One Wednesday night when Roll Call, the compact and spirited newspaper of Capitol Hill, had sealed its last item in lead, its editor got a call from the White House. The secretary of then-vice president Richard Nixon was on the phone. Nixon had a story, an obituary in fact. Sid Yudain, the indomitable editor, said it would have to wait until the next week. Nixon got on the phone and, Yudain recalls, said, "'It's my longtime doorkeeper, we are having these services, we've got to let the people know.' And I gave in."
For the last 25 years, Yudain has been an accommodator, adviser, matchmaker, chronicler, discover (of comedian Mark Russell and secretary Elizabeth Ray, who made her first photo appearance in Roll Call), impresario and chider, to the names of Capitol Hill. Through his weekly newspaper, which covers the filibusters as well as the funerals, he has become an entrenched institution. When his silver anniversary was celebrated last night, the keynote lineup included Robert Byrd, Howard Baker, Tip O'Neill and John Rhodes, with entertainment by Sam Hayakawa, Mo Udall, Bob Michel and Silvio Conte, as well as some other Washington wits.
He sees his fiefdom as a village with a constantly unfolding drama, and his role as the raconteur on the village green. But mostly he admits he's a fan. "I've never used the power of the paper for me. I am one of the greatest fans Congress has ever had. Like when I was a movie writer, I loved the movies. If I criticized, I criticized to improve them. I criticize Congress when it needs to be improved," says Yudain, a tall, gangly man, whose dapper air reflects his allegiance to the more formal days of Congress and journalism.
However, he is more homespun than stiff, a confirmed bachelor until eight years ago, and his grand statements were oiled by a lunch with author Larry King. Intertwined in the temporary bluster is a deeply felt pride in his enterprise's survival. "It started from nothing. It's probably the greatest institution of its kind in the world. Here I came from Connecticut, a first-generation American, never went to College, just had a good idea," says Yudain, 49. "Newspapers are notorious for not being able to last. In 155 years there has never been a newspaper here that lasted more than three or four months."
Stories about Yudain abound with the same formula of lightheartedness and fairness that he uses in Roll Call. He once had a suit of armor in front of a fireplace in his apartment, and the high point of every party was to wait until a congressman starting talking to it. "When I first met him he had a bachelor's apartment, and he loved to cook soups but he never bothered to refrigerate them. One of his sauerkraut soups fermented and exploded. I wouldn't tell you how long it stayed on his ceiling," says Jack Anderson, a staff assistance to Rep. John Rhodes (R-Ariz.). "And he had an old Plymouth convertible whose roof always leaked. Eventually he had a garden growing in the back seat because he never cleaned the car."
Longevity -- the intimate brand that comes with reporting the events and bending elbows at the Old Carroll Arms Hotel -- brings tales, some fresh, some the glue of the Capitol Hill legends, some sad. Sam Rayburn, the powerful and cantankerous speaker of the House, was initially against Yudain's project. "He thought a paper that would be successful would be too powerful in the hands of a person not elected to anything," recalls Yudain, who was introduced to Congress through a job as a Hill press secretary. "As the years went by he became a fan, or at least accustomed to it. In 1961 or somewhere, he was trying to get the East Front of the Capitol extended. He had a terrible fight, the press was against him, he asked if I would run a story." Vindication? No, says Yudain -- just a good village story.
Over the years, bylines in the Roll Call have included Hubert Humphrey, Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. This outlet did not stop any of them from chewing him out.
His worst time came with dour Speaker Carl Albert. For an anniversary issue, the Roll Call photographer had dressed up a pretty woman on Albert's staff in a skimpy costume made of copies of the Roll Calls. "Well, that night Carl went over to the Congressional hotel, and his colleagues were kidding him about it. They ordinarily do that, but I guess he had a few extra drinks. He got on the phone and started screaming at me. We got the photographer on a conference call and the next thing they were crying. Albert threatened to fire the Photographer, who worked for the Democratic National Committee. I kept saying, 'Carl, they were all kidding you.' He went on and and on. I finally said, 'You can't talk to me this way, I am the editor of the paper, knock it off.' I just wanted to shock him." By Yudain's account, Albert calmed down and the photographer's job was saved.
Sometimes the threats have been real. One of the first reporters Yudain hired enjoyed the juice somewhat and wrote a story about Rep. Philip Landrum (D-Ga.) as a supporter of the civil rights bills. "Well, he called me and threatened everything. Finally I had to write a letter 'clearing his reputation' so to speak, and volunteered to come down to any forum in Georgia and vouch for him," recalls Yudain. The campaigning never materialized.
Newspapering has been second nature to Yudain. The youngest of eight children of Russian immigrants, he grew up in Connecticut. One of his older brothers was an associate of Heywood Hale Broun, another the editor of the Greenwhich Time. Yudain started a neighborhood news sheet in Bridgeport, a paper in elementary school, continued the paper his brother started in high school and started a paper in the Army when he was working for a radio station. "When I was hospitalized for a broken nose, I started a paper for the cancer patients. I stayed an extra two months, in my pajamas, I enjoyed it so much," says Yudain.
His introduction to Hollywood feature writing came while he was assigned to guard a munitions dump in Los Angeles.Actor Cameron Mitchell, a friend, saw that he met the right people, but getting into the business in the heyday of Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper was no cinch. The editor at Modern Screen told him he had to get a scoop. Yudain went back to Connecticut, found out Olivia de Havilland was performing nearby and requested an interview. "I knew my editor wanted to know about her romances. So I went over, I was drinking Scotch, a real callow youth, I kept ordering Scotch from this guy hovering over us. She was drinking Coke, she didn't have to impress me. I stumbled through the question about her romance. I looked over my notes and decided she had only given me the bio information," recalls Yudain. "Then I got a telegram to her wedding to [novelist] Marcus Goodrich. I called my editor, and he said go. When I got there she introduced me to Goodrich, who was the guy I had been ordering the Scotch from. I was embarrassed, but I got the exclusive and the job."
For nearly five years, he pursued the stars' stories, testing wits with Yvonne DeCarlo, Montgomery Clift, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Lizabeth Scott before coming to Washington with a Connecticut congressman in 1951. Bemoaning the absence of a community newspaper with gossip and human-interest stories (people still talk about the press release he once sent out about a dead parakeet in his boss' office), he launched his effort with a $90 investment, no business experience and one editor, publisher, reporter, political commentator and delivery boy -- himself. Even now the paper has only two full-time reporters and four summer interns, and the business aspects of the Hill's only weekly have not changed; Roll Call doesn't have an advertising department. Its 7,000 subscribers (down from a top of 10,000) include Capitol Hill, White House, and other government employes and interested adjuncts, such as lobbyists who dish out a quarter. "Most of the time you could call us a profit-making venture," laughs Yudain.
The political interviews have been a breeze, says Yudain. "The movie things are sort of contrived; you had to think up angles. You had to dig for something. With a political personality, you know what you want, you know the person. You know almost exactly what they are going to say," he says. And when you spend 25 years doing the same thing every day, you sound proprietary. "We don't do that many interviews anymore. There aren't that many interesting people anymore," he says.
He has a lament for the good old days, particularly because the village has grown from the 7,000 population of the 1950s into a bustling city of 24,000. "The Congress started to change in the late 1960s when they started enlarging the staffs, when the turnover in Congress became greater, when the regard for senior congressmen seemed to be decreasing . . . The people 20 years ago had backgrounds, a wealth of experiences. You could sit down with Brooks Hays and they could tell you stories about politics, the political events," he says. "I see signs that the Congress is becoming more as we envisioned it when we started. The House used to be looser, the Senate was very stiff and staid, and the opposite has happened. People are not afraid to give a party anymore. You can tell when you talk to people they are not as guarded, they are not worried someone is going to pick it up, that Common Cause will be after them. Now you see more general relaxation. You can talk to people when you walk into their offices again."
But 25 years doesn't mean Yudain is giving up. This celebration is a simple milestone. He will continue his Sunday soup suppers, complete with Yudain on saxophone and singing such ditties as "Tie Me to Your Apron Strings," and guests like Irving Wallace," Sergio Franchi and Amanda Blake, and his two youngsters, 5 and 4.
"My basic work hasn't changed, the basic philosphy of Roll Call hasn't changed," he says. "The Congress has changed. We are trying to keep up with the changes."