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Reflections on 20 Years as Accidental Columnist

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo

The first of my twice-a-week columns was published June 11, 1998 (yes, six years to the day after my first piece had appeared). It focused on a California ballot measure, Proposition 226, which “would have forced labor unions to get pre-
approval from their members to have their dues used for political purposes,” according to my column. I have no recollection of the piece or the controversy.

During the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to interview thousands of candidates, first with the folks at the Cook Political Report and then with Roll Call’s political reporters.

Some, such as Illinois state legislator Barack Obama, have gone onto bigger and better things. Others, such as North Carolina trial lawyer John Edwards, who once called me at home to react to one of my columns, rose quickly in the world of politics before plummeting.

Not all of my initial assessments were correct.

Back during the 1998 election cycle, I interviewed an energetic, articulate, clearly bright young man who was running for Congress. After the meeting, he asked me how he did, an unusual question that reflected his exuberance and youth. I told him that he did great — and that after he lost and made some money in the private sector, I expected him to run for something again and probably get elected.

Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan still remembers that incident and has reminded me of it a couple of times over the years. What he might not recall is that by the time October of that election year rolled around, I had made Ryan the favorite in the race over Democrat Lydia Spottswood, a nurse who looked better on paper than her campaign did in real life. Of course, Ryan won.

I have also sat through some really terrible interviews. In an end-of-the-year “awards” column in 1998, I nominated wealthy businessman Bruce James for “most arrogant candidate.” James “huffed and puffed about how he was going to beat Rep. John Ensign (R) and Sen. Harry Reid (D), and then dropped out of the race,” I wrote.

Years later, after he had been confirmed by the Senate in 2002 to be the CEO of the Government Printing Office, James invited me for a tour of the GPO. We had a nice visit about his position as the nation’s “public printer,” and ever since then, he has been gracious and friendly. I am lucky he didn’t hold a grudge.

One memorable Roll Call event, on Jan. 21, 2002, was unusual in that it was a newspaper-wide meeting with presidential hopeful Howard Dean, who was not yet on anyone’s radar screen.

Toward the end of a rather lengthy question-and-answer session, I asked the Vermont governor why he had low-keyed the signing of his state’s civil unions bill instead of staging a big media event to celebrate its passage. Angry at the question, he wound up like a pitcher ready to deliver a fastball and shouted at me: “That’s bulls--t.” Almost two years later, when Dean uttered a very different “scream,” I thought back to that incident and smiled.

A few of my columns have received an extraordinary amount of feedback. Two come to mind immediately.

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