John Yarmuth got his start on Capitol Hill in 1971 after another young future lawmaker — Mitch McConnell — called and asked him to take his slot on the staff of their home-state senator, Kentucky’s Marlow Cook.
Now a Democratic congressman who represents Louisville, Yarmuth spoke to Roll Call recently about his early days as a Rockefeller Republican and his experience as an April Fools’ pinup for our publication.
His chairmanship of the Budget Committee nearly didn’t happen — he calls his placement on the panel “almost accidental.” And he offered this advice for young staffers with aspirations of one day becoming a committee chairman: Keep smiling.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.Q: As a young person, what led you to Washington?
A: I had worked the summer before my senior year in college on a campaign for a U.S. senator from Kentucky, a successful one, with Mitch McConnell. And Mitch McConnell and I traveled Kentucky in the summer of 1968, and then he went to work for the senator after he won and stayed there for about two years.
And when [McConnell] was going to go home to Kentucky, presumably to begin his political career, he called me and asked me if I wanted to fill [his] spot. I deliberated for about two seconds, and I said yes.
Q: And this was Sen. Marlow Cook. What did you do as a staffer?
A: Well, first, I was a legislative assistant, and I was his chief writer. I wrote virtually everything — every speech he gave, even if it … wasn’t in my area of jurisdiction. And then I did correspondence, constituent correspondence and also met with people who were there, lobbyists, and other constituents who were advocating for various things.
Q: Is there a particularly memorable speech you wrote?
A: The first speech I wrote was on a new initiative that the Nixon administration had come up with called revenue sharing, and it was a way just to distribute funds, general funds back to the states on a population basis — and my boss, Sen. Cook, asked me to write a speech. … I’ll never forget, I was on the floor as he gave it, and Chuck Percy, who was then a senator from Illinois … immediately came over to the senator and said, “Did you get a new speech writer? That was really good.”
Q: What was the Senate like back then?
A: It was a lot different. … In both parties, you had the entire philosophical spectrum, so in the Republican Party, you had everybody from Mark Hatfield and Jacob Javits … to Jesse Helms and Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurmond, and on the Democratic side, you had the Southern Dixiecrats, Richard Russell … and Russell Long and then Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and Fritz Mondale. … You were always working across party lines because there was always somebody on the other side of the aisle who agreed with you, and that doesn’t exist anymore.
Q: If they had Twitter in the 1970s, what would you have tweeted about?
A: It wouldn’t have been anything partisan because again we didn’t really feel the partisan pull back then. I would have tweeted a lot about our softball team, because we had a great Senate league softball team.
I would have tweeted about things like — back then, lobbyists could take you anywhere, and pay for anything, so I went to Acapulco, I went to the 1973 Super Bowl, [when] the Redskins played the Miami Dolphins, on the lobbyists tab.
Q: Can you describe this photo of you by the Capitol?
A: I was a brand new staffer then, and Roll Call had a weekly feature called [Hill Pinup] and it was always women, but for their April Fools’ issue, they wanted to do a man. And I don’t know how they came to me. … I hadn’t been on the Hill for more than two months, but I said, sure, I’d get to know people this way.
Q: What was the political environment in Kentucky in the 1960s and ’70s?
A: Well, back in the ’60s and ’70s, it was very easy to be a liberal Republican. We called them Rockefeller Republicans back then, and I was very progressive — my parents were Republicans, my father because of the business aspect of being a Republican, but I was a Republican because that was the party of civil rights.
Q: When Sen. Cook lost his reelection bid, did you consider staying in Washington?
A: I was actually asked to be the executive director of what was then the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Ted Stevens from Alaska was a really good friend of Marlow’s, and I knew him very well and he asked me. … And I told him at the time, “I would have no problem working for you and Howard Baker and some others, but I couldn’t work for Jesse Helms or Strom Thurmond, or some of the others.” And so I said no. … I was there during Watergate, Roe v. Wade, and Vietnam, so it was an exhausting time to be up there.
Q: Why did you decide to run for the House in 2006?
A: I was kind of living the perfect life — I was doing a TV show once a week and writing a column once a week and playing a lot of golf and doing a lot of civic and charitable work.
But I said, “You know, this district should be one of the 15 districts we need to flip to gain control of the House and put an end to the Bush agenda.” So we flipped 30 seats, mine was one of them, and here I am 13 years later.
Q: What advice do you have for current Hill staffers who may have aspirations of becoming a committee chairman?
A: What I tell everybody who is thinking of going into politics is expand your network as much as you possibly can, because ultimately, [for] people getting started in politics, the more people they know, the more volunteers they have, the more people they can touch, and then start smiling and keep smiling.
Q: Did your interest in budget issues happen as a young staffer or did that kind of happen when you became a member of Congress?
A: The budget position really was almost accidental, so I was in my second term, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, and Ways and Means has three automatic spots on the Budget Committee. I was the most junior member of Ways and Means at that point and they couldn’t get anybody to take the third spot. So they said, “OK, Yarmuth, you’re on Budget,” and I stayed.