If it’s Wednesday, it must be Michael’s. Having spent the better part of last week on my couch binge-watching Outlander (my new obsession) thanks to a bout with the flu, I was thrilled to be back on the beat at 55th and Fifth. It was a full house today — so much so that I took my dessert to go so a late-arriving Mel Brooks could take over my table.
I was joined today by Melinda Henneberger, who has been editor in chief at Roll Call since last November. The fabulous Lisa Linden, CEO of LAK PR, who always introduces me to the most interesting people, arranged today’s get-together. When I ‘Lunched’ with CQ Roll Call head honcho David Ellis last fall, he hinted that he’d be making some big news shortly. Melinda’s arrival certainly was. It was the first in a series of moves that shook things up in their Washington, D.C. offices, with Melinda bringing in a raft of new talent including columnists Patricia Murphy, Walter Shapiro, Jon Allen and Mary C. Curtis, reporter Alex Roarty and deputy editor Ed Timms. Melinda, who left her post at Bloomberg where she covered politics to take the helm at Roll Call, has some serious street cred among her political peers. As founder and EIC of AOL’s Politics Daily, she conceptualized the site and oversaw a team of writers and editors whose work attracted 8 million monthly uniques. At The Washington Post, she was a columnist and edited the paper’s opinion blog of women writers, She the People. She also spent a decade at The New York Times, as a metro reporter, Washington correspondent and Bureau Chief in Rome (Fun fact: Once seated at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, you are not allowed to get up to go to the restroom.)
Melinda is in town to speak to some foreign correspondents at the State Department’s Foreign Press Center here in the city. The topic? The ins and outs of covering the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions. Judging from the dishy anecdotes she shared at lunch, she’s got plenty of material to draw from. She covered her first convention in 1988 in Atlanta when Michael Dukakis was the Democratic nominee. During all the hoopla, somehow she found herself locked out of the convention hall with none other than Rosa Parks. “This was pre-cell phones, or at least I didn’t have one, and I was frantically trying to get her into the hall.” But the legendary civil rights activist took it all in stride. “She was laughing over the whole thing.”
Our conversation turned quite serious when discussing — what else? — the upcoming presidential election. When I asked her to characterize the mood among political reporters who are out in the field covering the candidates — particularly Donald Trump, she made a stunning admission first uncovered by one of her columnists. “Some people take security with them to cover Trump rallies,” she said before continuing. “A lot of people won’t go in the press pen anymore because it’s too dangerous. At every rally he [motions to the area where the press is gathered] and says ‘these are the worst people in the world’ and everyone turns around [to look at the reporters.] It’s very threatening. I’m amazed something worse hasn’t happened. Political campaigns used to be one of the safest places [for a reporter to be] not anymore.”
Although Roll Call is focused on covering Capitol Hill, this year they’ve widened their scope to cover this “surreal” campaign season. “What happens in the presidential election directly effects the Senate and maybe the House. It’s all intertwined,” Melinda told me. As for chronicling Donald Trump’s candidacy she said, “We only cover Trump as it relates to Congress and to the [national] conservation.” The “big focus” up to now has been “Are the Republicans in Washington going to treat him like any other nominee?” She cited the “tough race” between New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan. “[Ayotte] said ‘I’m going to support the nominee.’ Most [Republicans] seem to have fallen in line. When Paul Ryan talks about the ‘core values’ he has with Trump, the question has been answered.” The question now for Roll Call to explore, said Melinda, is “What effect does the election have Down-Ballot races?” Her answer: “It can go two ways.” Will the candidates’ largely unfavorable ratings in the polls keep people away on Election Day or bring them out to vote against the opposition? “It’s still early,” she told me.
While it may not seem so, there are plenty of other stories for Roll Call to cover. The intrepid staff of 30 (including two full-time photographers) cranks out 30 stories a day for its redesigned website, which includes more photography and podcasts about key down-ballot races. With the rest of the media consumed with covering the never-ending reality show that is now accepted as real-life campaigns for the presidency, there is a real opportunity for Roll Call to report on stories that are being largely overlooked. “We did a package of two stories which looked at Dennis Hastert,” said Melinda. “I’m from a small town in rural Illinois and I know that everyone knew everything about other people’s business. Capitol Hill is the ultimate small town. Simone Pathe and Stephanie Akin went to the two small towns: Hastert’s hometown in Illinois where he was a wrestling coach and to Capitol Hill. In his hometown, the reporter found someone who said his mother wouldn’t let him go on school trips with Hastert.” Which raises the question, said Melinda, how is it possible no one in Congress knew about the allegations that the former House speaker sexually abused boys during his years as a high school coach? “When it comes to people in power,” she asked, “What are people willing not to notice?”
So what words of wisdom is she planning on sharing with those foreign journalists about to cover their first presidential convention? “I’m going to tell them something Carl Cannon from RealClearPolitics told me, ‘Don’t drink and drive. It’s never a good idea, but there’s so much security at the convention, you won’t get away with it.'” On a more practical level: “First, hang out at hotels. Breakfast is where you can catch people. You won’t get them on the convention floor. Second, the stories will be in the dissenting voices and third, don’t get too carried away by what you hear from the delegates. They’re the true believers.”
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. LA bigwig Harold Applebaum
2. Mickey Ateyeh
3. Andrew Stein and Danielle
4. Author Wednesday Martin with Jennifer Baumgardner
5. Harris Katleman
6. Dr. Jerry Imber, Jerry Della Femina and Michael Kramer
7. Lucianne Goldberg, Bonnie Dudley and two other gals we didn’t get to meet
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and Emilia St. Amand
9. Alexis Zinberg
10. Karen Lefrak
11. Esther Newberg
12. EMI’s Neil Lasher
14. Esquire’s EIC Jay Fielden, who is now pulling double duty at Hearst as editorial director for Town & Country.
15. Pierre Levai
16. Penkse Media’s vice chairman Gerry Byrne with Debbie Menin, so we’re told…
17. Charlie Schuler
18. Marc Rosen
20. Jaqui Lividini
21. Jay Kriegel
23. Bob Tobin
25. Scott Marden
26. Pauline Brown and Cynthia Germanotta. I ‘Lunched’ with Pauline a few weeks back when, coincidentally, she introduced me to Cynthia who, you may know, is Lady Gaga’s mother.
27. Act One: Melinda Henneberger, Lisa Linden and yours truly; The Late Show: Mel Brooks
28. Elizabeth Goodman
29. David Sanford and Lewis Stein. Long time no see! David tells me he’s enjoying retirement since saying farewell to his colleagues at The Wall Street Journal last year.
Faces in the crowd: Producer Beverly Camhe and Bill McCuddy. And congratulations to Michael’s regular Sandra Lee who was honored earlier this month at City of Hope East End Chapter’s Annual Spirit of Life Awards. Other honorees include nail polish maven Essie Weingarten (both Sandra and Essie gave speeches that had everyone at my table weeping) and Ramy Brook Sharp, sister of my good friend Dr. Robi Ludwig. The A-list roster of presenters included Hoda Kotb, Rosanna Scotto and Dr. Jill Biden. The event raised over $400k to help fund the extraordinary work being done by City of Hope’s brilliant doctors and researchers. Kudos to all involved including Maury Rogoff, who handled the PR for the luncheon.
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.