Reflections on 20 Years as Accidental Columnist

by Stuart Rothenberg June 14, 2012 · 8:59 AM EDT

Twenty years ago this week, my first column appeared in the pages of Roll Call.

I had no intention of becoming a columnist or working for a newspaper, and I certainly had no expectation that two decades after my first column appeared in print I’d still be writing for Roll Call. As with most of my life, things just seemed to happen. If there was a grand plan at work, it wasn’t mine.

I inherited the column from a friend, Steve Lilienthal, who had to give it up when he briefly tried his hand at partisan politics. Steve was and remains a student of politics, and he had convinced some astute editor at Roll Call to allow him to write a column about campaigns, particularly political ads.

Before the Hotline and the Internet, few people knew what TV spots were running in races around the country, and information about techniques and messages was of interest to political consultants, Hill staffers and political junkies. Consultants would put their ads on tapes and send them to me, and I’d write about trends or particularly interesting spots.

The Roll Call gig was a lucky break. My newsletter, the Rothenberg Political Report, was making a little money, but my income wasn’t enough to support a growing family, and I had already started applying for jobs, or preferably, a part-time position that would allow me to continue my newsletter on the side.

Interest groups, trade associations, political action committees and the Graduate School of Political Management had no interest in me, but the Roll Call opportunity, while hardly a financial windfall, allowed me to keep writing about politics. Though I’m sure they didn’t know it at the time, Executive Editor Stacy Mason and Editor Jim Glassman gave me a career and changed the trajectory of my life.

My first column, which appeared June 11, 1992, was titled “Coming to a TV Screen Near You: Bounced Check Ads.” My second column, published two weeks later, was “Incumbents Now Trying to Look Like Outsiders in TV Ads.” Apparently, little has changed during the past two decades.

When The Hill newspaper started publishing in 1994, my editors figured they better lock me into a weekly column just in case I got another offer, so I started writing weekly.

In 1998, Roll Call’s regular political columnist, my good friend Charlie Cook, left for greener pastures over at National Journal and I inherited his slot, meaning two columns a week. His exit also gave me more room to roam beyond the nitty-

gritty of Congressional campaigns and into presidential politics, public opinion and general political developments.

The first of my twice-a-week columns was published June 11, 1998 (yes, six years to the day after my first piece had appeared). It focused on a California ballot measure, Proposition 226, which “would have forced labor unions to get pre-approval from their members to have their dues used for political purposes,” according to my column. I have no recollection of the piece or the controversy.

During the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to interview thousands of candidates, first with the folks at the Cook Political Report and then with Roll Call’s political reporters.

Some, such as Illinois state legislator Barack Obama, have gone onto bigger and better things. Others, such as North Carolina trial lawyer John Edwards, who once called me at home to react to one of my columns, rose quickly in the world of politics before plummeting.

Not all of my initial assessments were correct.

Back during the 1998 election cycle, I interviewed an energetic, articulate, clearly bright young man who was running for Congress. After the meeting, he asked me how he did, an unusual question that reflected his exuberance and youth. I told him that he did great — and that after he lost and made some money in the private sector, I expected him to run for something again and probably get elected.

Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan still remembers that incident and has reminded me of it a couple of times over the years. What he might not recall is that by the time October of that election year rolled around, I had made Ryan the favorite in the race over Democrat Lydia Spottswood, a nurse who looked better on paper than her campaign did in real life. Of course, Ryan won.

I have also sat through some really terrible interviews. In an end-of-the-year “awards” column in 1998, I nominated wealthy businessman Bruce James for “most arrogant candidate.” James “huffed and puffed about how he was going to beat Rep. John Ensign (R) and Sen. Harry Reid (D), and then dropped out of the race,” I wrote.

Years later, after he had been confirmed by the Senate in 2002 to be the CEO of the Government Printing Office, James invited me for a tour of the GPO. We had a nice visit about his position as the nation’s “public printer,” and ever since then, he has been gracious and friendly. I am lucky he didn’t hold a grudge.

One memorable Roll Call event, on Jan. 21, 2002, was unusual in that it was a newspaper-wide meeting with presidential hopeful Howard Dean, who was not yet on anyone’s radar screen.

Toward the end of a rather lengthy question-and-answer session, I asked the Vermont governor why he had low-keyed the signing of his state’s civil unions bill instead of staging a big media event to celebrate its passage. Angry at the question, he wound up like a pitcher ready to deliver a fastball and shouted at me: “That’s bulls--t.” Almost two years later, when Dean uttered a very different “scream,” I thought back to that incident and smiled.

A few of my columns have received an extraordinary amount of feedback. Two come to mind immediately.

A recent one, published February 11, 2011, raised doubts about the media coverage — and information released –— following the shooting of then-Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords. I realized the piece could be controversial, and I spent more time writing and rewriting it than I have any other column.

I heard from medical professionals, political insiders, journalists and people who had relatives who had suffered traumatic brain injuries. Virtually all of them echoed my thoughts.

But the biggest reaction by far came in response to a June 13, 2002, column (yes, almost 10 years ago to the day) mocking the Congressional testimony against mountaintop mining of Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys. Apparently, the boy band’s fan website posted my piece and dozens of teeny-boppers (along with more than a few adult groupies) took offense at my criticism of Richardson.

Politics and journalism certainly have changed during the past 20 years, and not necessarily for the better. What hasn’t changed for me is the importance of the folks on the copy desk, who try to correct as many of my goofs as they can find, the energy of the newspaper’s bright young reporters, the wise counsel of my longtime colleague Nathan Gonzales and a series of editors, especially Tim Curran and Lauren Whittington, who have always been encouraging and supportive.