It’s not that the votes against certifying the election have been universally forgotten. The New York Times Hagedorn’s obituary, for example, led with his vote reversing the election. It’s that coverage is everywhere. The same vote was mentioned low in reports of his death offered by the Associated Press and his home country. Star Tribuneand not at all in the Guardian, a publication that is generally not particularly supportive of baseless 2020 fraud conspiracy theories.
Likewise, Wright’s vote made the last paragraph of the AP obituary, but was not mentioned in his hometown’s lengthy obituary. Dallas Morning News or the story of his death in the Texas Grandstand. (POLITICO didn’t publish traditional obituaries, but its reporting on the three deaths — which featured tributes from colleagues but no lengthy recitations of resumes — also didn’t take note of how they voted on the 6 January.)
All this is, at first glance, rather strange. In recent years, the media has not failed to assert that the preservation of democracy should be the highest calling of the profession. The vote on whether or not to certify the election was decisive, a moment to choose sides. No less a character than Mitch McConnell called it “the most important vote I’ve ever cast”. So why not treat it as a similar definition for that vast majority of lawmakers whose careers were shorter than McConnell’s?
Part of what’s going on here is our society-wide taboo against speaking ill of the dead and a major media taboo against appearing biased. The deaths of the three members of Congress were greeted with genuine sadness by Republican allies and generous statements from Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi — warm memories attesting to faith, friendship and dedication to public service. Why ruin everything by mentioning something controversial?
Beyond the fact that messing things up is what the news media are supposed to do, this logic of saying nothing assumes that a vote to annul the election was a bad thing – a statement with which a substantial minority of ‘Americans disagree, for better or for better. worse. Presumably, if you think the election was fatally flawed, you still agree that the no-vote was important.
More concretely, the unexpected deaths of sitting members of Congress are also a place where the measured judgments of people writing for history collide with the reality of reporters covering shocking news on time. Although Hagedorn lost a long battle with cancer, Wright was taken down by Covid. And Walorski, a much-loved figure, died alongside two young assistants in a terrible accident. Much of the coverage of his death has come from Capitol Beat reporters trying to sort out the catastrophic details in real time, rather than dedicated obituary writers. But even this last category could have had problems.
“If a congressman is dying and you write an obituary on time, you can’t even go back and check what his voting record has been recently,” says Stephen Miller, who has spent years to write obituaries for the the wall street journal and Bloomberg. “You will ask, have they had any major initiatives that they have done? ‘Representing. Jones was a big proponent of industrial policy,” that sort of thing. You’re not going to look at individual votes.
The culture of Washington reporters, like Hill folkways, is also largely forgiving of tough votes. Political actors are familiar with the various cross-pressures, cost-benefit analyses, and assumptions about the outcome of the vote that result in a yes or a no. The old cliché is that the most important vote is next. It’s normal not to worry too much about a backbencher’s vote beforehand. Coverage of the deaths or retirements of elected officials routinely ignores votes on major issues that were not “their” bills and might not have been central to their political identity – war in Iraq, for example, or Obamacare.
The problem is that we have spent years hearing that the effort to overturn the election was not normal and should not appear so.
In other words, the case of missing obituaries is yet another case of an old norm (don’t speak ill of the dead, don’t be one of those naive guys who thinks a single vote defines a career). ‘one pol) against another (attempts to interrupt American democracy are a big problem). And Washington, nearly two years after the end of the norm-breaking Trump administration, is still going back and forth about how to think it all through — or, more likely, not thinking too much about it and just going back to a efficient workflow. let efforts to nullify an election be treated as another legislative arcana.
The logistical, political and social impulse to sweep things under the rug is strong and often not driven by bad intentions. You still have to resist.
Was the vote against certification of the 2020 election the most important part of the resumes of the three late members of Congress? Of course not. They had families and communities and realized and unrealized political ambitions. But every once in a while, history offers a binary with all those shades of gray. Either you voted to accept the election or you didn’t. It’s not just another vote. However, if someone new to town came across many obituaries, they probably wouldn’t realize that something traumatic and unprecedented had happened less than two years ago.
The whole spectacle, moreover, is also an argument for offices dedicated to obituaries. Writing about a deceased person to a living beat can be just as interpersonally tricky as writing about a living person to that same beat. In theory, someone who doesn’t have to deal again with the dramatis personae of a politician’s story might feel a bit freer to write for the history books.
“There are no sweeteners for an obituary,” Miller says.