Roll Call Has Always Made Room for Fun Stuff
The history books show that the Heard on the Hill column we all know (and love?) officially came into existence on Jan. 17, 1988.
But thumbing through 60-some years of Roll Call’s brand of reporting illustrates that founder Sid Yudain always appreciated the quirky side of Hill life.
Right there, smack dab in the middle of the debut issue on June 16, 1955, is a recap of that year’s Congressional Baseball Game, with Roll Call scribe “Ella Fant” inserting her own color commentary. “The crowd was good, despite the weather. However, center field bleachers were completely empty except for one lone figure surrounded by vast barrenness. Rep. Don Jackson nudged Rep. Elford Cederberg and quipped, ‘There’s the Cederberg Fan Club out there,’” Fant shared with her nascent readership — setting the tone for Roll Call’s inside baseball coverage.
Not two weeks later, staff writers tackled the lighter side of working in Washington by embracing the advent of irritable pol syndrome.
Per the anonymous scribe, “suave, bemustached Pennsylvanian Dan Flood” has declared war against an errant songbird intent on performing nightly. “Congressman Flood is a man who likes his sleep, and most of his evenings lately have been devoted to a baritone obligato of unprintable language,” the intrepid reporter relayed. The sleep-deprived solon, the writer posits, is edging toward unloading on the intruder (“He’s just about decided to shoot it out,” the hack suggests), whereas Mother Nature stands strong. “Meanwhile, old Mocky is giving him the bird.”
Come late summer, the ongoing fascination with Tinsel Town popped up in this precursor to “Life After Congress.”
“Former Representative Harold Porquey Patten (Ariz.) has gone Hollywood — by way of Tucson,” Roll Call reported in an item chronicling Patten being typecast as a congressman (‘natch) in “A Kiss Before Dying.” (Patten’s actual middle name was “Ambrose.”)
“To our knowledge, this is the first time a Congressman went from politics to theatrics,” the novelty hunters maintained.
Yudain et al. branched out even further in late September 1955, publishing random quips collected along the cocktail party circuit by a chatty diplomat.
The conversation seemed to turn on: the brutality of D.C. summers (“I take three showers a day. May I refresh your drink?”), media diets (“Did you read Walter Lippman’s article this morning?”), class warfare (“We live in Georgetown. Now, we have no television and we don’t intend to.”), regional snobbery (“Thank God! New York is only two hours away by plane!”), stereotyping (“Those Chinese, you can never tell their age.”) and plain stupidity (“Washington must be boring for bachelors.”).
Fast forward to February 1956, when congressional food fighting comes on full display.
Oregon lawmakers arranged for a free tasting of native russets — “The steaming hot, halved spuds will be topped with melting hunks of Oregon butter,” Roll Call reported — and gave away a 127-page cookbook crammed with more than 650 potato-based recipes.
“If Oregon’s russets are good … it is only because Idaho sends the Snake River water down to irrigate them,” Rep. Gracie Pfost countered. Meanwhile, rank-and-file members were thinking of getting politically active. “Word has leaked out that the Idaho delegation plans a boycott of the free potato whingding,” Roll Call noted.
Things chugged along after that, with Yudain collecting thread for his “Sid’s Bits” column, while other writers highlighted curious happenings in the “Around the Hill” section.
On Jan. 17, 1988, the game changed.
Heard on the Hill debuted on A1 of the “Back to Congress Issue,” getting off to a bang thanks to congressional cross-dressing.
“At his annual Christmas party on the Hill, where Rep. Joe Kennedy II (D-Mass.) showed up dressed as Ollie North, host Ted arrived in drag, claiming to be Fawn Hall.
“Said one startled attendee: ‘He wore a dress, a wig, lipstick, eye make-up, and a bra stuffed with paper … What I remember most about him were his huge breasts,’” HOH shared about the senator’s holiday antics.
Our predecessors managed to slip in some service journalism here and there. HOH alumnus turned Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry did just that in April 2002, helping then-Hill staffer John Scofield blow the lid off a confectionary bait-and-switch.
“For nearly a year now, House GOP aide John Scofield has suspected that the ice cream shop in the basement of the Longworth Building has been committing ‘consumer fraud’ by claiming that its mint chocolate chip is the premium brand Breyers.”
The ice cream purist was convinced the featured product was not up to snuff.
“Everywhere you look it says ‘Breyers,’” Scofield told HOH. “It’s false advertising.”
HOH grilled the House Administration Committee about the suspected switcheroo and discovered the armchair critic was right. “After a long investigation we have discovered that that is indeed not Breyers mint chocolate chip but a tasty substitute,” House administrators subsequently confessed.
That was then. This is now.
Sometimes we take down rogue staffers — as was the case when Whitney Donald, then-aide to Rep. Steven M. Palazzo, R-Miss., demonstrated the worst possible judgment by a) organizing an out-of-town bacchanal booked in her boss’ name, b) attempting to cover up the doomed weekend get-together by recruiting a co-worker to impersonate the congressman (poorly) and lie for her, and c) promising the injured party reparations via pecans (which never materialized).
Big business is not immune from scrutiny.
Or so learned the Senate Federal Credit Union when our colleague, Meredith Shiner, couldn’t tear her eyes away from an in-your-face marketing push.
“In a folding mailer sent recently to its patrons, the bank … asks ‘Got Big Plans?’ before having unsuspecting customers open a pop-up centerfold featuring a headless torso of a buxom blonde,” she recounted of a none-too-subtle plug for discretionary spending. “We can propose products and services to assist you with financing everything big and small.”
Hitting the road exposes us to all kinds of wackos. Like the time we rolled over to the home of state dinner-crasher Tareq Salahi for a train wreck of a campaign roll-out.
“The consummate showman had set up a green screen in his living room and gave attendees a choice of fake backgrounds to appear before.
The photographer told HOH most guests opted for either the governor’s mansion in Richmond or, per Salahi’s instruction, a shot in front of the White House. He noted, however, that one guest had elected to be photographed virtually standing next to an image of a bleary-eyed Prince Harry cribbed from TMZ’s coverage of the would-be monarch’s nude romp in Las Vegas.”
Then there are the teachable moments.
Like that time the greater Capitol Hill community was urged to help out an incoming hottie.
“To: Tour Coordinators
Subject: Hot D Intern Prospect
One of my friends from college, just graduated and is trying to intern on the Hill this summer. She is a smoke show from FSU, but she happens to be a Dem so I’m having trouble finding her a spot. She’s a smart girl and has worked for FEMA. She’s real cool and gets along with everyone. If one your interns falls through or you can squeeze another in, give her a shot,” the absolutely brilliantly worded interoffice missive advised.
“This morning one of my interns (who is under 21) came in about 2 hours late, absolutely hammered, reeking of booze, wearing the same clothes that he had on yesterday. He wandered the legislative area, slurring about how he was in love with Paul Ryan *elected official mentioned* and can’t wait to see *him* at a hearing later today. Further crude conversation ensued that ended only when he abruptly ran out of our office to get in line for the aforementioned hearing (which was in about 3 hours),” a mortified office manager alerted Hillites in July 2013.
Of course, all that pales in comparison to one of the most widely shared gaffes in modern history: barely scraping by, Eleanor Holmes Norton-style.
“A HOH tipster watched in horror Wednesday as the D.C. delegate, 77, awkwardly forced her way into a wide-open spot in the carefully controlled corridor of New Jersey Avenue Southeast sandwiched between the Longworth and Cannon House Office buildings.
‘If she parks like that she should not be a member of Congress anymore,’ one mystified observer — who wisely recorded more than a minute of the automotive travesty — said as the video was being captured. The tipster said Norton rubbed the correctly positioned, red sports utility vehicle to her immediate left with her improperly angled silver sedan.”
Here’s to 60 more years of good, old-fashioned fun.