A Year in the Life of a Washington Scribe
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
I used to yell at my television—at TV news shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation--calling the politicians and pundits who appeared on them names or shouting my disagreement with the flawed talking points they spouted. I’d imagine neighbors walking through the hall past my apartment, shaking their heads and marveling at the patience of my long-suffering nonexistent spouse: “Poor soul, always bearing up so silently while that virago shouts every name in the book at him and never lets him get a word in edgewise!”
When I’d get especially furious I’d find myself shouting at the TV, “Why don’t you let me give my opinion?!” And now, through Washington Whispers, I do.
How It Began:
In September, 2020, I wrote a Facebook post criticizing Bob Woodward for holding back Trump’s taped admission that proved that Trump had full, early knowledge of, and deliberately lied about, the dangers of COVID-19. Andrea Sachs, longtime reporter at Time magazine and the founder and editor of The Insider, took issue with my harsh assessment. I responded in a private email, explaining the basis of my view in greater detail, and Andrea suggested I write it up as an article for The Insider—my first article in our publication.
A few days after the Woodward article ran, Andrea asked me to write on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had just died. I did so. And then, little by little, I was seduced into writing the next article and the next, until I found myself writing a column on a regular basis.
You’d think the opportunity to express myself to more than my four walls and any passing neighbor would alleviate the frustration I felt before becoming a columnist. To some degree it has. But I still often wonder if, however much my column might inform and impart my own interpretation of public events, it will really change anything.
Furthermore, as a columnist, I can’t just rant at the news of the moment and move on as I used to, or simply take a break from it. I have to pay attention nonstop in order to address what comes up. That often makes the research and writing oppressive, although I am always happy with the result once a column is completed—a moment of elation produced by some days of self-imposed hell—before I start on the next.
And from last September to this September—from Covid to coup attempts—what a hell of a year this has been!
The subjects of my articles have run the gamut from the Covid-19 pandemic, to changes at the U.S. Supreme Court, to the Republican Party’s efforts to rig the 2020 election, to the January 6 coup attempt and the impeachment and trial that followed. I have also written about individual players on America’s political stage: Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Matt Gaetz, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as President Biden, Vice-President Harris, Justice Breyer, and Attorney General Garland.
The common thread in all of these articles has been the continuing war between those who believe in democracy and care about human survival and those whose only pursuit is a cynical calculation of how to obtain and keep power. This struggle underlies pretty much every aspect of the news and of my columns. To wit:
In March 2021, I wrote an article cataloguing Trump’s many lies about Covid, from his claims that the epidemic amounted to just one person coming in from China, to his insistence that Covid would disappear come spring 2020, to his attempts to intimidate the CDC and NIH into modifying their statements about the science of the virus. Trump denigrated masks and dismissed the number of Covid deaths, egging on his followers to claim masks restricted their personal “liberty,” and treating those wearing masks as making an opposing political statement rather than trying to keep themselves and others alive.
Then, of course, Trump got Covid himself, got treatment the rest of us could not have obtained, and later quietly got vaccinated in January just before he left office. By the day he left, some 400,000 American citizens had died of the disease.
Because the Trump administration had produced absolutely no plan for vaccine distribution, the Biden Administration had to start from scratch. So, initially, in 2021, there was not enough vaccine compared with the demand for it, it was unclear where one could get vaccinated, and computer sign-ups did not work efficiently.
In addition, as early as last March, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott was dropping mask mandates and removing Covid-related restrictions on businesses.
By May, all three vaccines—Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—were available to protect the public. But by then, anti-vaxxer cult thinking had taken hold among a vocal minority of people who willingly gobbled up anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
Though vaccination certification is a sensible way to protect public health from the unvaccinated, the right wing labeled it as a “passport,” or even—as QAnon favorite, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene did—as Biden’s “Mark of the Beast.”
In the summer, the Delta variant descended upon us, resulting in hospitalization and deaths of children—and still, Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’ Gregg Abbott have rejected even mask mandates in schools, let alone vaccine mandates.
Some may express wonder at these Republican leaders’ failure to understand that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Some might be bewildered by their determination to act so callously about the deaths of their own constituents.
But I find it impossible to separate the actions and statements of Republican leaders on Covid from the many other post-election Republican manipulations intended either to delegitimize Biden’s presidency or make it ineffectual so that such failure, along with voter suppression, can be used against the Democrats in the 2022 midterm election and beyond—a cold-blooded political ploy.
When President Biden came into office, he faced a tremendous mess left by the Trump Administration for someone else to clean up. While giving the Biden Administration credit for that, my articles nevertheless addressed the flaws in its approach. Among these were the messaging of Biden’s CDC. While CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky appropriately pointed out that we must follow the science and Dr. Fauci pointed out that scientific developments will change requirements as we move forward, the CDC’s constant changes, updates, and backtracking of guidelines gave us all whiplash.
Furthermore, while the Republicans drummed up fear and hate, the Biden Administration responded with overly mild-mannered attempts to persuade—as if they had a fear of offending anyone or further inflaming the right-wing’s followers. Instead of pushing for vaccination certification, they even foolishly left the loosening of restrictions for the vaccinated to the “honor system”—a recipe for confusion and uncertainty since the unvaccinated could be and often were less than honest.
However, last week, Biden finally laid out a strong big stick policy, requiring vaccination and/or weekly testing wherever he has the legal authority to do so. And to the Republican governors threatening to sue over it, Biden fired back, “Have at it.” Biden’s firm stance is welcome. I only wish he had shown this solid determination earlier.
The Supreme Court:
In September 2020, I wrote on the life and death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and then-Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s rush to confirm the ultra-conservative Amy Coney Barrett to take the liberal Ginsburg’s place within spitting distance of the 2020 election.
The previous year, McConnell had refused to give Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee, even a hearing on the manufactured grounds that it was the beginning of an election year and the next president should make the choice. That resulted in the installation of Neil Gorsuch once Trump was elected and the installation of Brett Kavanaugh only two months after Justice Anthony Kennedy retired. Ultraconservatives Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett are young enough that they will surely influence the Court’s decisions for decades to come.
As a result, liberals have become concerned that 83-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer, though currently healthy, could die at a time when Republicans control the Senate, resulting in appointment of yet a seventh right-wing judge. This would make the conservative sway on the Court even more lopsided.
Thus, near the end of the Court’s term in June, I wrote on the pressure for Breyer to resign while a Democratic administration could replace him. At that time, Breyer was resisting, arguing that the Supreme Court is not political, and that “The more the political fray is hot and intense, the more we stay out of it.”
I wrote that for Justice Breyer to act like the Supreme Court is nonpolitical and that his decision about retiring should take no notice of the political needs or future of the country—especially at a moment when democracy is fighting for its life—is intellectually dishonest.
Though I greatly doubt Breyer ever saw my article, it looks like he is now rethinking his position on retirement. In an August 27 interview with CNN, Breyer said that the emphasis on an apolitical court doesn’t necessarily apply to retirements. Breyer also noted a statement by Justice Antonin Scalia that the latter didn’t want someone appointed who would reverse everything he had done during his time on the court.
I still think Breyer is living in a dream world if he perceives the Court as a nonpolitical entity. But if he decides that does not apply to retirements—I’ll take it.
The Direct Assault on Democracy:
In October of last year, I wrote about Trump and his henchmen purging voter rolls, limiting the number of polling places, and preventing timely delivery of absentee ballots by the U.S. Postal Service. Some partisans even set up fake deposit boxes to steal absentee ballots delivered in person.
Even back then, Trump was encouraging organized right-wing armed groups and white supremacist vigilantes who had plotted to kidnap and kill various democratic leaders, to go armed to the polls to intimidate voters.
When Biden won despite these fascistic tactics, Trump and his minions accused the Democrats of doing what Trump and the Republicans had actually attempted to do: rig the election.
On January 6, Trump sicced a mob on Congress to block the counting of electoral votes so he could remain in office despite losing the election. The House proceeded to impeach Trump over his anti-democratic actions, but Mitch McConnell, still Majority leader until the new Senate came in on January 20, prevented a trial from beginning before Trump left office. Afterward, in Catch-22 fashion, McConnell opposed impeachment because Trump was out of office.
The Democrats, who now held a thin majority in the Senate, nevertheless proceeded with the impeachment trial. I covered each day of it for The Insider.
As I concluded then, the House impeachment managers were more eloquent than Daniel Webster addressing a jury of the damned in Steven Vincent Benet’s "The Devil and Daniel Webster." But while Webster managed to find some remnant of decency amongst the damned, at Trump’s impeachment trial, the damnable Senators stuck with the Devil. And they have busily stuck with him ever since.
The Republicans not only have been trying to block a bipartisan investigation of the January 6 coup attempt, their most right-wing members have been promoting further coup attempts. At a Memorial Day For God & Country Roundup in Dallas, Texas, Michael Flynn advocated violent overthrow of the U.S. government along the lines of the coup in Myanmar. And a rally in D.C. to support those arrested for their part in the coup attempt is now scheduled for September 18.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy futilely tried to appoint members to the House investigating committee who were involved in promoting the insurrection and whose only interest would be disruption of the investigation. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have none of that. She refused to seat two of those McCarthy put forward. He then refused to have any Republicans participate. But two Trump detractors, Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—who had sufficient integrity to acknowledge an insurrection took place—agreed to join the Committee, making it its work an honestly bipartisan effort.
Where are we Now?
We have in Joe Biden a president with the programmatic aspirations of a Franklin Roosevelt.
As I have noted during the past year, Biden began his term off and running, with The American Rescue Plan to deal with Covid, and seven other ambitious progressive bills passed by the House of Representatives within two months of his taking office: The Equality Act (prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity); the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (protecting union organizing); the For the People Act (voting rights); the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (voting rights); the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 (on gun sales and transfers); and the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021 (extending time for background checks).
But with a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in the senate—Vice President Harris being the deciding vote for a Democratic majority—and with Republican senators falling in line to obstruct, President Biden needs an elimination or curtailment of the filibuster to permit majority rule to apply. This could be accomplished by a simple majority vote. However so-called moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia have insisted on playing for McConnell’s team—disingenuously claiming to be for voting rights and some of these other bills while blocking any filibuster change that would permit their passage.
Too many Democrats, including the president, have not, until very recently, come to understand that they cannot govern simply by keeping their heads down and doing the work. Given the current unified Republican obstruction, the administration will not be able to do what the country needs unless it fights fire with fire. This means not only loudly calling out Republican lies, but stoutly fighting for the Democratic programs—even if that requires putting pressure on the party’s purported moderates.
While the Republicans connive, plot, and use every lever their nefariously creative minds can think up, the Democrats cannot afford to continue wringing their hands like helpless maidens. And they cannot allow the more conservative members of their party like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to deliberately bury their heads in their pillows, sleeping as soundly as Rip Van Winkle. Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer need to shake them awake. Because if they don’t wake up soon, we’ll all wake up to find democracy is dead.
To accomplish his ambitious legislative agenda, Biden needs to deal with the Republicans with a Trumanesque “give ‘em hell” attitude. And when dealing with the Manchins of his party, he needs to summon up the iron resolve of a Lyndon Johnson.
Though for the first several months, Biden displayed only a mild-mannered niceness, in the last few weeks he has begun to show a tougher core. He did so first in his firmness about withdrawing from Afghanistan, and then, last week, in finally putting his foot down on requiring vaccine mandates. Perhaps Biden is learning that nice guys finish last, and that good guys do not have to be nice guys. Let’s hope that’s a lesson he and the Democrats take into this next crucial year.
Whatever happens, I'll be here to cover it for Insider readers, doing my part to try to shake the country awake, even if I have to yell to do it.