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Roll Call Alumni Look Back on the Congressional Beat

Roll Call staff in June 2005, next door to the office. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Roll Call staff in June 2005, next door to the office. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Roll Call has published recollections from several alumni this year in commemoration of the paper’s 60th anniversary. Here are several more who provide the backstory to covering Capitol Hill for its community newspaper:

Susan Davis, NPR congressional correspondent

Roll Call: What was your favorite or most memorable story or interview?

It was with Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., but not because of the interview itself. I was interviewing him along with Lauren Whittington in September 2006 for a profile on the lawmakers competing to be the next [National Republican Congressional Committee] chairman. It was during the interview that the Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., scandal broke about his online communications with teenage boys in the page program. And I remember glancing at my BlackBerry, which was just blowing up next to me, and trying to both manage the interview but also try to wrap up as quickly as possible to go chase the Foley story. Cole ultimately won the NRCC race after the election that cost the GOP the majority, partly because of Foley and the “culture of corruption” narrative Democrats successfully employed.

RC: What was the biggest congressional scandal during your tenure?

There were so many, it felt like that was all we covered! I was at Roll Call during the era of GOP Reps. Tom DeLay, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Bob Ney, Rick Renzi, Charles Taylor, John Sweeney, and Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson and Jack Murtha. It was the earmarks and Abramoff era and it kept the copy flowing and the newsroom humming. It was a remarkable time to be covering the Hill. And Roll Call — with due credit to my still-friends and then-colleagues John Bresnahan, Paul Kane and John Stanton — broke a ton of news on those stories. We were at the top of our game then, and it was such a relevant, vibrant place to be.

Paul Singer, USA Today Washington correspondent

RC: What was your favorite or most memorable story or interview?

So many to choose from! Clearly my coverage of Jack Murtha’s earmark factory was the defining story of my tenure, but my favorite story was discovering the secret permanent Treasury Department account that pays for CODEL travel. It had long been rumored, but nobody had figured out where it lived. I found it, and was able to tally the millions of dollars Congress was charging taxpayers for foreign travel without any public disclosure or even any budget. The headline “Members Fly Free Abroad” and the lede: “Members of Congress and their staff racked up almost $15 million worth of foreign travel in 2009, but Congress didn’t have to pay the tab.”

RC: Do you have a funny story about Congress or Roll Call, or covering Congress for Roll Call?

The best Roll Call story remains NOMA-geddon — the day the power went out in the neighborhood (including to our servers) at around 3 p.m. We moved everything we could carry to the Hall of States, rented a conference room, retyped stories off of page proofs recovered from the recycle bins and laid out the paper on a template from a joke farewell front page that somebody had saved on their laptop.

The newspaper that arrived in the marble halls of Congress the next morning looked just like the papers that had arrived every day previously — and it was only because of an extraordinary team effort I have never seen elsewhere.

John McArdle, C-SPAN host/producer

RC: What was your favorite or most memorable story or interview?

JM: Getting outside D.C. to cover members and challengers on the campaign trail was the best perk of working for Roll Call’s Politics desk. I tasted homemade “creek water” at the annual Hillbilly Days festival in Pikeville, Ky. I pulled over somewhere along an empty road in Southwest Georgia to find out what cotton feels like before it’s picked. I got lost in a box of 50-year-old scripts of the “Delmarva Jamboree” at an aging radio studio on the outskirts of Pocomoke City, Md. I took a muddy, smelly, 4 a.m. tour of a Virginia dairy farm (alongside a crew from Japanese Public Television) during a 24-hour get-out-the-vote push by one former member. I loved the camaraderie of being in the Roll Call newsroom, but the road trips provided the best memories.

RC: Do you have a funny story about Congress or Roll Call, or covering Congress for Roll Call?

JM: Roll Call’s Politics section had a column called “Under the Radar” reserved for interesting candidates who never had a real chance of winning. During the two cycles I covered campaigns for Roll Call I hold the distinction of being the only reporter to feature a candidate in that column who went on to win his or her race. Less than two months before former Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao won his election in Louisiana, I used the terms “sacrificial lamb” and “pipe dream” in the article I wrote about him. I was wrong.

Josh Kurtz, Environment & Energy Daily editor

JK: Favorite stories I edited? A great Lauren Whittington piece from probably 2003 about Jerry Springer, when he was thinking about running for Senate in Ohio. Lauren’s early 2004 coverage of Obama’s Senate primary was terrific and groundbreaking, too.

RC: What was the most prominent legislative issue of the era?

JK: The Iraq War, probably. It reverberated for years, on the Hill and in countless campaigns. Though some of the legislative fights of the early Obama era, like health care and cap and trade, were also epic.

RC: Do you have a funny story about Congress or Roll Call, or covering Congress for Roll Call?

JK: So many. Right off the bat maybe I’ll mention the time Sheila Jackson Lee called Roll Call Editor Charlie Mitchell to complain after somebody — maybe in an HOH column — called her a “serial mourner.”

Shira Center, Boston Globe political editor

RC: What was your favorite or most memorable story or interview?

SC: Favorite story: Arlen Specter’s party switch. It broke the Roll Call website.

Favorite interview: Sarah Palin before she was famous (or whatever she is now).

Strangest interview: Patrick Kennedy, several weeks before he went to rehab (the second time).

Most defiant interview: Jesse Jackson Jr., about three months before he went to rehab.

RC: Do you have a funny story about Congress or Roll Call, or covering Congress for Roll Call?

SC: I’m not sure these are appropriate for print. There was the time a congressman asked me what a tea bagger was. Another time a congressman tried to set me up with his recently divorced colleague in the delegation (he was about 25 years my senior). And then there was the time I drove two hours in a snow storm with Dennis Kucinich, who told me he loved Katy Perry’s song, “Firework,” because it’s inspirational.

Meredith Shiner, Yahoo political correspondent

MS: I’ll never forget my first conversation with then Editor-in-Chief Scott Montgomery when he was trying to convince me to work at Roll Call. It was June 2011 and we were sitting on a bench in Union Station. I was 24 and not sure I wanted to stay in journalism (who among us is 100 percent of the time?). After I was done airing out my professional angst, Scott looked at me and said, “Meredith, if you’re not having fun in this business, you’re not doing it right. It’s supposed to be fun.” He promised me that if I came to work at Roll Call, it would be. And Scott Montgomery was a man of his word because it was. Of course, anyone who tries to tell you journalism isn’t a sometimes grating, often capricious bitch of a business is lying — the need to turn a profit complicates our professional lives immensely. But I think the beauty of Roll Call, and what I choose to remember about my time there, is that we were going to have fun kicking the shit out of Congress or die trying.

When I close my eyes, I am in a pod in the corner of the CQ Roll Call newsroom, sitting with Steven Dennis and John Stanton and David Drucker and Humberto Sanchez, being watched over by an inflatable Jesus wearing a Burger King crown, breaking stories and endlessly harassing each other in the process. I can’t imagine a crew more motley than ours, but despite our differences we shared one important attribute: We were in on the joke. Covering our federal government is serious business, but you can’t take yourselves or all the characters involved too seriously. Because what’s the fun in that?

There were plenty of stories I was proud to have filed for Roll Call — from breaking news on the debt ceiling fight of 2011 to long-form political features to crazy Heard on the Hill posts and co-authoring our Senate blog. I also happened to be the resident obscure congressional sports writer of my era and permanent Congressional Baseball Game beat writer. (I blame Paul Singer for that last part.) But what I treasure most about Roll Call was not what we did, but how we did it. Our staff was undoubtedly smaller than those of our rivals, but we never felt out of the game. The long-held reputation of Roll Call is that it served as the farm team for the nation’s great news outlets. And I think that’s right, not just because of the people who once worked there (people much more accomplished and talented than me, I might add), but because of the attitude of the place. There’s a famous line from the best movie ever made about a minor league baseball team, “Bull Durham”: “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.” If you tacked on one more phrase to that, “but every day you make a paper,” then I think that’s the perfect Roll Call tagline. I am honored to have worked there.

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