The end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 was trying for most people around the world. But it was particularly devastating for Jamie and Sarah Bloom Raskin.
Jamie, the Democratic member of Congress representing many of DC’s most populous Maryland suburbs, and Sarah, a senior Fed and Treasury official under Obama, lost their son Tommy on December 31, 2020, to suicide. Tommy — a student at Harvard Law School, an acclaimed poet and speaker, and an activist for peace and animal welfare — “had a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling radiant mind,” as his parents described in a statement upon his passing.
Not even a week after his son’s death, Jamie Raskin was called to the Capitol to participate in the counting of electoral votes in the 2020 presidential race. His daughter, Tabitha, and Hank Kronick, the husband of his other daughter Hannah, came along to witness the historic event. All three were thus present when thousands of Trump supporters, egged on by an inflammatory speech by the president, stormed the Capitol building, assaulting police officers and threatening the lives of Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among others.
Raskin, his daughter, and his son-in-law all made it out without physical harm. But as a veteran lawyer and longtime professor at the American University Washington College of Law, Raskin was a natural person to lead Congress’s response to the events. So, less than two weeks after his son’s death, Raskin became lead floor manager for the second impeachment of Donald Trump, leading only the fourth such effort in American history.
In his new book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy, Raskin tells the story of his son’s life and of his experience of January 6, and explains how his son’s moral vision and clarity helped him cope with the aftermath of the Capitol attack. He and I spoke for the Vox Conversations podcast about the book, the life of Tommy Raskin, and keeping faith with moral values in moments of tragedy. Excerpts, lightly edited for length and clarity, follow.
The book is about a lot of things. It’s about January 6 and the crisis of American democracy, but a lot of it is about your son. Tell me a bit about Tommy and what he believed in.
Tommy was an absolute joy from the youngest of ages. I was thinking of a story about him that is not in the book. He went down to the Supreme Court with a tenant of ours who was clerking on the Supreme Court for Justice [John Paul] Stevens. Our friend Ali [Alison Nathan] is now a federal judge, but in those days was clerking for Justice Stevens.
Tommy was, I think, 6 years old, maybe 7. She was telling him about Justice Stevens on the way down, and then Tommy said, “Well, what about his position in Texas v. Johnson?” which was the case about flag desecration. Justice Scalia joined the liberals and said you can’t put somebody in jail for the thought crime of mistreating the flag.
She was a little taken aback, and she said, “Well, Justice Stevens said that desecrating a flag is like putting graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial.” Tommy replied, “We only have one Lincoln Memorial, but everybody can have their own flag. So let them do with it what they want to do, you know?”
He was an amazing kid. He had a brilliant mind, and he had a perfect heart. He loved people. He loved animals. He got involved, toward the end of his life, in this movement of effective altruism, which is all based on the idea of doing the most good for the most number of people — and, in his case, animals too.
After Tommy’s death, you and your wife Sarah wrote a really beautiful remembrance and shared the last request Tommy made. Do you mind sharing that with us?
He wrote us a farewell note, which was found later in the day on December 31, 2020, when we lost him. It said, “Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.”
It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking request. Singling out the global poor and animals was really striking to me. Can you tell me a bit about what those causes meant to Tommy?
Tommy really kept his eye on the lowest levels of the Maslow hierarchy of needs. He really was very in touch with people who were fleeing from war and violence and plague, and people who didn’t have housing and people who didn’t have food. He wanted the government to be an instrument of promoting the general welfare for people here and uplifting people in other countries fighting for human rights and dignity and justice.
This is a credo we live by, and the global poor of course includes the poor in America and all over the world. Tommy was someone who believed fiercely in the Constitution and constitutional democracy.
But I remember when he showed me that great passage from [American and French revolutionary and writer] Tom Paine, who’s one of my heroes, where Paine said, when there are no more paupers and no more beggars, then you can brag about your Constitution.
The Constitution was never, in his mind, something to be fetishized and celebrated without regard to what its effect is in the world. He wanted a Constitution that was going to be in service of humanity.
I want to talk a bit about his experience, and perhaps yours, with depression and grief. Obviously it has biological roots. But one thing I’ve noticed as a reporter, and as someone with a lot of friends in activism, in the nonprofit world, in the effective altruism community that Tommy was a member of, is that people trying to make the world a better place seem to particularly struggle with depression.
I think, for some people, staring at the suffering of the world straight ahead can be an incredibly overwhelming experience. Feeling that it’s your responsibility and duty to do something about that makes it all the more overwhelming. Was that something Tommy struggled with? Is that something you’ve struggled with yourself?
You’re not the first person to have observed that to me. But I will tell you that Tommy did distinguish between his political and moral passions and what he understood was a disease. He had medication and he was seeing a doctor. I don’t think he saw any nobility in depression.
I think that he tried to do whatever he could to get rid of it, and it just became overwhelming and insufferable for him. But it is also true that the difficulty of our circumstances, with Covid-19 and isolation and demoralization of so many young people, and all of the political tension and hostility — all of those things did further erode his spirits and make it more difficult.
You mentioned that Tommy really believed in American constitutional democracy. He was in law school, aiming for a career in public interest law. You spent most of your career as a law professor and/or lawmaker. Last year, in the Trump impeachment, you were a prosecutor.
Your book brims with faith in law as a system and as a tool to prevent tyranny and corruption. Frankly, my faith in the law and in courts has been shaken in recent years. I look at people like Bill Barr, Trump’s attorney general, and his attempt to bend the Justice Department to serve partisan ends. Your impeachment effort was impressive, but it wasn’t enough to bar Trump from office. Right now, you’re dealing with people like Steve Bannon dodging subpoenas from you and your colleagues on the select committee investigating January 6.
But you still have this faith that law can be a force for good. You still seem to believe very deeply in that. Tell me why, and how you keep the faith in light of some of the events of recent years.
Losing your faith in the law is like losing your faith in literature or losing your faith in poetry. It’s all what you bring to the task. Undoubtedly, somebody like William Barr will test your faith in the law, just like somebody like Donald Trump will test your faith in government or business or anything else he touches.
But my point is that the rule of law historically has been the way that people in a democracy control the rulers. That’s how we control people in government. That’s what the separation of powers is about. That’s what the Bill of Rights is about. It’s all about making sure that we don’t get dictators and tyrants and despots and people who come in and abuse the rights and liberties of the people and frustrate the needs and the will and the agenda of the majority.
My dad used to say to us, and I told this to Tommy and Tabitha and Hannah: When everything looks hopeless, you’re the hope.
The question is what you’re going to do with it. And I just think that we cannot abandon the Constitution and the law. There are a lot more people who are powerful counterexamples to William Barr than there are William Barrs out there. I mean, look at my colleague, who was my student, [US Virgin Islands delegate] Stacey Plaskett, who was one of the impeachment managers, the way that she has let the law guide her career, her belief in equal rights for everybody, and using the law as an instrument for social uplift, but also making sure that people don’t get away with murder when it comes to either murder or trying to destroy our democracy.
Look at Liz Cheney — I disagree with Liz Cheney on probably 90 or 95 percent of issues. But Liz Cheney is a constitutional patriot. She’s someone who shows all of us that we’ve got to put the constitutional framework itself above our own party allegiance and above our own political ambitions. It’s a pretty beautiful thing.
There are people like that who can renew your faith in what the law can do if we all get engaged with it.