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Rothenberg Reflects: Roll Call’s First 50 Years (And My First 13)

I came to Washington, D.C. in June of 1980, fresh from a three-year stint teaching political science at Bucknell University, but my first Roll Call column didn’t appear until June 11, 1992. That means that I’ve been a Roll Call reader for 25 years — half of the lifetime of this newspaper — but a contributor for just over one-quarter of the newspaper’s existence. [IMGCAP(1)]

During that time, I’ve interviewed enough House and Senate candidates to fill Congress — or the Allenwood Federal Correctional Facility, if you prefer.

Many of them have been utterly forgettable, or, as Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean might put it, “All those white Christian Republicans look alike anyway, don’t they?” But a number still stand out.

The most frightening candidate interview I’ve ever conducted may well have been in the basement of Roll Call’s old offices on Second Street Northeast, along Union Station’s train tracks, before the newspaper moved into its current offices.

Three or four of us were interviewing a Congressional hopeful from California when Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report happened to ask what I thought was a fairly innocuous question.

As I recall it, the candidate, Doug Ose, reacted as if Walter had just accused him of multiple felonies. His eyes grew wide, he leaned forward in an obviously threatening way, and appeared poised to launch himself over a couple of desks to attack us the way a hungry hyena might attack a small mammal.

Every time I have seen Ose, who went on to win election in 1998 and serve six years in Congress before abiding by his self-imposed three-term limit, since I’ve thought of one of those deranged postal employees who returned to their mail facility to wreak havoc on their former co-workers.

Then there was Bruce James, who now serves as CEO of the Government Printing Office.

James, a large man, came to see me because he was running for the Republican nomination for the Senate in Nevada in 1998. He was one of those successful businessmen who runs for something every so often, the kind of guy who gives orders and expects them to be followed.

In this meeting, I raised a question about how he could beat then-Rep. John Ensign for the GOP Senate nomination. Ensign, I reasoned aloud, had already run for office and won, had the backing of the entire party establishment and represented half of the state. Didn’t that show that he was likely to beat James in a primary?

That’s when James told me I was an idiot and didn’t know anything about Nevada.

Now, I’ve been called an idiot before, and I’m quite sure thousands of people have thought I’m an idiot but haven’t mentioned it. But that was the first time that a candidate running for office actually told me to my face his thoughts on my mental capabilities.

Finally, the most memorable Roll Call moment for me so far has to be the time in January 2003 when an obscure then-former governor of Vermont named Howard Dean came to the newspaper’s offices to boost his bid for the ’04 Democratic presidential nomination.

Toward the end of the meeting with Roll Call reporters and editors, I asked Dean about the circumstances under which he signed the state’s civil unions bill. Apparently, he didn’t like the way I framed the question, since he turned toward me and yelled “Bull—-!” in what I now see as nothing more than a standard Howard Dean moment.

Still, I’ll forever cherish that obscenity.

Of course, there are other things I won’t forget over the next 50 years. There was the time Montana Senate candidate Mike Taylor, who owned a hair care company (including a salon) but also did a one-man show about Theodore Roosevelt, jumped into character and did a very good imitation of the Rough Rider president.

There was the time that Democratic Congressional candidate Matt McCoy swore in a meeting that he was absolutely, positively, definitely, without a doubt challenging incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) in the Democratic primary in 2002, but sent us a fax a week later announcing that he was ending his candidacy.

And I won’t ever forget a candidate I never met, Phil Maloof, the Democratic nominee in the 1998 special election and the 1998 general election in New Mexico’s 1st district, against Heather Wilson (R). I never met him, Democratic insiders privately informed me after the election, because that way I couldn’t see how intellectually unprepared he was for the job.

Finally, there was the time I was buried in e-mails from teenyboppers when, in a Roll Call column, I was a wee bit sarcastic about Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson sharing his environmental views with a Congressional committee.

To all of the candidates, from now-Reps. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) and Steve Brozak (D-N.J.) to now-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Republican candidate Jack Ryan (Ill.), and from the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) to professional wrestler Bob Backlund (R-Conn.) and actor Ben Jones (D-Ga.), thanks for the memories — from me and from Roll Call.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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