Roll Call’s Days of Yore; Remembering the Little Paper That Could Former staffers reflect on their time at Roll Call
KAREN FELD – Reporter and columnist, 1969-1974
My first job after graduating college was to work at Roll Call, which at the time was a weekly dedicated to covering the “small town” comprised of those who worked at the U.S. Congress.
On Day One, Sid Yudain, the paper’s founder, who was then both editor and publisher, dispatched me to roam the halls of Congress to eke out stories. Fortunately, I was young, enthusiastic and in good physical shape, because the better part of most days was spent traipsing door-to-door, stopping at each office to see if any news was to be had.
Often, Members invited me in for coffee and to personally share news about their new grandchild, or legislation they were about to introduce. At five o’clock, the bar was open in some Congressional offices. On occasion, there were hall parties in Cannon and Longworth, where staffers and Members would schmooze after hours, putting most partisanship aside.
Everything was informal, except the dress code – most Congressional offices did not permit female staffers to wear pants. And there wasn’t a high level of security to worry about. There also was an unspoken understanding that certain things were not to be reported by the press. No one ever said the words, “off the record.” We just instinctively knew.
My column, “Around the Hill … with Karen Feld,” included items about the colorful characters in Congress, including Reps. Dan Flood (D-Pa.), Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), Ken Gray (D-Ill.), Wilbur Mills (D- Ark.), Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), Phil Burton (D-Calif.), Donald Rumsfeld (R-Ill.), Dick Cheney (R- Wyo.) and George H.W. Bush (R-Texas), among others.
The column had tidbits about Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) stuffing his lined pockets with food – including sauces from the buffet table – at receptions; about Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) teaching this young reporter to use his ham radio; and about Rep. Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.), whose Great Dane, C-5 (named after the military aircraft), bit his colleague, Rep. James Symington (D- Mo.). Perhaps some of the stories may have been trivial or frivolous, but it did humanize our public figures.
In addition to writing the column from 1969 to 1974, I contributed feature stories and wrote the “Hill Pinup.” I had the first story break on Elizabeth Ray, the non-typing secretary who eventually brought down the powerful House Administration Chairman Wayne Hays (D-Ohio).
After pounding out copy on a manual typewriter, I’d help Sid lay out the eight pages on Wednesdays, including the ads sold by his sister, Charlotte, and accompany him to the printer where – woozy from the odor, eyes burning and hands and clothes covered with wet, black ink – I’d help proof the paper until well after dark, reading and rereading, and correcting copy errors.
Then, on Thursday mornings, we’d deliver the papers to small merchants around the Hill and fill the machines in the Capitol, Longworth and Rayburn cafeterias, emptying and counting the dimes from the previous week. Yes, indeed, the paper sold for a dime. My starting salary was $35 a week. After a while, I worked up to a whopping sum of $75.
At Roll Call, I learned how to build trust among sources, got a basic education on the behind-the-scenes dealings of Congress, honed my writing and, most importantly, made lasting friendships. One of those great friends was Rep. Leo Ryan (D), the California Congressman who, in 1978, was killed in Guyana while on a mission to investigate the Jonestown cult. I wrote a personal remembrance of Ryan on the 25th anniversary of this disaster for Roll Call. These are friends and experiences on Capitol Hill I’ll always cherish.