Remembering the Little Paper That Could
Freelance contributor, late 1950s through mid-1960s
Roll Call was three years old when I first met Sid Yudain, who was a gay, young bachelor man-about-town. Relax — in 1958, “gay” meant jovial and carefree, so may we continue?
Anyway, I was down on my luck, playing the piano in a strip-tease joint on L Street called the Merry-Land Club. Actually, I was up on my luck, having played in worse places. I like to say that I started at the bottom and managed to work my way down.
Sid recommended me to the manager of the Carroll Arms Hotel, who was looking for a piano player. The manager came into the Merry-Land and between sets made his pitch. “Sid sent me. … What’s a nice kid like you doing in a place like this? … In my hotel you can meet world leaders, great statesmen, and girls with their clothes on. …” Etc., etc.
The Carroll Arms occupied what is now the parking lot opposite the three Senate office buildings. Sid ate and drank there for nothing — an old fashioned barter exchange for free ads in Roll Call.
By today’s standards, Sid would be a Congressman and the Carroll Arms would be a corporate jet.
I didn’t go to college, but my poli-sci class was the Carroll Arms. My textbook was Roll Call and my professor was Sid Yudain. He would introduce me to various politicos, staffers and lobbyists — aka, The Ones Who Pick Up the Checks. He would suggest which hearings to attend in order to pick up ideas for comedy material. Although he was not a music critic, Sid rightly recognized that I could not survive on my piano playing alone.
Although the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) had lived at the Carroll Arms, there was little partisan rancor when the sun went down.
It was “party time,” and I would get the patrons frolicking in a sing-a-long or dancing around the room, even when it wasn’t New Year’s Eve — maybe just a Tuesday.
At the same time, people would be working and caucusing off to the side. Robert Kennedy would bring in a stack of paperwork and sit in a corner nursing a 45-cent beer for several hours.
On one occasion, I personally witnessed what was always thought to be a myth about Richard Nixon. As vice president, Nixon kept a small office in the hotel, and one evening I saw him in the dining room putting ketchup on his cottage cheese. I remember thinking: Any man who would eat that will someday bug Democratic headquarters and be forced to resign the presidency.
For a short time, I wrote a little joke column for Roll Call, for the paper’s going rate — 100 percent below minimum wage.
What is the difference between the Roll Call of 50 years ago and the paper of today? About 42 pages and a ton of gravitas. The early paper was an easygoing half-dozen pages chronicling the neighborhood that is Capitol Hill, and was founded by a man who honestly does not deserve the mysterious omission from the paper’s masthead.
Just a little nudge from a fan of 47 years. Think of it: Fifty years ago, there was a Republican in the White House, hostilities in the Middle East and gas was 30 cents a gallon. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
Or, is it?
Mark Russell is a comedian who has skewered several generations of Washington figures.
Reporter, poetry contributor, 1960-61
I found work in a basement office of a row house on New Jersey Avenue Southeast, a few blocks from the Capitol. Out of this long, sunken, slovenly one-room den qua office was published Roll Call, a weekly paper for those thousands who worked on Capitol Hill.
In the center of the room, with its low lights, brick wall, overstuffed bookcases and casual furniture, were three desks. The first would be mine for the next several months. The second was assigned to an ad representative who might or might not be employed at any given moment and, if employed, might or (more probably) might not be in the office, depending upon the current status of her not inconsiderable array of personal problems which, according to the frequent testimony of the man behind the third and rearmost desk, were due to alcohol, insanity, sexual dysfunction and various other character flaws which, in aggregate, left him to sell the frigging ads as well as having to edit the whole damn paper himself.
This aggrieved man was Sid Yudain, the editor. He was tall, of medium build, with wavy, swept-back hair and heavy black horn-rimmed glasses. He smoked a pipe and talked out of the tiny space remaining between his pipe stem and the right corner of his mouth and generally affected the manner of a Catskills comedian engaged in contract negotiations.
Roll Call was a free paper supported by advertising. Some of the advertising was paid for, some was run and not paid for, and some was published and eaten. Sid was a bachelor whose sole interest in cooking consisted of making coffee when no one else was around to do it for him. Among the purposes of the paper, therefore, was to feed the editor. Sid traded restaurant ads for free meals. It was a shrewd business move. While plenty of advertisers failed to pay for their ads, none refused to serve him.
Sid regarded my arrival as a possible break in his ill-deserved fortune, and he set me to writing what would sometimes be as many as a half-dozen stories a week, on such topics as a new 300-car parking lot for the Senate, hiring prospects in the next House of Representatives, and how the great iron dome of the Capitol gyrated several feet a day in response to the thermodynamics of the sun.
Sid also let me try my hand at writing humor and a column of whimsical shorts about life on the Hill, including this transcript of a conversation overheard in a House office building:
Matron (whispering): Could you tell me where the reading room is?
Guard (also whispering): We don’t have a reading room.
Matron (still sotto voce): Isn’t this the Library of Congress?
Guard (still likewise): No ma’am.
Matron (out loud and with force): Then what are we whispering for?
Guard: (louder still): I don’t know, you started it.
On another occasion, I reported that “we’ve heard about parties that are so hip, everyone dances to Mort Sahl records.”
Even more pleasing was Sid’s acceptance of my contributions of light verse. One went:
I like to go down to the zoo
And there I sit and watch the gnu.
I’ve also noticed recently
the gnu has started watching me.
For hours we just share a stare
A happy unproductive pair
Economists we might impress
With our total uselessness.
Still it’s the G-N-U for me.
Let others boost the GNP
Red hunters were the target of “Waiter, I Think There’s a Subversive in My Soup”:
Little men of little faith,
Claim they’ve seen the nation’s wraith
Fearing not atomic war,
But a coup by those next door
Everywhere lies hidden danger
Doubt the friend, doubt the stranger
One fine day their cause they’ll smother
When they start to doubt each other.
Literary weaknesses aside, the fact that such verse was published at all was somewhat surprising. While Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) was gone by this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee was still in operation and not generally considered something to laugh about.
Although Sid was a Republican, and a former aide to a GOP Member from Connecticut, he considered politics first and foremost a fraternity and entertainment; its ideological content was of tertiary concern at best.
He seemed to know just about everyone on the Hill and treated them as neighbors and friends whose gossip he relayed in his paper. This did not mean he was unmindful of the business of politics; in fact, he knew the specifics of elections as well as anyone I’ve ever met. In 1960, he correctly predicted the outcome of 426 of the 437 house races. He was 96.5 percent accurate and even declared five too close to call. Sure enough, they were still in doubt several days after the election.
Sid also found politics funny and had no objections if one of his writers wanted to suggest that the funny had, on a particular occasion, slipped into the absurd. After all, it was Sid who would take me over to the Carroll Arms Hotel to enjoy Mark Russell, a discovery he shamelessly promoted in the paper.
I had no trouble enjoying Russell’s puns, one-liners and dubious rhymes. In fact, I saw him as a challenge, which I finally fully met near Christmas time with an lyric work that, so far as I know, has yet to be surpassed.
Called “A Representative Christmas List,” it was an ode containing the name of every member of the House of Representatives. The poem took a full page in Roll Call, with the print superimposed on a screened clip-art picture of Santa Claus. It committed such unpardonable offenses as rhyming “bacchanal” with Chesapeake & Ohio Park Canal as well as asking “Herlong, oh Herlong America, must we suffer this?”
About 390 names into the poem, I ran short of ideas and copped out with “we might write a line that ran “ and then listed most of the remaining names followed by “”You see it’s going to rhyme but will it scan?” Then I closed out with:
Forget about that, let’s dance the flamenco
We made it from Abbott all the way to Zelenco
Only Christmas Day will tell
Whether Santa did as well.
Sid also believed, in a plain, straightforward fashion, in liberty. The silent part of the deal between us was that I was to be as free as he wanted to be himself. At the radio station WWDC, working for liberals, I had been ever conscious of the rules and limitations within which I functioned. Now, at Roll Call, working for a Republican, I felt far more free to do what I wished.
It would not be the last time that I would stumble across such a paradox with conservative editors, one probably related to the way we sometimes treat a foreigner in a far more forgiving fashion than we do a relative or next-door neighbor: We presume to know how the latter should act, but the stranger is granted more leeway. I also came to suspect that many liberal editors had a hidden authoritarian streak, while many conservative ones were covert anarchists.
Sam Smith is a Washington writer, activist and social critic who edits The Progressive Review. The preceding passages are adapted from Smith’s “MULTITUDES: An Unauthorized Memoir.”
When I worked for Roll Call in 1968, it was nothing like the Roll Call of today. For starters, I WAS the editorial staff. If you called looking for a reporter, writer, production assistant or proofreader, I was it.
The paper’s owner, Sid Yudain, was the publisher and columnist. His sister was in charge of advertising. And the rest was up to me. Of all the tasks I had, the one I did the worst was proofreading. I think I once missed a misspelling of my own byline!
But it was a wonderful experience for a young reporter. Sid let me do pretty much what I wanted. If I wanted to cover a Senate or House hearing, I did. Or if there were important doings at the White House, fine, I could go. He even let me go to the political conventions, though I think I paid my own way.
I learned to cover campaigns by long distance, thanks in no small part to help from reporters in the states where there were hot races. I even learned to develop sources by long distance.
With no travel budget, the telephone was my nearest and dearest. I also learned that the easiest way to find something out was to ask. I remember asking one distinguished Senator why he was not going on a foreign junket. I expected some principled answer about how it was a waste of the taxpayers’ money. “Frankly,” he said, “Oriental food gives me the trots.”
In those days Washington was a very different place. Security was almost non-existent. There weren’t even metal detectors. And the press corps was a lot smaller too. I remember one night when I was covering Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s appearance in Washington before the Democratic Platform Committee prior to the convention. As he was speaking, someone handed him a note, and the secretary said something to the effect of, “Mr. Chairman, the Soviets have just invaded Czechoslovakia, and I have to leave.” The press corps promptly raced over to the White House to camp out.
In those days before President Nixon banished us to the paved-over swimming pool, the press corps had offices just off the Oval Office, and we had a bird’s eye view of what was going on, or at least to who was coming and going. I remember that we all hung out late into the evening, when President Lyndon Johnson came out of the Oval, to tell us: “That’s all for tonight boys, the lid’s on.”
Ah, how things have changed. Presidents no longer tell us anything spontaneous. They have an army of people to communicate with the “media.”
We aren’t anywhere near the Oval Office. And we aren’t almost exclusively “boys.”
Nina Totenberg is legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio.
Reporter and columnist, 1969-1974
My first job after graduating college was to work at Roll Call, which at the time was a weekly dedicated to covering the “small town” comprised of those who worked at the U.S. Congress.
On Day One, Sid Yudain, the paper’s founder, who was then both editor and publisher, dispatched me to roam the halls of Congress to eke out stories. Fortunately, I was young, enthusiastic and in good physical shape, because the better part of most days was spent traipsing door-to-door, stopping at each office to see if any news was to be had.
Often, Members invited me in for coffee and to personally share news about their new grandchild, or legislation they were about to introduce. At five o’clock, the bar was open in some Congressional offices. On occasion, there were hall parties in Cannon and Longworth, where staffers and Members would schmooze after hours, putting most partisanship aside.
Everything was informal, except the dress code — most Congressional offices did not permit female staffers to wear pants. And there wasn’t a high level of security to worry about. There also was an unspoken understanding that certain things were not to be reported by the press. No one ever said the words, “off the record.” We just instinctively knew.
My column, “Around the Hill … with Karen Feld,” included items about the colorful characters in Congress, including Reps. Dan Flood (D-Pa.), Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), Ken Gray (D-Ill.), Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), Phil Burton (D-Calif.), Donald Rumsfeld (R-Ill.), Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) and George H.W. Bush (R-Texas), among others.
The column had tidbits about Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) stuffing his lined pockets with food — including sauces from the buffet table — at receptions; about Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) teaching this young reporter to use his ham radio; and about Rep. Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.), whose Great Dane, C-5 (named after the military aircraft), bit his colleague, Rep. James Symington (D-Mo.). Perhaps some of the stories may have been trivial or frivolous, but it did humanize our public figures.
In addition to writing the column from 1969 to 1974, I contributed feature stories and wrote the “Hill Pinup.” I had the first story break on Elizabeth Ray, the non-typing secretary who eventually brought down the powerful House Administration Chairman Wayne Hays (D-Ohio).
After pounding out copy on a manual typewriter, I’d help Sid lay out the eight pages on Wednesdays, including the ads sold by his sister, Charlotte, and accompany him to the printer where — woozy from the odor, eyes burning and hands and clothes covered with wet, black ink — I’d help proof the paper until well after dark, reading and rereading, and correcting copy errors.
Then, on Thursday mornings, we’d deliver the papers to small merchants around the Hill and fill the machines in the Capitol, Longworth and Rayburn cafeterias, emptying and counting the dimes from the previous week. Yes, indeed, the paper sold for a dime. My starting salary was $35 a week. After a while, I worked up to a whopping sum of $75.
At Roll Call, I learned how to build trust among sources, got a basic education on the behind-the-scenes dealings of Congress, honed my writing and, most importantly, made lasting friendships. One of those great friends was Rep. Leo Ryan (D), the California Congressman who, in 1978, was killed in Guyana while on a mission to investigate the Jonestown cult. I wrote a personal remembrance of Ryan on the 25th anniversary of this disaster for Roll Call. These are friends and experiences on Capitol Hill I’ll always cherish.
Karen Feld is the Buzz columnist for the Washington Examiner.
Reporter, 1975-76 and briefly in the early ’80s
I began my writing career with Roll Call founder and editor Sid Yudain. I met Sid in 1975 through his sister, Charlotte, a neighbor who became a close friend. Sid hired me to do a weekly gossip column (HillTopics) and various feature articles. During my stint, I encountered famous — and infamous — characters. One was Elizabeth Ray, who represented the big story I ALMOST landed.
I met Elizabeth (aka Liz) in 1976, when Watergate was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I was working in the Roll Call office, then on Eighth Street Southeast, and just happened to answer the phone. The caller was Elizabeth Ray, requesting the return of her cheesecake photo from Roll Call’s (now discontinued) weekly column, “Hill Pinup.” With her long blonde hair and hourglass figure enhanced by tight-fitting, low-cut sweaters, Elizabeth certainly qualified. By then, “Hill Pinup” had evolved into a more politically correct “Hill Profile.”
I retrieved Elizabeth’s picture from our files and decided to deliver it over lunch. She also agreed to be my subject for a “Hill Profile.” Munching a tuna sandwich washed down with a glass of milk, Elizabeth related her life story. A North Carolina native, she had recently returned from an unsuccessful acting fling in Hollywood, worshiped Joe DiMaggio and was now working for Rep. Mendel Davis (D-S.C.). She also griped about her workplace: Rep. Davis had banned slacks for female employees, and Elizabeth hated the long hours: “I have to come in at 9 a.m. and can’t leave until 5,” she wailed.
Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth switched to the House Administration oversight subcommittee, chaired by the powerful Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio). I visited her new digs, tucked away on the fifth floor of the remote Congressional Annex, a converted hotel that has since been demolished. Elizabeth’s workspace was empty except for a red Selectric typewriter, a table and chair, plus a kitchenette. I did not know her boss lived upstairs, but I suspected something was fishy when Elizabeth casually referred to him as “Wayne.”
My profile on Elizabeth never ran, but for my trouble she offered to take me to lunch. I readily accepted, choosing Toscanini’s, a long-gone Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill’s “Avenue.” I had to repeat the restaurant spelling several times, and she never quite got it right. As it turned out, Elizabeth stood me up. (I suspect she might have been busy with “Wayne.”) A few weeks later, she phoned me and left a message. I returned her call but could never reach her; this was years before cell phones or even answering machines.
In May 1976, the big, juicy story broke on the front page of The Washington Post: “Liz” Ray was Wayne Hays’ mistress, and while they were shacking up, the public was picking up the tab, namely Liz’s salary. “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone,” she told The Washington Post at the time.
At first, the recently married Hays denied everything, but eventually he had to resign. For months, unprintable Liz Ray/Wayne Hays jokes made the rounds, and my husband, Peter, and I even I judged a Liz Ray limerick contest. A decade later, I ran into Elizabeth at a press luncheon at New York’s Carnegie Deli. She had moved to the Big Apple to again try her luck at acting and was enrolled in drama school. I reintroduced myself, but she didn’t remember me at all.
Celeste McCall, a former reporter and restaurant critic for The Washington Times, is now a freelance food and travel writer, including occasional assignments for Roll Call.
JAMES K. GLASSSMAN
It was 1987. I had just left a miserable double job working as an executive at the Atlantic Monthly and U.S. News and World Report and had set up shop as a consultant.
One of my clients was Arthur Levitt, the chairman of the American Stock Exchange. He was a smart and charming man who wanted to get into publishing. My first assignment was to help Arthur buy National Journal, a publication which, as I recall, had made little or no money in its 18-year existence. Still, it was a hot property in the sizzling 1980s, and it got snatched up by the Los Angeles Times for twice as much as Arthur was willing to pay. A close escape for us.
While looking into buying National Journal, Arthur had learned about Roll Call, which at that point was a 32-year-old newspaper, published weekly (or approximately so) and edited and published by Sid Yudain, a pipe-puffing curmudgeon who had once been a writer for movie magazines and ran Roll Call accordingly.
By chance, Arthur knew Sid’s brother, Bernie, and gained an introduction. Sid had turned down many offers at that point, but Arthur, a persuasive fellow, convinced him to sell for a price that amounted to five times the paper’s annual revenues, a seemingly hefty price that became quite a bargain.
My first assignment was due diligence — checking out the property before the papers were signed.
Roll Call’s office back then was in an apartment building on Massachusetts Avenue across from La Brasserie. In Roll Call’s rabbit warren, I found Sid banging away on his typewriter. There were three other employees: Sid’s sister, then in her mid-70s and maintaining the subscription list on 3-by-5 cards, and two interns, each paid $100 a week.
I picked up the current issue and saw an ad on the back page for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
“How much did this ad cost, Sid?” I asked.
“Twelve hundred,” he replied. Sid was a man of few words when he wanted to be.
I was impressed. Roll Call had a circulation of not many thousands, so, by traditional standards, this was a very nice rate.
“So, Sid, where did you get this ad?”
“Came in the mail.”
“Well, who sells advertising here?”
“I’m supposed to, but I would rather write,” he said, continuing to bang at the keys.
I had only one thought: Where has this been all my life?
It was an MBA’s dream: a franchise business, a monopoly, read for three decades by Hill staffers and Members, but without a sales staff, a real manager or a strategy.
The trick was to make Roll Call more professional while maintaining Sid’s original, brilliant idea: a hometown newspaper for Congress, a journal not of analysis or thumb-sucking but of straight news about the institution and the people who work for it.
After Arthur bought the paper, my wife, Mary, became publisher, and I helped the two of them find an editor. Two editors later, I was persuaded to take the job myself, along with some ownership.
I was reluctant, but it became the best job I’ve ever had — and not just because the transformation of the paper was so exhilarating. The great reward was working with young reporters and editors, many fresh out of college and headed for glory, including Tim Burger, Tim Curran, Susan Glasser, Mary Jacoby, Glenn Simpson and Craig Winneker. And, among the more seasoned, Charlie Cook and Morton Kondracke.
Speaking of Mort: Around 1990, I had a brainstorm. Mort was at The New Republic, where I had met him when I was publisher in the early 1980s. We met for lunch in Chevy Chase.
“Mort,” I said, “I’d like you to come to work for Roll Call.”
“Roll Call! Come on, Jim. You’ve got to be kidding!”
A year later, he was executive editor. Still is.
There were others, too, and the affection I have for them — and for those exciting days — has only grown as a dozen years have passed. I’m sure glad I stumbled into Sid’s rabbit warren.
James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and host of the Web site TechCentralStation.com.
TIMOTHY J. BURGER
In journalism, you’re only as good as your next story. So you hate to think your best one was 14 years ago. But if everything else is to be measured by a story I did for the Sept. 19, 1991, issue of Roll Call, maybe I should just hang it up right now.
It was a busy Wednesday afternoon on deadline. I got a call from one of the many government functionaries one must know as a reporter. I hope I didn’t say this out loud, but what went through my head was, “I’m really very busy. Can this wait?” What I think I said when they told me there was a new GAO audit I might want to see was, “Well, I’m on deadline. Is this time-sensitive?” “I think you’ll want to see this one today,” I was assured.
Now, we saw a lot of crazy stories in our years at Roll Call, and just when you’d think you’d seen everything, something crazier would happen. Case in point: On my first day at Roll Call, March 13, 1989, the headline in Roll Call was about a guy named Bush picking a guy named Cheney for secretary of Defense, and a couple of guys, one named Gingrich, running for the job of House Minority Whip, which Cheney was leaving. Or rather, the lead headline was about the Whip race; in the story, a source was quoted saying, “If you have to bet five bucks today, you’ve got to bet on” Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), not on the backbench bomb-thrower who would later become House Speaker.
So if you let yourself, even at humble Roll Call, the fact that no one in journalism is any smarter, busier or more important than anyone else could slip your mind, and one could feel pretty harried on deadline day. Still, I arranged to send over an intern to get the new audit while I continued plugging away on another story for the next day’s paper. It would be the first story to hint of alleged burglary in the House Post Office — the scandal that would later ensnare Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and others. It seemed important at the time. Until I saw the GAO report.
The intern — John Mercurio, now one of CNN’s top political reporters — dutifully fetched the document, and my 25-year-old jaw dropped when I saw it. Thousands of bounced checks by Members of Congress in a mere 12-month period? So I told my editor, either Jim Glassman or Stacy Mason, that we should put this in the paper for the next issue. I don’t know if Jim remembers, but I distinctly remember him asking whether this story had to be shoehorned into the next day’s crowded issue or could wait for Monday. “I think we should get this one in. I don’t know if it’ll hold,” I opined. And Jim made sure we did.
The rest, as they say, is history. Many junior House Republicans seized on the mess — including now-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) — demanding an investigation and commanding headlines even as their senior colleagues virtually (and in some cases, literally) threatened to wring their necks. This quintessential Roll Call story went national and became the massive controversy and ethics committee investigation. And it may be a while before most of us see another story like that one.
Tim Burger covers national security for Time magazine.
Reporter and editor, 1990-97
I came to dread the interviews. Nearly every day, another bright young reporter would come to my office, determined to put his or her stamp on Washington journalism. For a time in the 1990s, it was my job to figure out which one of these candidates should work at Roll Call.
Every time there was an opening, I was flooded with towering stacks of résumés. I wanted to hire all of them. Even today, I am constantly surrounded by evidence of my failure — the big-shot national reporter I decided not to hire, the well-regarded book author who thanked me for not returning his phone calls. And to them, I apologize.
There was just so much talent to choose from. Jim VandeHei was a lanky Washington newcomer from Wisconsin when I met him and decided instantly that he had to work for us. He is now my husband’s partner on the White House beat for the Washington Post. Other Roll Call alumni from those years now write about intelligence for Time magazine and the environment for the Post, they cover Capitol Hill for CNN and broadcast from the White House for NBC. One Roll Call staff writer now runs CNN’s political unit; another is filing courageous dispatches about Colombia’s guerrilla insurgency.
All were crucial to the project I was lucky enough to spend 10 years working on: reinventing Roll Call.
I started as an 18-year-old summer intern not long after the paper had been bought by Arthur Levitt and Jim Glassman had come in as an editor determined to shape a new publication.
Their timing was impeccable. As the newspaper made the transition from its first several decades as a polite purveyor of secretaries’ pinups and ladies’ lunch notices, Congress, too, was changing. Members faced more scrutiny of their actions than ever before. The old gentleman’s agreements were null and void. Ousted Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) paused on his way out the door long enough to decry a new era of “mindless cannibalism.” Others saw the birth of a new accountability.
Either way, Roll Call both shaped and was shaped by the new scandal-driven politics on Capitol Hill. At first, the reinvented Roll Call struggled to find the right tone, as we reveled in back-stage battles over parking spaces, softball fields and even the proceeds of a certain soda vending machine. (Actually, that one never made the paper.) But by the time I’d left Roll Call a decade later, the paper had become a twice-weekly institution with a long hot streak of breaking stories. Instead of the missing M&M man — an actual running story for a while — this new Roll Call was an aggressive chronicler of Congressional foibles, an ambitious source of news on House and Senate elections and a hometown tabloid that never lost its interest in Capitol Hill as a place to live and work.
Along the way, Roll Call became home to an extraordinary collection of journalists. The first wave included Tim Curran, who eventually succeeded me as Roll Call’s editor, an expert even just out of college on obscure Senate races that had taken place before he was born, and Tim Burger, now at Time, an eager scourge of Congressional peccadilloes who pursued his targets with a persistence worthy of Inspector Javert. I will never forget the early morning phone call when Tim called to tell me about staking out then-Rep. Bud Shuster’s Virginia townhouse — and being invited in for breakfast.
Craig Winneker turned Roll Call’s “Heard it on the Hill” column into a Washington brand. Glenn R. Simpson pioneered long-form investigative reporting at the paper, staying up late nights digging into the finances of Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). His future wife, Mary Jacoby, delved into pork-barrel politics and lobbyists’ influence peddling with abandon. They both now work for the Wall Street Journal.
The next generation was equally accomplished, a group of reporters savvy beyond their years about the heady marriage of money and power that makes Congress the best beat in Washington to cover.
I left Roll Call more than seven years ago, landing at The Washington Post as an editor just a week before Monica Lewinsky plunged us all into the realm of thongs and cigars. I have been an unlikely war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq and traveled the former Soviet Union since then. But I often think back to those job interviews — and the wonderful, exciting chance we had to reinvent a newspaper.
Susan Glasser covers terrorism for The Washington Post. She just returned from a four-year stint as the Post’s Moscow co-bureau chief and has written with her husband, Peter Baker, “Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.”
JULIET EILPERIN Reporter, 1994-98
Even now, 11 years after the fact, I remember visiting Roll Call’s offices for the first time. Susan Glasser, who served as managing editor at the time, looked at me from behind her desk as she chain-smoked one cigarette after another, exuding far more confidence than any other twentysomething I had ever met.
I told her I was wavering between leaving D.C. to take a post at The Tampa Tribune — on the assumption that I needed to work my way up by covering a daily beat far away from the nation’s capital — or staying in the town where I had been raised.
“What matters in this profession is specialized knowledge,” Susan told me. “If you work here, you’ll know more about Congress than anybody else.”
The woman seemed to know what she was talking about, so I took her at her word. The place was brimming with political junkies like me, recent college grads who could describe the demographics of obscure House districts and the personal likes and dislikes of rising GOP stars like then-Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner (Ohio). Their world began and ended with Capitol Hill.
I started work at the paper one month after the Republicans scored their stunning 1994 upset victory — an election result that put Roll Call at the center of Washington’s media scene. Established reporters had spent years cultivating Democratic power brokers and ignoring the Republican minority; we were different, because we were just as young and ambitious as the GOP staffers who were suddenly running the place.
These Republican aides chatted with journalists from major news outlets, of course, but they were far more comfortable confiding in us. They gossiped with us about infighting within the GOP leadership, what newly installed Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was plotting and how others were working to foil those plans. When junior rebels tried, and failed, to oust their once-beloved Speaker, we coaxed details out of them in rushed conversations on cell phones or in hidden corners of the Capitol.
Congressional Republicans were moving at a frenetic pace, and so were we. They were determined to achieve an agenda within a matter of months, and we wanted to chart both their successes and failures — how Republicans removed bastions of Democratic patronage, such as daily ice delivery, even as they came under fire for skirting House ethics rules.
I’ve devoted my entire professional career to covering national politics, but my time at Roll Call stands out because I felt closest to the action, chasing after lawmakers down marble stairs (I could always outrun middle-aged men) or sipping wine from Rep. George Randanovich’s (R-Calif.) vineyard with a bunch of aides to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) during a GOP strategy retreat.
Other inside-the-Beltway publications focused on policy matters; Roll Call cared about process. We told readers how lawmakers were changing the institution of Congress itself, and by extension, the way D.C. operated. I left Roll Call to join The Washington Post just as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking in 1998, and nothing else could have prepared me better for what became the biggest Washington process story in decades. I had finally grasped how politicians shifted the levers of power on Capitol Hill, and what they were going to do now that they had President Bill Clinton in their sights.
Juliet Eilperin covers the environment for The Washington Post.
In late December of 1998, I heard a tip that sounded too juicy to be true: Incoming Speaker of the House Bob Livingston (R-La.) was planning to admit an extramarital affair and give up his chance to become the most powerful person in Congress.
At Roll Call, we didn’t do tabloid stories, but we lusted after the politics of power and leadership. The Livingston story, if true, would rock Capitol Hill and shake up control of the House of Representatives.
I knew I had the inside track to break the story and post it on our Web site before Livingston planned to announce the affair and submit his resignation later that day. But I needed help. I left my desk in the old Roll Call office, located alongside the train tracks behind Union Station, and raced toward the Capitol.
En route, I ran into John Bresnahan, a close friend and colleague who’s still at Roll Call, and told him what I knew. “We literally ran up to the Capitol,” said Bresnahan, an old-school scribe with gruff voice and demeanor.
My source informed me that Livingston was breaking the news to then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) at a private meeting in DeLay’s office on the first floor of the U.S Capitol. We knew there were two main ways into — and, more importantly, out of — the DeLay suite. Bresnahan volunteered to man what we considered the back door — the one where only months earlier a deranged gunman had stormed into DeLay’s office and killed the Capitol Police officer standing watch.
Luckily, I was able to grab two people familiar with the private meeting and confirm that Livingston would drop this bombshell to the GOP conference in less than two hours. Immediately, I phoned the story into the editors, with Lee Horwich (now of the USA Today) and Ed Henry (now of CNN) turning my breathless words into a Web-worthy story. About 20 minutes before Livingston was to tell House Republicans, we hit the send button and the story was beamed across RollCall.com — then still a fledgling experiment in the strange, new world of e-journalism. We alerted the wires, CNN and few others.
Within minutes, “someone came running down the hall with a copy of the story, saying Livingston is resigning,” Bresnahan recalled. “It was pandemonium.” We beat the competition by less than the time it took to watch an episode of “Friends,” but Roll Call nonetheless was credited around the world for the scoop.
I was besieged by requests to do interviews with virtually every network, and the producers of show such as “Larry King Live” beckoned. Back at the office, Tim Curran (now Roll Call’s eagle-eye), Henry and others were flooded with calls from media outlets as far away as Australia and Germany with requests for phone time with Roll Callers. If for only a night, we were at the top of the journalism heap.
This episode, which is just one of countless memories of my Roll Call days, captured everything great and gratifying about THE newspaper of Capitol Hill. A pack of hungry reporters, mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings who shared much more than office space, scouring the corridors of power for fresh stories about the people and politics of Congress. Most of the stories I wrote were not the prose of one person sitting at a computer but the product of a team guided by selfless stars such as Susan Glasser, my first editor and now colleague at the Post; Morton M. Kondracke, the public face of the paper and one of the nicest people in journalism; and Damon Chappie, the hard-nosed investigative reporter who kept digging even after he lost his sight. Chappie, a dear friend to all of us, died last year — with most of Roll Call by his side.
Jim VandeHei covers the White House for The Washington Post.