For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.
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In January 2012, I was hired for the formidable task of succeeding Steve Benen (and his predecessor Kevin Drum) as the chief writer for the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog. When I got on a conference call with Steve and my new boss, Paul Glastris, to discuss the transition and expectations, I was nervous but excited. The Monthly had been my favorite periodical for thirty years, and while I had seized the opportunity to contribute articles now and then, taking over the Animal was a whole new order of participation.
My mind was sort of wandering until Benen mentioned the daily quota of posts I would be expected to produce. He didn’t just say twelve, did he? I thought. I knew Steve was a blogging machine, but still—twelve posts a day?
As Steve described his daily preparation for blogging, with a veritable breakfast buffet of reading to identify the political news of the day, I began to panic. I lived in California, you see, and I really did not want to have to wake up when Monterey’s nocturnal raccoons were still sorting through the garbage cans. I determined that I would need some stratagem to buy time each morning to drink coffee, read, and think.
My expedient was a post called “Daylight Video”: a music video, usually from YouTube, that kicked off each day at PA with something thought-provoking or entertaining. Often I went to “This Day in History” and found a musician’s birthday or a tune-inspiring historical event to supply the pretext. The anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, for example, led me to Paul Robeson’s moving performance of “John Brown’s Body.”
Sometimes the music videos were keyed to political news, as when I commented on a bellicose Mitt Romney foreign policy speech by posting a video of the punk band Fear performing “Let’s Have a War.” Occasionally the news called for something solemn. On the morning when we learned about the theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, I took down a Lou Reed video and put up a performance of a Kyrie Eleison—a collective “Lord Have Mercy”—from Mozart’s Requiem to reflect our national complicity in lax gun regulation.
But sometimes, the music became an end in itself and not just a sidebar to politics. I often used my videos as a sort of mutual education in blues music whenever slow news enabled it, or when bluesy news demanded it. I would discover and then share blues old and new. Commenters suggested other artists and songs to enjoy. Gradually, the videos ballooned. My use of music expanded beyond the Daylight entry to include other parts of the blogging day. What began as an expedient became an integral part of PA.
A basic premise of the almost-lost art of political blogging is that it offers an ongoing, informal relationship between writer and audience. For that to work, the writer has to be someone readers want to spend time with. The essential thing, therefore, is having a distinctive voice. Sometimes I could accomplish that in simple prose, drawing on my unusual background as a liberal, a southerner, a former political staffer, a policy wonk, and an observant Christian.
But the musical accompaniment helped make it all sing. It gave readers—and especially the tight-knit community of regulars who participated in the comment threads—a much clearer sense of who I was and the eclectic cultural influences that shaped my take on politics. Blues, country, and folk are regional (my region). Rock and roll is generational (my generation). Classical music is universal and eternal. Together, they were the soundtrack to all my political experiences—from my kiddie volunteer gig for Jimmy Carter in 1966 through my elected official jobs in the 1980s and ’90s to my think tank work in the ’90s and beyond.
My style had its detractors. A few readers expressed concern that I was posting too many music videos at the expense of substantive content. I found that unfair. “I’d like to assure readers that there is just as much written content here as there ever has been (yea, even in the Benen Administration),” I wrote. Still, I offered, “If this is something that is really annoying people, I can obviously stop or just do less of it.”
The hardy band of regular commenters assured me that they liked the tunes. I kept up the twelve-post-a-day quota throughout my time at PA. But I continued to use music as an accompaniment, as a contextualizer, and sometimes simply as a break in the tedium of news.
Ultimately, what ended this tradition wasn’t a change of policy. It was a change of jobs. After leaving the Monthly in November 2015 and accepting a position as a political columnist at New York, I perforce adopted a more impersonal voice. In the format at New York, it just didn’t work to toss in a video of, say, a hard-bitten coal mining union song for Labor Day, or the celestial Sandy Denny performing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” to mark the arrival of autumn. My new gig very definitely did not accommodate me insisting, as I had to my PA audience—twice, I believe—that readers take in a fourteen-minute video of British Invasion legend Eric Burdon and the African American funk band War covering a song about southern white poverty, “Tobacco Road,” in 1970.
While I became more of a respectable journalist, I missed posting stuff like that, however self-indulgent it may have been. It had made a painful era of political drama—which was just assuming its full horrific dimensions when I left the Monthly—more tolerable emotionally, and more comprehensible culturally and historically.
Political Animal is in very good hands today (and it’s a good thing for producers and consumers of content alike that the twelve-a-day posting quota has been relaxed). But veteran bloggers and readers will always have our own memories of Drum and Benen, and then the musical riot of my PA, in the days leading up to the true psychedelic blues of the Trump administration.