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#Flashback Friday: Covering Congress, 40 Years Ago

(Courtesy WAMU)

Manual typewriters, cigarette smoke and alcohol.  

Those were the ingredients in the delectable mix that was the House Radio-Television Correspondents' Gallery (was that even the name?) in the mid 1970s. It featured radio and television reporters in search of (or awaiting) sound bites. When California Rep. Robert Dornan stepped into the well, a member of the gallery staff would blast out an emergency signal. That meant, “Turn on your tape recorders, wild man sound bite coming your way!” I spent maybe a year covering Capitol Hill for Howard University’s WHUR radio station, then an upstart local broadcaster with an ambitious news department intent on covering the world. To facilitate an "All Things Considered" type newscast an hour in length, we created beats that included the White House, State Department and the Capitol, which became my beat in 1978.  

I had no idea what I was getting into.  

I just went, guided thereafter by the staff of the gallery and the kindness of reporters such as Brit Hume, who knew the ropes. The predominantly black Capitol Police officers and cafeteria staff, all of whom were intimately familiar with the Howard University radio station, became — sometimes literally — my underground railroad. All this stranger had to do to get from one building to another underground was say my name and who I worked for to the nearest black officer, and I was on my way. In the cafeterias, where the only name I had seemed to be “Baby,” my meals were frequent, and often just free.  

The Congressional Black Caucus was just beginning to flex, its members and staff happy for any news coverage they could get, providing me entrée into all kinds of formerly private meetings. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., once invited me into a meeting he was having with celebrity intellectual and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. When I whipped out my microphone, Galbraith, suddenly realizing I was not a member of Conyers’ staff, objected — literally wrapping his fist around my microphone. Conyers patted him gently on the shoulder and said, “It’s OK John, I invited him, he’s from the Howard University station.” Galbraith continued to eye me suspiciously, but let me record his remarks, which I later used in a story.  

My days were spent rushing from one House or Senate office building to another, then back to the gallery, filing reports either live by telephone or by recording them on my tape recorder, then filing them by unscrewing the mouthpiece of the telephone, attaching a pair of alligator clips from my recorder to the jacks in the mouthpiece, and playing the report back to the engineer recording it at the radio station. It was a daily whirlwind of news conferences, stalkings, ambushes and interviews on the run.  

When pressed for time, a veteran congressman such as the late Peter Rodino, a Democrat from New Jersey, could be a lifesaver for a radio reporter. Frantically looking for a comment on the latest vote, you’d stop Rodino in the hallway and he’d say, “Whaddya want, 20, 40 or 60?” You’d respond, depending on the length of the audio story you soon had to file, “Um ... 40.” And he’d proceed to speak for exactly 40 seconds, as if he’d prepared a statement. Your editor would think you were some kind of genius, finding a clip in what he presumed to be a long news conference that addressed a wide variety of issues. There was no Internet, no smartphones, he had no instant communication with anybody but you. How could he know you did it all in fewer than three minutes? And that you were now on your way — to Bullfeathers, that is, the numero uno watering hole on the Hill in those days. The place where evening gatherings of staff members and news colleagues would last long into the night, where the singing would grow loud, the cigarette smoke thick, predictions on the demise of Jimmy Carter loud, and the goodbye greetings slurred.  

What were the major issues of the day? Hey, that’s what you’ve got the Internet for today. Go check. It was 1978. I think.  

Tune in to WAMU on 88.5 from noon to 2 p.m. from Feb. 2 through Feb. 6 for Kojo at the Capitol: In Partnership with Roll Call, WAMU's Metro Connection, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Related: A Preview of Kojo, Will and Roll Call on the Hill Roll Call's Coverage of the Capitol and Congress as a Community The Kojo Nnamdi Show The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders newsletter. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Topics: congress icnw