From Showcasing Sexy Staffers to Boozing With Members, Roll Call Has Endured
When you have 60 years of congressional and journalism history to sort through, where do you even begin? It can be a struggle to fully comprehend every twist and turn, to get your arms around the vastness that is six decades. So I return to Sid.
Sid Yudain, the man who founded this scrappy newspaper in 1955 as an aide to a freshman Republican from Connecticut, loved Congress. And over the years, Congress grew to love him back. Sid was Roll Call.
This was the man whom Richard M. Nixon personally congratulated on Roll Call’s first edition, saying Capitol Hill is a “community of its own” entitled to personal coverage in a letter on Office of the Vice President stationary which Yudain had no qualms about putting on the inaugural front page on June 16, 1955.
I told readers in my debut Newsroom Confidential column my aim is to keep our team focused on our founder’s initial mission for Roll Call to be the community newspaper of Capitol Hill. I keep Sid’s photo above my desk, and when I need a reminder, he’s always there.
He keeps me humble.
But as we page through the crumbling, stained archives of Roll Call, I’ve turned increasingly to Sid in frustration — you put that in the paper?
Just like Congress, there are darker marks in our history we’re less proud of. We had scant coverage of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, but we managed to keep cute Hill aides prominently in our pages for nearly two decades. (A 1974 edition included a reference to “Women’s Libbers” complaining.)
Then there’s Margaret Glenn in June 1961, literally wearing a bathing-suit sized “outfit” constructed of issues of Roll Call. “Miss Anniversary,” she’s dubbed, with a near-afterthought caption identifying her as the secretary for then-Majority Whip Carl Albert. “See more of Margaret on Page 21,” that caption teases. As if her cleavage and 16 inches of her thighs isn’t enough, we see her full-length, in heels, later in the paper.
We discovered the “five foot four and one-half inch bundle of vivacity” who was “on the staff” of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, the majority leader. Her name is Sally Davis, and the 1958 “story” notes the pistols she’s holding in each hand are not props: “She knows how to use them, and well.” This was the regular “Hill Pinup” feature that lasted at least until 1972.
(The only male pinup I could find is now-congressman and then-staffer John Yarmuth, called “scrumptious” in 1971, just before Roll Call ended the item “Happy April Fools!”)
These ladies of Capitol Hill were profiled like Miss America contestants, in a tone that would make even the most cynical journalist cringe. I wonder what ever happened to Joan Orringer, or if Sally Parmele ever reached her dream of opening a retail store.
We even hosted a “Miss Inspiration” contest.
There was so much more to Roll Call back in those days, with dozens of members acting as the reporters and filing items about Hill comings and goings, but the pinups are often the features people remember, or bring up when we harken back to yesteryear.
As is chronicled so well in this, our 60th anniversary edition of Roll Call, we were the only game in town for so long. We broke stories of national importance, such as the House banking scandal, and we bred a certain kind of journalist who went on to big things in Washington. And we have had fun doing it, day in and day out.
Sid made it fun, and that tradition continued.
Congress seemed to be having more fun, too. There are dozens of photos of members laughing, drinking, playing music lining the walls of the home our late found Sid shared with Lael Yudain.
We still interact with members today, and shared beers with them just last week at the 54th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, but there’s no question things have changed. Just as there’s no way we’d ever put a staffer in our pages as a pinup today, it’s pretty unlikely we’d be doing shots in the hallways of Longworth in the same spirit as Roll Call’s forefathers. Boozing in the hallways has been replaced by running alongside them in races such as the ACLI Capital Challenge, or even competing against them on the softball field.
When I see those old photos, I wonder what kind of stories Sid was bringing back to the paper. When I look at my black-and-white photo of our founder, perched at his typewriter, I like to think Sid would have made sure his reporters pressed ahead with a juicy scoop no matter the member, if it was someone he’d partied with or one of his closest pals.
But I’ll be honest and say I’m not so sure.
The changing journalism landscape in Washington and across the country has taken its toll on this and many newsrooms, but the shift toward more skeptical coverage of the people with keys to power is an improvement, even if it means no one is having as much fun.
I love grabbing one of the enormous bound volumes of the Roll Call archives at random and cracking it open. Without fail, I’m met with a familiar face. (John D. Dingell came to Washington the same year Roll Call started.)
Any issue of Roll Call — from the first front page story about Hill workers getting a pay raise (a likely bump of 8 percent, the article says, increasing the top possible staffer salary in Congress to $10,694.73) — provides a window into yesteryear.
It’s with this in mind that we hope you enjoy our special anniversary edition. It starts out front, with a true throwback cartoon from CNN’s Jake Tapper, who once penned Roll Call’s “Capitol Hell” cartoon. He designed it in the spirit of the “Animal House” poster, with famed congressional characters living and dead. (Think you can name everyone? We’re holding a contest. Email me at christinabellantoni-at-rollcall-dot-com!)
We’ve returned the original Roll Call flag to the front page, and we’ll be throwing it back to old designs all summer long. Read Stu Rothenberg’s reflections on how journalism has changed during his decades at Roll Call on Page 12, and get the perspective of five former Capitol Hill leadership aides on Page 8.
Over the rest of the summer, Roll Call is going to be showcasing our staff alumni, printing their observations about how Congress has changed and the most memorable stories from their time at the newspaper of Capitol Hill.
My own is easy to come up with. I first came to Roll Call in October 2010, just as the tea party wave was about to sweep over the nation and cast the Democrats from power. We marked every moment and covered the new majority makers and the energy they brought to the Capitol. Everything changed in January 2011 when a member of Congress was gunned down at an event in her home district. We published a special edition of the paper, and I wrote about the coarsening of rhetoric and a breakdown in discourse.
For the next few months, we’ll print submissions from Steve Kornacki, Juliet Eilperin, Norah O’Donnell, Paul Kane, Ed Henry, Jim VandeHei, Tim Burger, Paul Singer and more — their bylines will briefly return to our pages in the leadup to a September gala celebration. (Our newsroom brethren at CQ are celebrating their 70th anniversary this year.)
The spirit of this newsroom is something that’s endured all these years. Life is too short to do something if you’re not having any fun. If I remember that ideas of fun have changed over time, I guess I can forgive Sid for the pinups. Those were, after all, the times.