Rep Jamie Raskin on surviving a tragic double blow and finding the strength to lead

In the history of a bad start to the work weeks, few can match the one Rep. Jamie Raskin started on Jan.6, 2021, his first full morning back on Capitol Hill since the discovery of his son’s corpse six days earlier. Raskin, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s Eighth District, was entering his fifth year in Congress, having been first elected on the same night as Donald Trump. The previous Thursday, after making a smoothie for breakfast, he had walked into the room where his 25-year-old son Tommy was staying while he was attending Harvard Law School remotely and had tracked him down. dead, victim of suicide. For Raskin, his wife and their two other children, it was the start of a nightmare. “After frantically searching for my phone – which I had thrown in the air when I arrived at the scene – after dialing 911 and shouting; after trying to resuscitate him and make him breathe by repeatedly pressing on his nice, hard chest… I floated through the house and under the gray winter sky, maybe thinking that I was maybe be gone forever too, ”writes Raskin in Unthinkable, his extraordinary new memory of an extraordinary year. He spent a few days almost catatonic, “rocking back and forth like a baby.” Then, on January 6, he came down to the Capitol to try to work.

It was the day the 2020 presidential electoral votes would be counted. Given President Trump’s efforts to sow dust around his loss, objections were expected and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Raskin to help direct the room’s response – a role and a Republican click machine he enjoyed. Prior to coming to Congress in 2017, Raskin had spent more than 25 years as a professor of constitutional law, and upon his arrival he quickly became what Pelosi calls one of the House’s “leading constitutional experts”. (“I have been a constitutional optimist, in a double sense, ”writes Raskin in Unthinkable. “It is in the irreducible constitution of my personality to be optimistic, and I am radically optimistic about how the Constitution of the nation itself can elevate our social, political and intellectual condition. “

That morning, Raskin was able to briefly emerge from grief, get into work, and a version of his old routine. There was the familiar hum of the Capitol, where, moving, colleagues of all stripes consoled him. The younger of her two remaining children, Tabitha, then 23, had decided to keep her company and her sister’s husband, Hank. Raskin introduced the two around, and Congressman Steny Hoyer, the Majority Leader, offered them the use of his desk outside the Congress House: a low-key space, he explained. , which colleagues could visit to pay tribute. Over the past few days, as ranks of pro-Trump protesters gathered in town, Raskin’s family had wondered aloud if Congress would be safe, but allayed the concern. “This is the Capitol,” he had said.

At 2:12 p.m., rioters broke into the innermost police barricade on the west side of the building, smashed a window, and flocked near the Senate Chamber. A minute later, the Deputy Speaker was evacuated and the Speaker, in the Chamber room on the other side of the building, was escorted outside. In less than three minutes, the entire House and Senate were ordered to be locked. Outside, officers had been stabbed and had their eyes gouged out, and homemade bombs had been discovered at the headquarters of the Democratic and Republican National Committees. The rioters, the insurgents, seemed to want blood.

Raskin first heard that something was wrong from actor Alyssa Milano, who is a family friend: she texted him to check on him as she looked at the blanket at the television. In the bedroom, someone shouted, “Put on your gas masks! Members of Congress have started calling their families in case they don’t make it. Raskin called his chief of staff, who had stayed with his daughter in Hoyer’s office. Tabitha and her brother-in-law were sheltering under the desk, and the chief of staff waved a poker in the hopes of defending them when the time came. On the bedroom floor there was a pandemonium. Colleagues were following scattered directions, and at least one appeared to have collapsed in a panic attack. Then Raskin heard the Boom boom boom of a ram against the bedroom doors.

The noise simply resigned him. “The worst thing that could have happened to us has already happened”, he recalls in Unthinkable. At that time, to his surprise, the congressman felt no fear.

Raskin with his family, including his son Tommy, who committed suicide in December 2020.

Photo: courtesy of the Raskin family

It’s hard to think of an American politician for whom the past year brought some strange crosswinds: a tornado collision of frightening losses and growing moral leadership. After burying Tommy, brilliant, high performer, passionate about corporate ethics and big issues (Raskin and his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, former Assistant Treasurer of the Treasury, keep his suicide note: “Please , forgive me. My sickness won out today. Take care of each other, the animals and the poor in the world for me. All my love, Tommy “) – Raskin endured the attack on the Capitol, then, a few days later, while still not sleeping in grief, Pelosi asked him to lead Donald Trump’s second impeachment. “Many of us were surprised at how quickly he was able not only to recover. saddle, but also take on a whole new set of responsibilities, “said Susan Wild, congressman from Pennsylvania and one of Raskin’s close friends in the House. His life and the scope of his work have changed dramatically in the least. of a month.

One fine day in November, I go to visit Raskin at the house in Takoma Park where he lives with his family. Late leaves hang above residential streets as boys play football in the street. Two dogs – Toby, a husky, and Potter, a mutt – trot happily in the Raskins’ small front yard. Maryland’s Eighth District straddles the Capital Beltway to the south, and Takoma Park is a suburban base for Washington, DC: a madman’s paradise, sometimes called the Eastern Berkeley, where strong opinions about the national future become the object of a dinner. debate at the table.

Inside, Raskin is perched at the piano, near Tabitha and her boyfriend, Ryan Vogel, who live in Washington and since Tommy’s death they have been spending most weekends. It’s a Saturday, and the capital is in an atmosphere of decompression. The day before began with plans to both pass the $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and send the $ 1.8 trillion Build Back Better bill to the Senate. By late morning, neither seemed likely. The moderates refused to commit to Build Back Better (which focuses on climate and social support) without further data on its costs. Progressives refused to vote for the infrastructure bill without the guarantee that Build Back Better was a chance. At the last minute, Pelosi got a promise from the centrists that if an independent assessment confirmed the costs of the social bill, they would vote for it. It was enough to rally the progressives (although some, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, always voted against the infrastructure bill). By then it was near midnight: the end of a trying day.

Raskin looks tired and is dressed for a relaxed weekend at home. He’s wearing a chunky twilight-colored cable-knit sweater and one of the most relaxed jeans I’ve ever seen. At 59, he still has a youthful, dorm-common room conversation style – a bit loud, a bit intellectual – but his demeanor shows the weight of his experiences. Until a year ago, Raskin was known largely for his positive attitude. (“So many people think of progressive politics to be an exercise in Puritanism – all virtue, shame and guilt,” says Michael Anderson, a labor lawyer who has been one of Raskin’s best friends since their teenage years. is fundamentally progressive. politics as something rooted in hope, joy and humor. ”) Yet her face is now gaunt, with a way of darkening in melancholy. He has thinning black hair from his colon cancer treatments ten years ago: an experience, he said, that seemed close to death but made him want to live. Leaning over the piano, he begins Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”.

“So sad,” laments Tabitha. He stops and, as in a voluntary change of mood, launches into a snap and easygoing jazz.

As lead prosecutor in the February Senate impeachment trial, Raskin led a team of nine to present what he hoped would be a short and tight case. (He won all Democrats, two independents and seven Republicans, but failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to be sentenced.) In March, he was back on the train, working on the Hill during the day and writing every evening between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m. to produce the 900-page manuscript that has become Unthinkable. On July 1, he joined the select committee for the January 6 attack, which recommended contempt charges against Trumpian figures such as Mark Meadows, Steve Bannon and Jeffrey Clark. And in the fall, to top off his mix of annus mirabilis and annus horribilis, he lined up in the tug-of-war over infrastructure and the Build Back Better bills, which aimed to be the biggest. Democratic package from the New Deal.


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