Volume 3, Issue 45: Reservations

"I've got reservations about so many things. But not about you."

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When I was a sophomore in college and already a dutiful lifer student journalist at the Daily Illini, the top editorial staffers all flew to Washington, D.C. for the annual Associated College Press convention. The top 25 journalism schools in the country were invited for the trip, and we all gathered for tours of the major historical monuments and buildings. Not only had I never been to Washington, D.C. before, the trip was only the second time I’d ever been on an airplane in my life. I tried to play it cool. But I could not believe I was there. There is something about being in Washington, D.C., that I find intoxicating, even overwhelming, to this day. Every time I’m there, I feel like I’m connected to something larger than me. I always feel like a player in a long-running story that’s still being written.

The highlight of our trip was a visit to floor of the United States Senate. They siphoned off all the students into their individual states—we were paired up with the otherwise distasteful folks from the Daily Northwestern, the little snots who always made sure you knew they weren’t mere journalism majors at Northwestern, they went to Medill—and our group of about 20 college kids went into the hallowed chambers of the Senate to meet with our individual state Senators. The year was 1995, and the hot Illinois Senator, the one everyone wanted to meet at the time, was Carol Moseley-Braun (she later dropped the hyphen), who had just become the first Black woman Senator in the history of the United States. A staffer let us know that Braun would be meeting with students in a conference room in five minutes, and everyone sprinted to get a seat as close to hers as possible. In the back of the room, another staffer, quieter but equally haggard, said that the other Senator from Illinois would be greeting students in the room across the hall, if anyone wanted to talk to him. I looked at the conference room table and realized all the seats were already taken, so I and two others, one from the Daily Illini and one of the snots from the Daily Northwestern, slinked backward into the other conference room, the kid’s table, the JV team.

And then into the room walked Paul Simon. Paul Simon was a legend of Illinois politics, a former professor and journalist from downstate most famous for his failed Presidential run in 1988 and his signature bow ties. If you are old, you may remember Al Franken playing him during “Saturday Night Live” skits at the time.

Simon looked behind him at the room packed with people peppering Sen. Moseley-Braun with questions, and then back at the three pimply children with steno pads sitting nervously in front of him. He chuckled. “Looks like we’re going to get to spend some quality time together,” he said. And then he sat and talked with us for a full hour.

He told us stories about his time as a teenage journalist—he scrounged up enough money, at 19, on a Lions Club challenge, to buy the Troy (Ill.) Tribune, where he exposed corruption in Illinois politics and ultimately launched his political career—about what Bill Clinton and George Bush were really like, about getting to be on “Saturday Night Live,” about the bow ties. I remember him being wistful about all of it, like it was all long in the past, as if it had happened to someone else. He kept telling us how lucky we were, to be young and hungry, to have our whole lives ahead of us. (He addressed most of his answers to me because “you’re the only one here smart enough to be from downstate.”) He was funny and charming and open and ended up asking us more questions than we asked him.

But what I remember most was what he said about where we were. (I’m paraphrasing. I do not have my notes from 25 years ago handy.)

“I get to come to work every day in this beautiful building, with some of the smartest people on the planet, and try to help people,” he said. “I mean, look at this place. Abraham Lincoln was here. In this very building.” We already knew that: Our tour guides had already taken us by where he desk had sat. He smiled and looked up at the ceiling. “It is truly amazing.”

His staff told him it was time to leave. He looked sad. Afterward, we took shuttles back to our hotel and got drunk on Icehouse beers in our tiny hotel rooms. A week later, a letter arrived at the offices of the DI, addressed to me. “I enjoyed our talk,” Simon wrote, on Senate letterhead. “I was once a young journalist like yourself! Keep it up!” I think my parents still have it somewhere. Simon, approaching 70, decided not to run for re-election in 1996; he was replaced by Sen. Dick Durbin, a fellow downstater and the current Senate Minority Whip. Simon died in 2003 at the age of 75. One of the last things he did was endorse a little-known Chicago state Senator for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, Moseley-Braun’s old seat, named Barack Obama. His daughter Sheila, later the Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, cut an ad saying Obama was “cut from that same cloth” as her father. It is widely thought to have cinched the nomination for the young politician.

I have not been back to the Capitol building since I spoke with Paul Simon, many lifetimes ago. But I will never forget him looking up at the ceiling, in awe, of where he stood, of the fact that he was there. Of the fact that we all were.

************

After a stretch of seemingly unceasing Days That We Will Always Remember—that we will look back at this period the rest of our lives has basically been the central thread of everything I’ve written for four years—Wednesday became the one that will truly last, the one they point at to sum up this era for decades to come. Whether it marks the start of something or the end is up in the air; it’s up to us. But I can think of no more apt image for this time than this one:

As harrowing as Wednesday was—and as awful as it absolutely could have gotten, how much worse it could have been—it has been noteworthy, and even a little heartening, to see the reaction in the days afterward. The fear for years has been that the people involved with this destruction and madness would, when it was finally over, would be able to creep back into society, even sanitize the cruelty, scrub it up and make it look passable, even normal. Before Wednesday, I still thought that was possible; that was clearly the bet Josh Hawley was making. But now, at last, it is easy to see this for what it always was: Brutish, thudding authoritarianism and just plain dipshit cruelty. And there have been ramifications for what we saw. There are arrests, sure, but there is also some sort of reckoning for the whole cursed project. For all the talk of social media companies shutting down Donald Trump’s various accounts, I found it even more encouraging to see the editor of Forbes magazine, hardly Mother Jones here, actively demand that corporations “don’t let the chronic liars cash in on their dishonesty,” saying that those who were associated with Trump and abetted his lies should be ostracized for it and never be allowed part of polite society again. “Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie,” they wrote. Whatever your thoughts on whether they will follow up on that—or whether you think they are in any position to be ostracizing anyone—they weren’t writing pieces like that on Monday. People have turned. Those of us who have been wondering for four years where in the world these people would draw a red line, it appears to at last be at “an armed invasion of Congress.”

And it is encouraging too that those involved know it. One of the most remarkable details in Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker story about one of the people who stormed the Capitol, an Air Force veteran, is how quickly he began to plead ignorance and innocence the second he got caught. (He was busted by Twitter users who pooled their resources and research to identify many of the insurrectionists; to be fair, they made it rather easy by constantly live-streaming themselves.) The man identified, Lieutenant Colonel Larry Rendall Brock, Jr., gave Farrow a series of ridiculous excuses for invading the Capitol, from “he assumed he was welcome to enter the building” to “I wish I had not picked [zip-tie handcuffs] up.” John Hodgman had the right reaction this morning:

But here’s the thing: It wasn’t long ago—say, Tuesday—that Brock Jr. and his ilk wouldn’t have felt obliged to make excuses for anything. Isn’t this what they wanted? They are patriots! They’re trying to stop the steal! We have all grown so accustomed to these people as part of the public discourse that our repulsion to them has dimmed, as normalized, and people who don’t pay attention to politics (which is to say, most people) barely even thought much about them at all. But you couldn’t ignore them Wednesday. And on the whole, those people, the people trying to ignore them, have been appalled. They’re appalled by what they did, they’re appalled by Trump and they’re appalled by those who allowed this to happen.

Yes, they should have been appalled all along. But they are there now. And that matters. That’s the start of being able to move forward. Many, many more people are looking at Trump right now the way those of us screaming about him for four years have always looked at him. Again: It’s a start. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I find it, in a way, a relief.

***************

The Capitol building is just a building. It’s smaller, and more cramped, and more rickety, than I suspect we realize. It’s just a place with doors and windows and hallways and bathrooms, with weird noises only old buildings make, with surely some strange smells they’ll never be able to get rid of. It’s just a place where people, after they wake up and shower and brush their teeth and get dressed, go to work, and they sit at their desks, and make phone calls, and then go home. Like all buildings, like anything, it requires constant attention or it will erode and fall apart. To keep its aura, its history, its connection to our past and a hopeful future, requires work. It requires engagement. It requires life.

Watching Wednesday, I thought about the only time I’d been there. I thought about Paul Simon, and the reverence he had for the place, and how he felt a sacred responsibility for its care. “It is truly amazing.” Wednesday was terrifying. But it also reminded us of what’s important, of what we may have taken for granted, of what we cannot lose. It seems more important than it has ever been. I do not know what happens next. But when I look up, and look around, I find myself in awe, of where we have been, of where we can go, of the fact we are still here. And I want to protect it. I think we can. I believe we will.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. On Mary Miller, and the Insurrectionists Among Us, Medium. Big events focus the brain, I’ve found, and there weren’t much bigger than this week. The top two Medium pieces were very strong, I thought.

  2. Georgia Has Been Blue a Long Time, Medium. I thought this piece would get around everywhere all day Wednesday, and by 2 p.m., just about everyone had forgotten there had ever been a Senate race.

  3. Francisco Lindor Is the Perfect New Face of the Mets, MLB.com. I love writing big celebratory baseball pieces, and this is an examplar of the genre.

  4. How in the World Are They Going to Pull Off the Olympics? New York. Seriously, though: How are they?

  5. Maybe the Cubs Are Still NL Central Favorites, MLB.com. It’s not like anyone else in the division is doing anything.

  6. The Final Days of the Election That Never Ends, Medium. Monday seems like 50 years ago.

  7. MLB Teams That Might Not Need Big Offseason Moves, MLB.com. If you froze it now, who’s OK?

  8. The Thirty: Every Team’s Best Player in 2021, MLB.com. Whenever the season starts, anyway.

  9. DC Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with Wonder Woman 1984.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, no show this week, but this is the last week to listen to Dorkfest 2020 until we start our new season.

People Still Read Books, no show this week.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week, taping next week.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“Jamie Raskin Lost His Son. Then He Fled a Mob,” John Hendrickson, The Atlantic. John Hendrickson has a way of getting the emotional center of everyone he talks to and writes about; here’s his famous piece about Joe Biden, fellow stutterer. Here, he talked to Jamie Raskin who lost his son to suicide on New Years Eve, fled the House chamber as it was attacked two days later and then went about filing papers of impeachment. This made me want to crawl up in a ball and then go call everyone I know.

It is also worth reading Raskin’s and his wife’s breathtakingly sad obit for his son.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

NFL Playoff Teams Rooting Interest Now That My Buzzsaw That Is The Arizona Cardinals Have Missed the Playoffs for the Fifth Consecutive Season

  1. Buffalo

  2. Cleveland

  3. Chicago

  4. Kansas City

  5. Indianapolis

  6. Tampa Bay

  7. New Orleans

  8. Washington

  9. Green Bay

  10. Tennessee

  11. Pittsburgh

  12. Seattle

  13. Baltimore

  14. LA Rams

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

You’re the only people I can talk to! Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” Public Enemy. I’m actually interviewing Chuck D next week—this is your reminder to buy Grierson’s Public Enemy book—which has sent me back down the Public Enemy rabbit hole. I was joking with my editor this week that I think I learned more from Public Enemy records than I learned from high school itself. It’s actually sort of true!

Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.

Oh, and Go Bills.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Best,
Will