Thursday, June 16, 2005

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

Roll Call newspaper, where I worked from 1989 to 2000, has just published a special issue commemorating its 50th anniversary. As the former Heard on the Hill columnist for the paper, I was asked to write a little article on my experiences there. In case you're interested, here it is:

The 1990s were a time of dramatic upheaval in the institution of Congress and, as Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill columnist for most of that decade, I like to think I played at least some small role on the Capitol stage. So, after all these years and from my new home on a different continent, I feel I can finally say this: Sorry!

I’m kidding, mostly, but not about the transition part. When I started writing HOH, in April 1990, Congress was still populated with plenty of endearingly crusty characters from the Mesozoic era of American politics, when — if we’re to believe the quaint legend — Democrats and Republicans got along. In our current era of vituperation and character assassination, this was what is now referred to nostalgically as the Good Old Days.

Members from both sides of the aisle would, after a long day of political bobbing and weaving, gather in some allegedly larger-than-life committee chairman’s office for bipartisan bourbon-and-branches and back-slapping — and we were all supposed to feel good about it. Who cared whether their deal-making was helping or hurting the public weal? Hell, who even knew? By the end of the decade we’d already had the “Contract with America,” the government shutdown, a slew of ethics scandals and the impeachment of a president. We saw the earliest sprouting of the Congressional Pod People who now seem to dominate the legislative branch.

I wrote HOH in a more innocent time, a time when one could make a name as a gossip columnist without frequent and cleverly worded references to sodomy or reliance on unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo — although it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Going through back issues of Roll Call to write this article has reminded me of what it was like to grow up, professionally speaking, on Capitol Hill. I was there from the age of 21 to 35, and I’ve probably never had more fun in a job or had better colleagues than when I worked at Roll Call.

Where else could we churn out such headlines as “Staffer Fired, Then Murdered” or “Furnishings Chief Quits Abruptly” or, in our version of Dewey Defeats Truman, from the 1991 leadership battle between Reps. David Bonior and Steny Hoyer, “Whip Contest Too Close to Call” (Bonior won by 51 votes)? We used to joke that the ultimate Roll Call headline would be, “Capitol Destroyed by Bomb; Massive Subcommittee Shuffle Ahead.” As I say, it was a more innocent time.

Reading the old papers also brings back memories of a lot of nice folks I dealt with, sources who I’m sure wouldn’t mind being identified at this late date. Indulge my giving a shout out to a few of them: Dan Nichols, the unflappable and unfailingly helpful spokesman for the Capitol Police during the entire time I wrote HOH — if he had ever told me half of what he knows I would have a Pulitzer; Ari Fleischer, who long before he became a poker-faced White House press secretary was a plugged-in staffer for Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and fount of good HOH items (he once called to tell me his boss had flicked a cigarette butt into the wastebasket and nearly burned down the Senate, but I wasn’t allowed to name the boss or the way the fire started); John Edgell, who specialized in working for kooky Members like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and then-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and now sells Arnold Schwarzenegger dolls, and who is going to freak that I’ve outed him as a source; Donald Ritchie, of the Senate Historian’s Office, who was always happy to provide some background context or archaic anecdote; and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who always returned phone calls, even if he spoke so fast it was hard to get his quotes right.

There are dozens more, of course, and if I’ve left you out, I apologize (or, more likely, you’re welcome).

Then there were the less-than-helpful folks, the Pete Starks and Adam Clymers of the world, who despite their best efforts provided some juicy copy over the years. Their mean spirit and lack of any discernible sense of humor only prodded me to go after them more.

I sense from reading current issues of Roll Call that things have gotten ugly on Capitol Hill. Some lament this. But I’m not one to pine for the good ol’ boy days of the late Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) or then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.). I don’t necessarily confuse bipartisan political tradition with effective legislating or healthy democracy.

In those days, when the fix was in, there was nothing to be done about it. At least now some blogger can raise a stink, generate a million fake e-mails, get Rush Limbaugh on the case and end up renaming an airport or something. Er, maybe I’ll take that bourbon-and-branch, after all.

Seriously, be thankful for what you’ve got: a semi-vigorous political discourse. I have been living for the last five years in Brussels, which is similar to Washington, D.C., in many ways except more people in Belgium speak English.

I’ve had some experience writing political gossip for a Brussels audience, in Entre Nous, European Voice newspaper’s version of HOH, and it just doesn’t compare. People here are too damned serious about advancing The European Project to bother with senses of humour (sorry, humor). Another problem: Nothing much happens in the EU. Nearly every news story starts with “plans are being put forward” or “a Green Paper is being drafted on the proposed Directive.” How it makes me long for former Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.).

Still, there are flashes of hope. One recent item in Entre Nous (which I no longer write) was headlined: “Catering Strike Lingers as Mystery Budgie is Found.”

Brussels may finally be catching Potomac Fever.

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