to be watching and jump in to help, but arrived late.

One of the highlights of his career in the House, Johnson said, was capturing the speech of the prime minister of Australia during a visit to the U.S. He also heard Gen. David Patraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker speak on the Iraq War in two committees.

But the House floor wasn’t what Johnson enjoyed the most about his time in Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2018, during all of Obama’s administration and portions of those of George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

His heart, he said, was in the committees, where the real work on legislation is done. By the time bills hit the floor, people were “beating each other over the head with clubs verbally,” he said.

Committee work often went deep into the night. Defense bills could run to 3 a.m. and the budget bills always ran late.

Johnson needed three levels of security clearance to work for the Intelligence Committee. While transcripts were created, the public only sees those when they are declassified. He heard discussions on the Benghazi attack and the early stages of the Russia investigation.

“It can get intense,” Johnson said.

Johnson captured an interview of Roger Clemens about steroids in baseball and statements on violence against women from Nicole Kidman. Johnson isn’t a Chicago Bears fan but he had his photo taken with retired linebacker Dick Butkus, who testified about HGH testing in the NFL.

He has appeared on C-SPAN many times and was once on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in a shot that panned the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, known as the “House of Wax” since the chairman was Henry Waxman.

“If it was on the news, I was either in the room or it was going on down the hall,” he said.

Johnson said he needed help to understand what one congressman said. A colleague from the East Coast helped him translate Barney Frank’s Bostonian accent. Johnson, in turn, helped her decipher Paul Ryan’s Midwestern dialect.

Johnson grew up in Neillsville, Wis., the son of a court reporter. On non-school days, his stepfather took him to court and Johnson would sit in the audience during interesting cases.

Johnson was a fast typer in high school and ended up majoring in court and conference reporting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which along with Lakeland University in Sheboygan are the only schools in the state to offer the program.

Johnson became skilled in shorthand on his stenotype machine.

Johnson freelanced in 1980, then worked for Marinette County from 1981 to 1987 before working for Ozaukee County Circuit Court judges Warren Grady and Tom Wolfgram from 1987 to 2007.

Involvement in the state and national court reporters’ associations gave him connections to Washington, D.C. One too many monotonous drunken driving jury trials caused him to seek a job in the nation’s Capitol.

He took a high-end test to earn his federal job, reaching 260 words per minute on his stenotype machine. On manual typewriters decades ago, he could reach 55 words per minute.

One of his favorite benefits of working in Washington, D.C., was soaking up all the American history he could. He loved giving tours of the Capitol, which could last as long as three hours. He showed people where Abraham Lincoln’s desk sat, the crypt where George Washington was to be buried and is still empty today, and where Andrew Jackson was nearly assassinated — Richard Lawrence’s gunpowder was too moist and the gun misfired twice as Jackson used his walking cane to beat Lawrence.

One of the things most people don’t understand about D.C., Johnson said, is that it is largely run by staff.

“They have an outsized role people don’t appreciate,” he said.

Johnson always planned to return to Wisconsin, and by 2018 he had his fill of Washington, D.C.

“The atmosphere in D.C. has been changing,” he said. “It’s emblematic of the divisions of the country. Congress reflects that.”

Now, Johnson works for Ozaukee Circuit Court Judge Paul Malloy in a more relaxed environment. Johnson is the court’s only reporter but, unlike in Congress, he may interrupt if he can’t hear someone or to clarify the spelling of a name.

Johnson has spoken at court reporter conferences across the country, covering serious topics and serving as the entertainment with industry-specific jokes. He said court reports don’t have to be verbatim but just capture the gist. “I can be the official court gister,” he said.

Johnson honed his comedic skills in the 1990s when he attended a stand-up comedy boot camp in Milwaukee. He worked clubs in Appleton and Milwaukee, emceed at Summerfest and did private events, but those days are now gone.

Today, Johnson enjoys reading historical nonfiction, hiking and birdwatching in the Port area. People here, he said, are friendlier than the “focused” bunch in D.C.




Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login