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Reflections on 20 Years as Accidental Columnist

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Twenty years ago this week, my first column appeared in the pages of Roll Call.

I had no intention of becoming a columnist or working for a newspaper, and I certainly had no expectation that two decades after my first column appeared in print I’d still be writing for Roll Call. As with most of my life, things just seemed to happen. If there was a grand plan at work, it wasn’t mine.

I inherited the column from a friend, Steve Lilienthal, who had to give it up when he briefly tried his hand at partisan politics. Steve was and remains a student of politics, and he had convinced some astute editor at Roll Call to allow him to write a column about campaigns, particularly political ads.

Before the Hotline and the Internet, few people knew what TV spots were running in races around the country, and information about techniques and messages was of interest to political consultants, Hill staffers and political junkies. Consultants would put their ads on tapes and send them to me, and I’d write about trends or particularly interesting spots.

The Roll Call gig was a lucky break. My newsletter, the Rothenberg Political Report, was making a little money, but my income wasn’t enough to support a growing family, and I had already started applying for jobs, or preferably, a part-time position that would allow me to continue my newsletter on the side.

Interest groups, trade associations, political action committees and the Graduate School of Political Management had no interest in me, but the Roll Call opportunity, while hardly a financial windfall, allowed me to keep writing about politics. Though I’m sure they didn’t know it at the time, Executive Editor Stacy Mason and Editor Jim Glassman gave me a career and changed the trajectory of my life.

My first column, which appeared June 11, 1992, was titled “Coming to a TV Screen Near You: Bounced Check Ads.” My second column, published two weeks later, was “Incumbents Now Trying to Look Like Outsiders in TV Ads.” Apparently, little has changed during the past two decades.

When The Hill newspaper started publishing in 1994, my editors figured they better lock me into a weekly column just in case I got another offer, so I started writing weekly.

In 1998, Roll Call’s regular political columnist, my good friend Charlie Cook, left for greener pastures over at National Journal and I inherited his slot, meaning two columns a week. His exit also gave me more room to roam beyond the nitty-
gritty of Congressional campaigns and into presidential politics, public opinion and general political developments.

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