Former Top Hill Staffers on Roll Call Turning 60
Reflections from Ron Bonjean, Jim Manley, Bob Stevenson, Doug Thornell and Brian Walsh
To some Americans, 60 years of watching Congress’ every move might seem like sentence in purgatory, but for the editors and reporters at Roll Call, and for those of us who have been regular readers, it has been one hell of an interesting ride.
Exactly 60 years ago, Sid Yudain, press secretary to Al Morano, R-Conn., created a Capitol Hill community newspaper — Roll Call — to serve what he called “the most important community in the world.” It quickly caught on, becoming the small town paper of the Congress, divulging the gossip whispered in the corridors and chronicling the comings and goings of members and staff, the day-to-day tidbits of birthdays and births, weddings, retirements and deaths.
But as it developed, it grew. And soon Roll Call was also focusing on the more serious actions of the Congress, reporting on legislative strategies, filibusters, committee actions and behind-the-scenes jockeying for leadership or committee assignments. In balancing the two — reporting on the serious and important actions of the nation’s legislative branch while narrating the personal everyday accomplishments of its supporting cast — Roll Call found its niche.
Roll Call has always known its audience — it’s for those of us who populate Capitol Hill or who have a professional interest in the actions of the Congress. While it has broken its share of significant national news, its bread and butter is the everyday workings of the Legislative Branch — the “sausage making” if you will. It reports on the less seismic, but no less important, routine (and sometimes not routine) tales of Congress and its workings. Which, for those of us whose careers are focused on legislative gyrations, make it a “must read.”
Roll Call has delved into the places few other publications would dare focus, to tell its readers of Appropriations Committee 302(b) allocations, reporting on the correct application of arcane Budget Act Points of Order, and deep dives into the rulings of the Senate parliamentarian. At first glance this might seem mundane. But the impact on the American public of these matters is considerable and far-reaching. And these small procedural stories often mushroom into larger legislative quagmires impacting Congress’ ability to produce important legislation. Roll Call reporters also keep a sharp eye on the ethics rules and procedures that govern congressional behavior.
Hundreds of important stories have gotten their start in Roll Call, the most famous of which is probably Tim Burger’s 1991 front-page account of the House Banking scandal, which resulted in 77 members either resigning or being defeated in 1994. Collectively, Roll Call reporters have logged thousands of hours outside closed committee room doors or standing in congressional corridors waiting for a chance to capture a chairman or ranking member to press them on legislative tactics.
For those of us tasked with dealing with the press, Roll Call reporters were a constant. We can each recall instances where Roll Call reporters relentlessly pressed us for details on a story, first on the phone and then somehow standing next to our desks. And they know their stuff — they are well versed in Senate and House rules and legislative procedure.
And what a group of reporters it has produced. Roll Call has been a vital training ground for innumerable hungry young reporters who, under the tutelage of experienced editors, cut their journalistic teeth walking the halls of Congress for the paper and now make up the top ranks of the Washington press corps. The crop of alumni reads like a who’s who of national political reporters: Ed Henry, Paul Kane, Jake Tapper, Jim VandeHei, Chris Cillizza, Mark Preston, Norah O’Donnell, John Bresnahan, Nina Totenberg and the list goes on.
But Roll Call has never abandoned the more intimate side of Capitol Hill, also reporting the scuttlebutt, the political musings of members, and staff comings and goings. Features like the “Fab 50,” the Wealth of Congress list, the At the Races blog and the Casualty List add background to the daily congressional routine. And one feature — the gossipy Heard on the Hill — may be the most read blog or column of any in the congressional complex and certainly is the repository of more anonymous tips than any other.
If you have been reading Roll Call for the past 60 years, you have gained a deeper understanding of some of the greatest moments in American legislative history. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the Civil Rights Act, the Watergate hearings, the Iran-Contra Affair, the Keating Five investigation, the Clinton impeachment, the Iraq War vote, Obamacare and more. You have also been given a more intimate understanding of the motivations and thinking of some of the nation’s most renowned leaders: McClellan, Kefauver, JFK, LBJ, Rayburn, Michael, Russell, Mansfield, O’Neill, Baker, Mitchell, Dole, Ted Kennedy, right up to today’s leaders — Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John A. Boehner and Mitch McConnell.
But more than that, you have gained more intimate insight and understanding into the everyday workings of Capitol Hill and its citizens. Those of us who have spent years working behind the scenes can testify to the importance of this awareness in helping shape the politics and successful policies that guide our nation.
Bonjean, a former spokesman for both a Senate majority leader and House speaker, is a partner at Rokk Solutions. Manley, a former senior communications adviser to Reid, is a senior director at Quinn, Gillespie and Associates. Stevenson, a former communications director for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, is a principal at The OB-C Group. Thornell, a former national press secretary at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and adviser to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, is a managing director at SKDKnickerbocker. Walsh, a former communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is a partner at Rokk Solutions.