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Jessie Seigel: A Jane of All Trades

Washington Whispers columnist Jessie Seigel in front of the White House this week
Washington Whispers columnist Jessie Seigel in front of the White House this week


By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.

There is a theory that our brains are either right-side or left-side dominant. If right-brained, you are more creative and artistic. If left-brained, you are more verbal and analytical. I’m a layman when it comes to such theories, but the creative and analytic sides of my brain seem to share rather than dominate, sometimes taking turns and, often, collaborating.

That said, I sometimes feel like the humorist Stephen Leacock’s horseman who rode off in all directions at once. I am a dilettante of infinite interests. For nearly 30 years, I practiced law for the federal government, mostly at FERC (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), analyzing legal and environmental arguments and writing decisions on whether hydroelectric projects should be licensed or relicensed, supervising the written work of other attorneys, and occasionally making presentations to Commissioners or conducting a public hearing.

But that whole time, I was also drawing and painting, studying languages because of a curiosity about how language and culture affect one another, and writing fiction and poetry. An unaccountably long love affair with all aspects of Irish culture—its literature, politics, Celtic design, languages (both Irish Gaelic and Hiberno-English), and dance—resulted not only in my performing in St. Patrick’s Day parades with the Black Thorn Stick Ceili dancers, but in my first novel, Tinker’s Damn. (The novel as a whole is still as yet unpublished, but an excerpt appeared in Ontario Review, Joyce Carol Oates and Ray Smith’s literary journal.)

Ironically, Insider readers know me as a political columnist, although the one thing I never considered becoming was a journalist. Coming to this work was entirely serendipitous. While employed by the federal government, the Hatch Act limited my participation in politics. However, for much of my work life, I indulged a fantasy of haranguing crowds from a soapbox. Now, free of governmental restrictions, Washington Whispers is my soapbox.

While the left side of my brain writes articles addressing politics as the core of what affects whether we live and how we live (as opposed to a sport that politicians play), the right side of my brain has produced political cartoons that I’ve posted on a Daily Kos diary.

A sampling of Jessie Seigel's political cartoons

Where did this dichotomy between the analytic and the creative come from? I believe the credit goes to those who raised me.

Reading, discussing literature, and writing were in the air all around me while I was growing up. My father, who worked in a factory, my stay-at-home mother, and my brother (who is nine years older than I am) all read to me. I listened to the three of them discuss literature, philosophy, and politics around the kitchen table. There were always books—history, philosophy, mathematics, art, dance, mythology, poetry, fiction—above all, fiction—read to me, handed to me, suggested to me.

Though I don’t think they ever tried to publish anything, they all wrote. And the family attitude toward writing was that you should have a sense of play. Experiment with styles, with words, and with ideas. Take in the technique of this or that writer and feel free to try it out for yourself. And that’s how I started. I wrote a story in the style of Lewis Carroll. I wrote a dialogue in the style of Tom Stoppard, in which two actors argue about whether they should take bows for acting in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I wrote a story in which Oscar Wilde’s entrance into heaven depended upon the literary assessment of his works by a jury of fellow writers.

I continued this creative writing while getting a BA at Wayne State University with a major in philosophy (logic and linguistics).

Then two things happened. I taught myself to draw. And I became a lawyer. The latter can be blamed on my father, who handed me Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense when I was twelve. After reading that, I wanted to be Clarence Darrow—to do the kind of work he had done. But even at the University of Michigan Law School, I used the artistic side of my mind as well as the analytic side needed for legal studies. I was too far from the top of my class to work on the school’s law review. (I became a much better lawyer than I was a law student.) But I was the illustrator for the school’s newsletter, Res Gestae (Latin for “things done.”).

Once I was practicing law, after working all day writing legal decisions, it was much easier in the evenings to draw or paint than to shift gears and try to write creatively.

Hijinks in the University of Michigan Law Quad, 1974
Hijinks in the University of Michigan Law Quad, 1974

When I eventually went back to writing, my themes tended to be social, political, or philosophical. For two years, my poetry (a sample here), billed as a verse treatment of Jewish current affairs, was featured biweekly in the Boston Jewish Times. That ended when the editor-owner sold the publication, but by that time I was ready to move on to broader subjects.

Still working full days as an attorney, I got an MA in writing fiction in the Johns Hopkins University’s evening program, located in D.C. After Hopkins, I briefly taught an evening creative writing class, Playing with Style, in Georgetown University’s continuing education program. I’m currently a fiction editor at the Potomac Review.

Unlike many of my contemporaries, I do not write autobiographical fiction. I am not drawn to the familiar, but am forever fascinated by worlds and people outside myself. I do not believe in that hackneyed adage, “write what you know,” but rather in the approach, “know what you write.” (I believe Louis Carroll would say, could he speak from beyond the grave, that they are not the same thing.) I believe the most fun, and the most interesting fiction, come from making what I call the empathetic leap—living in someone else’s skin for a while. Yet, if you read my work as a whole, you’d know me and my many sides: the whimsical, the sardonic, the passionate, the righteous, the romantic and—the most important part of who I am—how I see the world.

In writing The Apologia of a Demagogue (below), I made an empathetic leap to a deposed, narcissistic dictator who articulately rationalizes his actions and, along the way, morally indicts all who have enabled him. And yes, Donald Trump was a model. Ultimately, though, the narrator is not meant merely to be Donald Trump, but the quintessential corrupt leader to be found in many nations in many eras. History, unfortunately, does repeat itself.


The Apologia of a Demagogue

By Jessie Seigel

My enemies said I did not know how to govern. They said that I don’t read; questioned whether I could read—whether I could even speak coherently. They said that I lie constantly, and contradict myself within the same sentence—when I actually finish sentences—which, half the time, I do not.

But, no true genius is understood in his own time. I owe no explanation—especially now, sitting in this prison’s intolerable solitary confinement. But, for posterity, I will stoop to explain to minds more pedestrian than my own.

Their charge of incompetence was based on a false premise: that my goals for governance were the same as theirs. But my goal was chaos to usher in one-man rule and consolidation of the nation’s wealth in the hands of myself and my associates. I knew enough to do what I wanted to do, and no one can say that I did not move steadily toward my goal. There were, of course, competitors and opponents. That is why I am sitting in this isolated cell.

But, look at what I achieved: pliable judges placed on courts; captains of industry installed to head agencies meant to regulate them; the emptying of the Treasury into our bank accounts, the replacement of military leaders with others loyal to me, and the jailing of enemies. I did not hide my agenda. In fact, I took action so openly that only a fool could miss it. This in itself was brilliance since conspiracies, by definition, involve secret plans. Thus, the openness of my actions negated such charge.

And reading? Of course I read. Clearly, my critics did not, or they would have seen my influences: Orwell; Goebbels (the Big Lie); McCarthy (Joseph, not Eugene); and his acolyte, Cohen (Roy, not Michael); the Caesars’ bread and circuses. (I may not have provided the bread but, certainly, I provided the circus.) And Machiavelli: if you would be king, stir the people; keep them on your side. And Louis XIV: Létat, c’est moi.

As for my lies, contradictions, and half-finished sentences—

When I failed to complete a sentence, it was not because I could not articulate. Rather, I gave my audience the first half of a declaration, knowing it would lead them to complete the sentence themselves, and knowing with what they would complete it.

When I told a crowd, “I’m not saying you should beat so-and-so—some dissenter in the throng—and toss him out of here—,” I knew it would rouse them to action. But since I had said I was not saying it, I had plausible deniability. Likewise, when I made some bizarre claim, I added, “I don’t know, but it could be,” so I was not stating a lie. I had merely planted an idea in the listeners’ minds. Surely, this linguistic sophistication, along with its strategic simplicity, must be acknowledged.

When I contradicted myself within the same sentence, it kept the public—and our media—running in circles. With two opposing statements, they couldn’t pin down the lie, but ran themselves ragged trying to parse my meaning.

But truly, in all my contradictions, there was no contradiction, no inconsistency. For, like the universe, I contain all things: the good, the bad, the sane, the mad, the lies and the truth. I am like the sun, its gases boiling and overflowing, its solar storms erupting. I am a force of nature.

My enemies call me a narcissist, but does the sun pay any mind to the planets? After all, who revolves around whom?

I am only in this prison cell now as the victim of a great hypocrisy. Everything I have done has been merely business: value given for value. If I want to do business in a foreign country, I give them influence here in exchange. If foreign officials want to curry favor here, they will patronize my business. You wish to head a government agency? Or obtain a government contract? Then you give me something in exchange. And the competition? You crush them. That’s how the world works, how it has always worked. Who would not take whatever business advantage is available to them? After all, as Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.”

Our country has a longstanding tradition: in through the doors of government from industry, and out again through those doors back to industry, after an illustrious career in public service to industry. Presidents and vice-presidents—and not too long ago either—have been known to start wars and give private contracts for supplies and mercenaries to companies they came from and will return to. It is a quietly understood principle that anyone—certainly anyone with a head for business—will come out of office richer than when he went in.

Given these principles, how can anyone doubt that I was singled out for persecution? It is because my enemies come from a line of “civilized gentlemen,” while I am bold and brash and—yes, I will say it—loud. The “gentlemen” were afraid of me, but when I finally fell, they scurried like the rats they are.

My enemies think they have won, that in the end, sitting in this prison, I am a failure. But Napoleon met his Waterloo. Hitler ended in a bunker. The Borgias and Medici rose and fell. As did Caligula and Nero. Nothing lasts forever. The brighter the star burns, the faster it burns out.

You who have labeled me a narcissist declare that, in my amorality, my obsession with self, I am an empty vessel, a container with nothing inside of it. A void. But you are wrong. You enabled me by your weakness and craven lack of spine—from the competitors who shrank from my attacks, to the media that refused to call a lie a lie, to my die-hard followers. I am not an empty vessel. In all that I am, in all that I have done, I am, rather, a mirror. A mirror that reflects all of you.


Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer,

1 comment



Oh, so very much....

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