From my perch answering phones in U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s front office, I eagerly awaited the email that came in around 6 p.m. each Thursday: “wheels up.”
It meant the senator was on her way back home to Texas, a relay exercise in which the state-based staff took over the heavy lifting of running a Senate operation. But for me, a lonely extrovert, “wheels up” meant one thing: poker night.
I budgeted $20 for my weekly gambling adventure, as a pack of her staffers decamped to whoever’s apartment was large enough for a dining room table and hours of, appropriately, Texas Hold ’Em. I usually lost it all, even though as a nanny I’d obsessively watched “Celebrity Poker Showdown” during afternoon nap time.
I intended to move to Los Angeles to write soap operas after college, but an ACL injury from intramural softball my last semester at the University of Texas at Austin kept me in town for an extra year. In that span, my precocious high school love for Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press” morphed into an obsession. And a Maureen Dowd lecture at the LBJ School sealed the deal: I was moving to Washington instead.
As I looked for jobs, I got a call from the senator’s office. They appreciated it when I said that I wanted to serve my home state and that I understood my place in the hierarchy. Even so, I was hesitant. Part of my decision to move to Washington was my anger over the Iraq War, which she supported. On the other hand, I voted for her in my first-ever election. (I was a ticket-splitter, in case anyone is wondering.) More crucially, I respected her.
I came into town on a Sunday flight with two suitcases. It was April 2006, and I was 23. Some older Texas girls had an extra room in a Georgetown townhouse for me. On Monday morning, I put on my new Ann Taylor suit and took the D.C. Circulator bus across town to work in the Russell Senate Office Building.
My social life was small. As a newcomer, I toured the sites, watched movies, explored neighborhoods, all on my own. Money was tight, but I didn’t mind because I was so eager to learn.
There was pride in working for Hutchison. She expected a lot from us, but she got things done for Texas.
Her staff was like an alumni roster of the old Southwest Conference: the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M, Baylor, Rice, Texas Tech and smaller colleges across the state. Some staffers were hyperconservative; others were pragmatic and moderate. We were proud of her and proud of Texas, and we knew everything we did reflected on both institutions. To cause embarrassment in any way would be to utterly fail as a staffer. Such a sentiment is the first thing anyone learns when starting a career in Washington.
I worked in that office for only nine months, but they were formative. During a brown-bag lunch with the junior staff, the senator stressed the importance of having an apolitical career before running for public office. “Your adversary today could be your ally tomorrow,” she told us. The subtext: Think long and hard about the people back home who will get hurt if you burn that bridge with a colleague.
During the day, I was a staff assistant, the grunt of Capitol Hill. I listened to every constituent concern under the sun: Solve the immigration problem! Ban horse slaughter! Help me with my gallstone!
It was a tough job for an empath. I knew that neither I nor the senator could solve most of these problems. But the least I could do was listen. And so I did, cradling the receiver between my ear and shoulder as I carried out my other great responsibility: flags.
Every member of Congress has a staffer devoted to flying flags over the Capitol for constituents. It was a mundane task, one that had me asking, “I went to college for this?” But I later realized that doing small tasks with care usually translates to bigger opportunities. Besides, it was kind of fun.
Even in 2006, the process to get flags flown was archaic, involving checks and cash — no credit cards — and filling out carbon-paper forms by hand. Often, I would format keepsake certificates celebrating life’s achievements: an Eagle Scout ceremony, a service academy graduation, a military retirement, a golden anniversary.
Within a few weeks, I was an expert. I could recommend the perfect size for any occasion. I knew that nylon flags were for outdoors, cotton flags for ceremonies. I even began purchasing flags as wedding gifts. Once a week (and twice or even three times a week during the lead-up to the Fourth of July), I went into a closet in the front office, pulled out a dolly and had my run of the Capitol’s basement tunnels. Leaving Russell, I purchased the boxed flags in another Senate office building, then stacked them on the dolly and wheeled them into the Capitol. I believe the first time I stepped foot inside the Capitol was on a flag run, wearing heels and one of the three suits I rotated every few days.
Eventually, I dropped them off in the underground flag office inside the Capitol terrace. On the way to the office was a U.S. Capitol Police hangout. The men and women who were there to protect us took their breaks there. I eyed their guns and armor and thought, This is the safest spot I could possibly ever be in.
Such was a day in the life of a Capitol Hill pledge.
But at poker night, I was an equal, as long as I had an ante and a willingness to listen. I was often outnumbered 6 to 1 by older men, who generously explained how legislation moved, who was up and who was down in the Senate, the art of harmless gossip, how the Hill worked, how to avoid trouble, and how to drink Scotch.
In short, poker nights taught me how to function as an adult in Washington.
The only problem for me in that office was that I was not a partisan, nor did I have any interest in working in politics. I only wanted to be just like Tim Russert.
Eventually, I got the call from his deputy at NBC, and it was time to leave.
The NBC Washington bureau back then functioned much like the world’s healthiest cult of personality. Everyone there worked there because of Russert. He was both moderator of “Meet the Press” and the bureau chief. But he was also the center of Washington, in a way that I think would be impossible now.
He had the best lineup of correspondents and producers and crew. I was there for the entire 2008 campaign and had a keen awareness, as I watched the world come in and out of the bureau, that we were the Yankees, and everyone else was struggling to keep up with us. We even had a name: Russert’s Army.
Working for Tim was not complicated: People worked day and night to live up to his ideals of fairness, accuracy and decency. He treated everyone with respect and expected the rest of us to do the same.
I was down the hall when he collapsed in 2008 while preparing for “Meet the Press.” I understood immediately how serious the situation was and spent moments at my desk that felt like hours bracing for the worst.
I got the confirmation of his death when a producer asked me for guidance on Tim’s most consequential moment in that year’s presidential campaign.
“Hillary. Driver’s licenses,” I blurted it out, referring to a contentious exchange involving then-Sen. Hillary Clinton that Russert set off during an MSNBC primary debate on Oct. 30, 2007, in Philadelphia. It was the beginning of the end of her frontrunner status for the Democratic nomination for president.
The producer told me to pull the tape. I sat down, took a breath and asked, “Am I working on an obituary?”
I was a mere 25, but I knew nothing would ever be the same again for me or for Washington.
The call of the Hill
Eventually, I moved on from NBC. I did a stint at National Journal’s The Hotline, and then a longer one at CNN. My Russert training kicked in on a Sunday night in May 2011, when I hounded a friend at a rival news organization about her failure to respond to my offer of baseball tickets the next night.
She wrote back, “I don’t know if anyone is going to a baseball game tomorrow night.”
For a moment, I wondered if we were under nuclear attack. When I pressed her, she wrote back three simple letters: “UBL.”
I had no idea what a UBL was. But after a quick Google search, I deduced that something was going down with Osama bin Laden.
That night, a correspondent asked me to listen to a White House briefing about the Navy SEAL Team 6 raid in Abbottabad. It was the most anxious night of my career, as I kept in mind the singular reach of CNN and the disastrous potential of getting even a single word wrong. I watched her read my notes, word for word, to CNN’s global audience. I nailed the details, but I was too high-strung to sleep that night.
I also recognized a trend as the story played out over several hours: Most of the reporters who broke the story worked or had worked on Capitol Hill. I would later come to learn that on events such as this one, the president is required to notify congressional leaders. And Congress leaks news like Spindletop.
And that was yet another Russert lesson: You can’t be very good at anything in Washington unless you spend time on the Hill.
So, I quit CNN and went to a small newspaper devoted to the Capitol, Roll Call. I made my home under the dome.
Covering the Capitol became the unexpected great love of my career. It’s a small community, and you have to show up, to look members in the eye to build trust — and also to hold them accountable with questions they may not want to answer.
With every political figure I ever encountered, I started from the position that most members were trying to do the right thing for the people they represented, and I operated with that assumption until proven otherwise.
In my 15-year Washington journalism career, I attended five national conventions, covered scores of campaigns, chronicled two impeachmenttrials, spoke to thousands of sources and voters, roamed obscure pockets of America, and got to know every inch of my home state.
But after a decade covering the Capitol, I had to leave this year. My faith had failed me.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Capitol Hill reporters worked out a deal to reduce risk. Reporters from the largest news organizations continued to report in the Capitol, while those of us from smaller newsrooms kept our germs out of the building. In exchange, the big kids were generous in sharing their reporting with us.
The Capitol Hill press corps is fairly young — it’s a physically demanding job that requires standing for hours at a time, and sometimes chasing around members on marble floors and up and down stairwells. Most of us were fairly certain we could handle the virus, but the greater concern was for our older colleagues.
So I stayed out of my beloved Capitol for 15 straight months.
That period included the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which I watched on TV from my childhood home in Fort Worth. I found myself yelling in horror when my parents came home and I told them what had happened. I received texts from members, staffers and colleagues in the building who were in hiding and, for some, preparing to die.
Once vaccinated, in June 2021, I returned to a different Capitol. It was a twilight zone: Everything looked the same, but nothing was.
Some of the most brilliant, thoughtful people I have ever met are members of Congress. But this is a degraded profession. Backbenchers, long ignored by the press corps, discovered they could get on TV or pick up Twitter followers by publicly attacking colleagues over an innocent miscommunication or, more often, out of transparently bad faith. Tracking Congress began to feel like keeping up with the latest from the mean girls in my sixth grade cafeteria. That first day back, I saw members wandering around the Rotunda, livestreaming themselves in the middle of the workday, rather than attending committee hearings or meeting with constituents or, hell, even lobbyists. It finally dawned on me that what had once been an unhealthy trend had now hit critical mass: Becoming internet famous was now the entire point of serving in Congress.
Meanwhile, post-traumatic stress disorder was everywhere. Some friends no longer left their houses after the insurrection. Other friends kept coming to the Capitol, quietly struggling to get through each day. Magnetometers sit outside the U.S. House chamber, a daily reminder that lawmakers fear that even their colleagues might take up arms.
Things have been rough in Washington for awhile, going back to the 2017 shooting at a congressional Republican men’s baseball practice that left then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise gravely injured. What frightens me is: What’s next? Washington is not built to sustain political violence.
While the threats from the two parties are not equivalent in severity or scale, any statement that undermines confidence in the rule of law, in institutions and in our elections — including the statements of our ex-president — does grave damage to an increasingly fragile political system.
When I announced I was leaving my job, calls and texts demanding to know my next-big-step grand plans rolled in. Some people assumed I was cashing out. Some people were jerks, clearly unnerved that I was rocking the boat in Washington. A few people all-knowingly informed me that my decision was surely a part of a long-expected return to Texas, where I have roots going back seven generations. (It was not.)
But mostly, I heard from dozens and dozens of people who sent me texts saying, “I get it.”
They opened up, conceding the private stress of finding their own paths through whatever it is this country is going through. Other friends are planning their own exits.
Workhorses constituted most of this latter group. These are lesser-known reporters and producers who work without much credit, and the largely anonymous congressional staffers who keep the government running. They came to Washington out of patriotism and wanted to devote whatever God-given gifts they had to the country’s business. They don’t make the big salaries or receive the kinds of validation that make the terrible days manageable.
And the fact that so many of them are at the end of their rope should worry every American about what comes next.
Last month, I went to bed for the first time in my new apartment in New York City. I scanned Twitter one last time that night and saw a story that caught my eye: U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, an East Texas Republican, had presented a flag that had flown over the Capitol as a gift to a Jan. 6 rioter after her release from federal prison.
For the first time in a long while, I did not have to think about this story as a reporter. So I let my brain wander back to a more innocent time, when I was just a new kid in town with all of her belongings stuffed into two suitcases.
My thoughts landed on the young staffer who once ran that flag, now in the possession of an insurrectionist. What did the certificate say? Was that flag mixed in with flags for Eagle Scouts and pillars of local communities? Was it nylon or cotton?
But mostly I wondered: Exactly what kind of example was just set for that new kid in town?
Abby Livingston was the Washington bureau chief for The Texas Tribune from 2014-22.
Disclosure: Baylor University, Google, Rice University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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