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When Connecticut Rep. Al Morano (R) spotted reporters massed in the corridor outside his office in the Cannon House Office Building on the morning of June 16, 1955, he assumed the waiting press was meant for him.
Strolling up to the crowd — the hallway was dense with television cameras and lights and reporters from the city’s major newspapers — the lawmaker inquired, “Where do you want me?”
“‘Will you please move out of the way?” came the response from a cameraman, who looked at Morano and issued a second blow: “Your low-paid assistant is who we want.”
Roll Call founder Sid Yudain, the assistant in demand that day, smiles as he delivers the punchline to one of his favorite — and often repeated — anecdotes about the newspaper he established five decades ago.
The reporters gathered in 1955 inside the Cannon Building had come to record the first issue of Roll Call, 10,000 copies of which had saturated Capitol Hill earlier that day, and interview its publisher.
“It was a first,” Yudain explains of the widespread interest in the newspaper’s premiere edition. “There had never been a real newspaper [about the Hill]. There had been about a dozen attempts, different people tried to start papers, but nothing on the scale that I did. The first issue was a real newspaper and their newspapers were all poems and people writing essays, and had nothing much to do with Congress actually.”
‘We Ought To Have a Newspaper’
Arriving on the Hill a few years earlier with the then-freshman Morano, Yudain observed that few publications offered a “personal look” at Congress and its 531 Members. Most newspaper lifestyle sections at the time preferred to devote space to society figures, not lawmakers.
“When I came to Congress it just seemed that this was the most important community in the world, probably,” Yudain recalls. “And it had no community newspaper, nothing.
“The only news coming out of Congress was about legislation, mainly,” he continues, “which bored me, and I think bored most people, including some of the Congressmen, or most of them.”
Yudain envisioned a publication that would bring the Congressional community together, and he saw among his Capitol Hill brethren an ample supply of contributors — after all, “almost everybody brought a newspaperman from home to be their press secretary.”
“I just kept thinking that we ought to have a newspaper,” Yudain says, although he admits he talked up his plans long before acting on them.
It was a leisurely after-hours visit in the spring of 1955 with several members of the Ohio delegation, including then-Rep. Bill Ayres (R), that would provide Yudain the spark to finally produce a newspaper.
“In those days people did drink, and after work, after 5 usually, you could walk into almost any office and people are having cocktails and talking,” Yudain explains. “Everybody would walk in — Democrat, Republican — and one day this Congressman Bill Ayres, who was a good friend of mine from Ohio, and I were walking around and we stopped in at another Congressman’s office and they started talking.”
During the conversation, one Ohio lawmaker questioned Ayres about another lawmaker in the delegation who had been ill, Yudain recalls, and Ayres inquired about another Ohio colleague.
“‘Well, he died a couple of days ago,’” Yudain recalls the Member responding. “And nobody knew anything about it.”
“Bill turned to me and he says, ‘You know that paper you were talking about, I think you better go ahead and do it. We need it,’” Yudain says.
“It proved what I was thinking, that we did need communication and we needed interplay between the different offices,” he adds.
“It just seemed logical to bring everybody together and let the people know who’s who in which office, in the office next door to theirs, in the office down the street. At that time a lot of people didn’t know who was in the other offices or what people are like. I thought we needed to get a more human spirit there, a more human aspect to the thing.”
Chronicling the Family Feuds
In Yudain’s Georgetown home, a small den is decorated with memorabilia gathered from a lifetime as a newspaperman.
The walls are covered with framed black-and-white photographs, dating from Yudain’s early years as a Hollywood reporter to his time covering Congress.
Numerous awards also dot the walls in what Yudain calls his “Roll Call Room,” along with signed enlargements of newspaper front pages, and the sign which hung outside the newspaper’s first official office on New Jersey Avenue Southeast.
“I came from a newspaper family,” explains Yudain, the youngest of five brothers among eight children.
“For some reason or other we were all spirited kids, but we didn’t have real fights,” Yudain recalls. “When we got mad at each other we published these newspapers. We had a little Remington portable typewriter — I guess it was one of the first ones that came out, and we all learned how to use it even when we were really small — and we published these newspapers writing editorials against each other instead of staging fists or rocks or something.”
Yudain started newspapers in elementary and junior high school, then continued the newspaper his older brother founded at the local high school.
When he later began working at a Stamford, Conn., radio station, Yudain created an in-house newspaper for the staff.
“I tried to find intimate things and humor that people liked, and the response was always great,” he recalls.
During a stint in the Army, Yudain started a newspaper for the California-based gun battery he served in, and then established another rag at a Van Nuys hospital where he was sent with a broken nose.
Yudain would go on to become a magazine writer covering Hollywood before joining Morano’s campaign in 1950. Morano, a family friend, was seeking the seat being vacated by Rep. Clare Booth Luce (R).
A few years later, with a budget of about $90, Yudain would begin his next newspaper — and most significant enterprise.
“When I started Roll Call, my main thing was it would never look like any other newspaper or read like any newspaper,” Yudain says. “When I was working for the Congressman we had these piles of newspapers, and every morning they would come in from the AFL-CIO, Agriculture, all these different things, civil service papers, and nobody ever read ’em. They were just boring, there was nothing in them, they were all self-serving. And my thing was to make everybody read the paper. Why put out something nobody’s going to read?”
For several years, the Morano office would double as the Roll Call headquarters, an arrangement that sometimes caused confusion, as the first day of publication showed.
That afternoon, as the Connecticut lawmaker awaited a telephone call from President Dwight Eisenhower, the office was inundated with calls for the newspaper, from congratulations to would-be advertisers.
Anticipating the president’s call, Morano snatched at the continuously ringing telephone, only to answer calls for the fledgling newspaper.
“This one person wanted to put in a personal and then somebody else called and the third one was a classified ad, and he just blew up because each time he picked it up expecting Eisenhower,” Yudain recalls with a laugh. “And he said, ‘That does it. This paper’s got to go.’”
In fact, Roll Call would remain in its “shared” office for several years until its move to a New Jersey Avenue townhouse in 1958.
“We had no staff to begin with, it was just me,” Yudain explains.
But the sparse payroll didn’t reflect the variety of bylines appearing in the newspaper, including numerous Members, each of whom had received official Roll Call press cards marking them as reporters.
In addition, Yudain recalls, numerous Congressional aides — many former scribes themselves — volunteered to assist with the newspaper, along with Yudain’s older brother, Bernie, an experienced editor.
Photographs for the newspaper were gleaned in part from metal engravings, known as “cuts,” provided by the political parties.
While the numerous volunteers testified to the warm reception the publication received in its early months, not everyone on the Hill was so quick to embrace Yudain’s project.
Among the skeptics was then-Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), who questioned the potential impact of the publication.
“He didn’t like the fact, and I don’t blame him, [that] an unelected person was running a newspaper that would have tremendous effect on Congress,” Yudain recalls. “That’s why we went overboard trying not to influence any legislation. We never, very seldom, mentioned legislation unless it had to do with the Congress, the operation of the Congress.”
But the Texas lawmaker would look more kindly on the paper, Yudain says, after he sought the newspaper’s assistance in promoting the 1958 expansion of the East Front.
“He came to me and asked me to help push the extension,” Yudain recalls. “I probably wouldn’t have done it had I not been convinced it was a good idea because I really wasn’t that for it, fooling with the Capitol.”
After being convinced of the project’s merits by Rayburn and the Architect of the Capitol, “we ran a front page plans and schemes, and all the pictures and drawings,” Yudain says. “I didn’t editorialize for it, but I did promote it in a positive way.”
In the years that followed, Yudain continued to consider Rayburn’s concerns, always carefully crafting the paper’s content.
“It easily could have developed into some kind of a machine for Republicans or Democrats or some special voice or something,” Yudain acknowledges. “But we had intrigued all these people to believe in it.”
Changes in the Capitol and at Roll Call
After selling Roll Call in 1986 to Arthur Levitt, who was then chairman of the American Stock Exchange, Yudain continued to write a column for the paper and work on the Hill.
But toward the end of his years as a Congressional scribe, Yudain says, the Hill’s atmosphere changed significantly, the once open-door nature replaced by a growing number of staff and layers of bureaucracy.
“I used to be everyplace that the Congressmen were,” says Yudain. “I even used to walk around their offices maybe once a week and go from office to office and just come in and say hello. Then it got so in the later years that I was probably more aloof and less available. Of course, they were too. They were getting to the point where you couldn’t walk into their offices, you had to go through three secretaries or somebody and that took away all the fun, when you could just walk in and go in the back room and talk or have a drink or have a coffee or something.”
Yudain recalls having drinks with then-Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio) and his mistress Elizabeth Ray, who gained notoriety in the 1970s when, despite appearing on Hays’ payroll, she admitted to The Washington Post: “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone.”
“I remember night after night going over to the Democratic Club and sitting with Wayne Hays and Liz Ray and ... sitting around and drinking, and I never thought anything about it until she started calling me for pictures that she wanted to give to the Post,” Yudain says.
“I never would think about writing something like that, that’s why people liked the paper so much,” he adds. “Also, they knew that they could trust me. I knew a lot of things that I could have made a name for myself if I had written. I just wouldn’t think of it. I was in on so many things and I was there.”
These days, Yudain admits he rarely visits the Hill except for the occasional performance with his band, a group of friends who play big band-era music. Nonetheless, he adds, he remains a regular reader of Roll Call, now owned by The Economist Group.
“Roll Call has come a long way in the last half-century,” Yudain notes. “It met the challenges of changing times and it developed into an energetic and authoritative news source for its Capitol Hill news sources and political junkies everywhere. I’m proud to have sired this unique and successful publication.”