July-August 2021

Bethesda interview: Jamie Raskin and Sarah Bloom Raskin

Congressman Jamie Raskin and his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, talk about meeting in law school at Harvard, how they were changed by the riot at the Capitol, and the acts of kindness inspired by the death of their son, Tommy

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Sarah and Jamie Raskin with their dog Toby at home in Takoma Park. Photo by Michael Ventura

On Jan. 6, Sarah Bloom Raskin was home in Takoma Park watching the assault against the U.S. Capitol on television. Just the day before, she and her husband, Rep. Jamie Raskin, had buried their 25-year-old son, Tommy. Now, Jamie, the couple’s daughter Tabitha, and their daughter Hannah’s husband, Hank Kronick, were all at the Capitol, threatened by a menacing mob.
“We were petrified,” Sarah says. “I was thinking, has my life taken this dramatic turn where I’m going to be losing my entire family?”

Jamie, Tabitha and Hank had gone to the Capitol to witness the ceremonial counting of the Electoral College ballots making Joe Biden president. Jamie says the confluence of the two events—the suicide of their son and the storming of the Capitol—has left an indelible mark: “We experienced the violent attack on Congress and the insurrection against the government, which was a public trauma to accompany our family trauma. In that period of about a week, a lot of basic pillars of my existence were demolished. We lost one of the three people most precious to us, and we discovered the precariousness of democracy itself.”

Six days after the insurrection, House Democrats voted to pursue the impeachment of President Donald Trump, and Raskin—a former professor of constitutional law at American University whose district covers about half of Montgomery County—was named the lead manager of the effort. Trump’s Senate trial in February ended in his acquittal, but Raskin’s eloquent speeches, and his emotional invocation of his son’s memory, converted him from a relatively obscure third-term congressman to a national figure. Jamie and Sarah published a lengthy essay about their son’s death in January, and now Jamie is writing a book about the events of the last few months. “As I kept saying through the trial, I had no doubt that Tommy Raskin was with me in my heart the whole time,” he says. “It gave me a sense of calm and a sense of purpose about what we were doing.”

Jamie, 58, grew up in Washington and attended Georgetown Day School before going on to Harvard for his undergraduate and law degrees. His father, Marcus, was a major figure in the anti-war movement of the 1960s. His mother, Barbara, wrote an influential feminist novel, Hot Flashes, which was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for four months. “I grew up as a feminist kid because I was surrounded by strong, intelligent women,” Raskin says. So it is not surprising that he married one. Sarah, 60, has held a string of high-level jobs, including as a governor of the Federal Reserve system and deputy treasury secretary under President Barack Obama. Now a visiting professor at Duke Law School, she graduated from Amherst College before attending Harvard Law, where the couple met. I talked to them via Zoom in early May.

How did the two of you meet?

Jamie: Sarah was in her third year, an older woman. I was in my second year. We were both in the same constitutional law class and we sat across from each other in this huge, cavernous lecture hall. And I used to go basically just to look at Sarah, and I could have sworn she was looking right back at me the whole time, but it turns out that she didn’t have her contact lenses in. We didn’t actually meet until the end of the semester. I was in the library coming down the stairs, and Sarah was coming up the stairs and we passed each other. My heart started to beat, and then I said, ‘Hi.’ And she said, ‘Hi.’ And then she said, ‘What’s your name?’ And I said, ‘Jamie.’ And she said, ‘Oh good. I just wanted to know because I did dream about you last night.’ So that was the beginning of our friendship. I kept going back to the library at that point, bringing her chocolate brownies or ice cream or whatever I could find; I had no money.

How did you come to settle in Montgomery County?

Jamie: When I got back here and started teaching, Sarah and I started asking people, what would be a great place for us to live? Everybody said you’ve got to go check out Takoma Park. And I fell in love with it immediately. Takoma Park is really an old-fashioned town, and that’s what we were looking for. It’s got progressive family values, it’s a very kid-oriented community. Everybody lives for the Fourth of July and Halloween and the soccer league and the baseball league and going to the farmers market. Our public school was right up the street, and the parents would meet at the corner with their coffee to walk the kids to school and catch up. I thought it’s really a storybook community. We’re creatures of habit, so we fit right in, and our kids always loved it.

Sarah: We’re in the same house that we started in. I hadn’t ever seen a town like this before, these Victorian houses and big old trees that completely create this canopy, a refuge. It was very unlike where I had grown up in the suburbs of Chicago. This was something different for sure.

Jamie: When I got back from the impeachment trial, the neighbors had put up all these lovely signs thanking us, and quotes from me at the trial and stuff like that. It was just very moving; this is just home for us. It’s the only place Sarah and I have ever lived together.

Jamie, you spent 10 years in the state legislature—how did you decide to run for Congress?

Jamie: I decided impulsively. It was not on my mind because everybody thought that Chris Van Hollen [the 8th District congressman at the time] was going to stay in office and try to become the speaker of the House. And then Chris called me up and he said that Sen. [Barbara] Mikulski was going to step down. He asked, ‘Will you support me?’ And I said, ‘Chris, not only will I support you—I’ll run for your seat.’ I just knew right at that moment it was something that I wanted to do. Election night was a great night for our family, but also a pretty horrible night, too, because Donald Trump won at the exact same time. I was going to be a freshman member of the minority party with a Republican president.

Sarah, did it change family life at all to have him in Congress, especially since his district is so close to Washington?

Sarah: It certainly thrusts you into the public eye for everything. Jamie is always on call. A lot of the members, when they come to Washington, they’re probably not even recognizable, they actually can have some private space. But Jamie, he’s always the congressman, wherever he is. So we can be walking our dogs in the morning and people will come up and Jamie essentially will be holding office hours or doing constituent service when we’re just out walking.

Does that ever intrude on your privacy as a family?

Sarah: No. I think Jamie gets a lot of energy actually from being here and from being around constituents.

Jamie: I’m definitely the more extroverted of the two of us, and Sarah’s right—I do derive a lot of energy from interacting with people and going to events. I mean, COVID-19 was terrible in a lot of ways, but it was especially hard on extroverts who couldn’t go out and mingle with people. Sarah has been a great sport about it all, and she comes to all of the major important stuff, but I only made her go knock on doors with me one time, I think, in my entire political career. After we got to the second door and somebody shooed us away like a dog, which happens every now and then, Sarah was so traumatized she said she wanted to go home and take a nap.

Being a Fed governor doesn’t train you well for retail politics?

Jamie: When she was a Fed governor, she was able to say no to everything. And that was the same with deputy secretary of the treasury. I think she keeps getting these really important jobs so she has a good reason not to have to go out and campaign with me.
You can never say to anybody in Takoma Park or Bethesda, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that, I’m going to be in Washington.’ You’re living here, and there are a lot of demands on your time, and that is not true for many members of Congress.

Jamie: You’re catching me at a time when I’m feeling especially grateful to all of my constituents because people have been so amazingly supportive of us. We have 10,000 letters at our house. People have brought us food, chocolate chip cookies and banana bread, and they have been very kind to us about Tommy and supporting us through the impeachment process, too.

You’ve talked very publicly about Tommy and about the depression that ultimately consumed him. In the last few months, what have you learned that you didn’t know before?

Sarah: One thing I’ve learned since Tommy died is that not everybody understands depression really is a disease and to actually speak about it as a disease is quite liberating for people’s understanding.

Jamie: There really should be no stigma associated with depression. We should be able to understand it as an illness. And when you put it in that context, and because we did put it in that context, we’ve received a lot of letters and outreach from people who want to tell us that they are going through it themselves, and they find it to be important that it’s seen as an illness but doesn’t define a person.

Give me an example or two of people who have drawn a lesson or an inspiration from Tommy’s life.

Sarah: We hear about something every day. We got a letter from the woman who’s married to the ambassador in Burma. We don’t know her, she doesn’t know us, but she had read what Jamie and I wrote about Tommy. And she decides that she is going to organize this gift to an orphanage in Rangoon of over 400 pounds of cooking oil and 200 boxes of toiletries, this massive drive for this orphanage in a war-torn area. And she said, ‘We did this in the name of Tommy Raskin.’

Jamie: We just got an email today from a veterinarian in Michigan who said she was inspired by our friend Kari McDonough, who lives in Takoma Park. Kari had started something right after we lost Tommy called Acts of Goodness for Tommy Raskin. She invited everybody to do an act of goodness, and then she asked them to email them to her, and she created a website and then they would present them to us as a gift in honor of Tommy. And it started off as just a local thing in Takoma Park with the McDonoughs and their family. Then hundreds of people started doing it around here, then thousands across Maryland, and then all over the world.

Sarah: One person wrote, ‘I found a kitten under the car and I gave it to my 92-year-old father.’ Another said, ‘I bought groceries for a neighbor because I thought about what would Tommy Raskin do.’ Somebody gave an anonymous contribution of $5,000 for mosquito nets because mosquito nets are really important for controlling malaria. We have pages and pages of these acts of goodness. A few days after he died, we decided to create the Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People and Animals to raise money for the causes that he believed in and to advance his values. And there’s more than a million dollars in it now. It’s run by his sisters and cousins and people in their generation, their friends and Tommy’s friends. And they gave away their first $40,000 to Oxfam to do civilian relief work in Yemen because of the war there. There’s a group that Tommy worked for in California called Mercy For Animals, and our fund is financing paid internships because they had only unpaid internships.

How and why do you think this happened? What was it about Tommy’s story, Tommy’s life, that touched so many people?

Jamie: Well, I have thought a lot about it. The thing that was truly amazing about him was this overwhelming love and compassion that he had for the world and for people and animals. And he had a sense of urgency about other people’s pain and suffering. You and I can read about what’s happening in the Yemen war, or about children who are being trafficked in Thailand, and we hope our political leaders will do something about it. But for Tommy, it was like he’d just gotten a phone call from a close friend or one of his sisters to say there’s this emergency situation, something must be done. The quote that he frequently invoked was Father Daniel Berrigan saying that Dorothy Day lived as though the truth were true. And Tommy quoted him a lot, because what he meant was that other people’s pain and suffering and their longing for things in life are real. And we have to treat them like they’re real. And so that kind of sensibility is so uncommon in people that when someone comes along with that kind of spirit, it touches the world. The terribly sad thing is that he internalized so much of his own pain and depression about how bad things were getting.

My perspective has changed in that I see his situation now as not just part of his own individual journey, but also it’s very connected to what was going on in the country and in society. We lost him on the last day of 2020, which has got to be one of the worst years in American history, where we lost hundreds of thousands of our people to a plague while the leader of our government hawked quack miracle cures and refused to organize a real strategy to defeat the disease. So it was a time of great chaos and darkness, and luckily we’re out of it now, and it is a terrible tragedy for us that we weren’t able to get Tommy out of that year before it ended.

Sarah, what’s your take on how and why Tommy’s story has touched so many people?

Sarah: I think it was Tommy having this exceptional sensibility that Jamie talks about. Tommy was teaching a section of students in an undergraduate course at Harvard; it was called Justice. And he took a portion of his paycheck and he actually made contributions in the name of the individual students in his class.

Jamie: The other thing to keep in mind is that the depression didn’t manifest itself with a gloom and a heaviness. Tommy was a fun-loving, hilarious, light-hearted, lively person, and so I think there was probably this element of shock for people to realize that depression can coexist with such a life-affirming kind of person.

Sarah: Tommy was the friend that his friends could turn to for help on anything from school to family to relationships to career.

Jamie: He was very wise in that he connected with people’s longing and their hopes. So it’s tremendously painful that we lost him, but he galvanized people’s goodness, because people couldn’t bear to think that that kind of light in the world just goes out, you know? We’ve always quoted my father, who used to say, ‘If everything looks hopeless, you’re the hope.’ And Tommy was the hope for so many people. We’d obviously much rather have Tommy back with us, but we can be proud that his memory still lives through these acts of goodness and these values that people were upholding.

How have you both been changed? You talk about other people. What about each of you?

Sarah: It’s still kind of early to know precisely. But I can tell you that you’re not the same. I’m not on the same path I might’ve been on; your sense of priorities is definitely rearranged. One of the things that I’ve seen through these last several months is the caring and the nurturing and the love that has been extended to us. This kind of force is usually invisible to people, and yet it’s an extraordinary force. A lot of people who have a loss, they know what this is about. They know if you’re going to love, you’re going to lose, right? So this isn’t a kind of problem to get over, this loss of a loved one. You don’t get over it. You don’t. You don’t. I come from an economic policy world where you measure things. Everything is measurable, and if you can’t measure it, it kind of doesn’t exist. But there’s a lot we can’t measure in terms of compassion and care and love, and to me that’s really what it’s about. Sen. [Don] Riegle [Democrat of Michigan], the first person I worked for on the Hill, sent a very beautiful note at the beginning, while Jamie and I were in a complete kind of hell here, trying to make sense of everything that had happened and just in a complete state of shock. Maybe this is going to sound trite, but he said, ‘You can spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened. But in the end, only two things matter. And that is that you loved Tommy and he loved you.’ I thought, that’s it, that’s all it is. We loved him. He loved us. And that is not at all quantifiable. But guess what? That is the core. We did everything we could. When we knew that Tommy was suffering from depression, we did everything humanly possible. And in the end, there was something much more powerful than anything that the two of us could do. And so what we’re left with is love.

Have you been changed, Jamie?

Jamie: We’ve experienced terrible trauma. And the word trauma is from the Greek word for wound. And the psychologists tell you that trauma is a violent assault on a person and all of their expectations about the world. So it’s something that demolishes all of your assumptions, like your child will always be with you as long as you’re alive. It’s a terribly disorienting thing. If you experience trauma like this, you can either try to run a million miles away from your life and just say you have somehow failed everybody because there is a lot of self-blame and self-prosecution involved. Or you can try to dive back in and deepen the bonds of relationship and love. Tommy’s got two amazing, incredible sisters who we love infinitely, and we have lots of family members and lots of friends who we would do anything for. And they need us now more than ever.

You were talking about how this tragedy focuses both of you on what’s important, the relationships and the love that Sarah described. And yet this period has also made you a national figure in a way that you were not six months ago. You are a different person, in terms of your public reputation. How do you think about that?

Jamie: I’m writing a book about Tommy and about these events to try to understand them. There was a lot of passion at the [impeachment] trial. And I told my managers not to censor the passion. We had spent so much time going over the facts of the case and going over our legal argument that I felt that we had that down cold, and I didn’t want people to leave the passion behind. That passion was built on a lot of anger about what had taken place in terms of a violent attack on the Congress and on the election in an attempt to nullify Joe Biden’s victory and essentially overthrow the democracy, and that anger in turn rested on a lot of love for our country and for our Constitution and for what America has done for all of our families.

Tommy gave me a lot of emotional and intellectual clarity about what we were doing. Tommy was somebody who couldn’t stand violence at any level—domestic violence, war, violence against animals. If he had seen what happened on Jan. 6, and that Tabitha and Hank were in harm’s way, that would have broken his heart. But I felt that he was standing with us. I felt he was really in my heart when I was arguing that the Constitution and the rule of law is all we’ve got against that kind of violence and chaos that Donald Trump helped bring down on us.

There’s a scene you’ve described many times with Tabitha and Hank really fearing for their lives and sending out messages, thinking they might be their last ones. Were you there?

Jamie: No, they were in [House Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer’s office, just off the House floor, and they had locked the door. They had barricaded it with furniture and hid under the desk, but people were banging on the doors, just like they were banging on the doors of the House floor. That is a sound I will never forget, of them barreling up against the door. It sounded like a battering ram. A lot of us moved towards the door to try to protect it. And then Capitol officers came running in with their firearms drawn telling us to back off. And they guarded that door, but we evacuated pretty soon thereafter.

You’ve quoted Tabitha saying she never wanted to go back to the Capitol. How does she feel today? Has she been back?

Jamie: No, she’s not been back yet. I haven’t asked her back yet. She knows we would love for her to come back at some point, but we’ll let her take her time. I mean, it was really a traumatic event. And I felt terribly guilty because I had assured them that there could be no violence inside the Capitol, and I was wrong about that. Both Tabitha and Hank told me what a lot of the young staff people have told me, which is they assumed that someone had an assault weapon because that’s what they grew up with, from Columbine to Sandy Hook to the Pulse nightclub to the Tree of Life synagogue. This has been the experience of a generation. And so what they knew was that hundreds and hundreds of people were entering the Capitol with Confederate battle flags, chanting, ‘We want Trump’ and ‘Hang Mike Pence,’ and they’d come in without going through the metal detectors, they’d come in without any security screening at all. And so, in a situation like that, people’s minds leap to the worst possible conclusion. Lindsey Graham [Republican senator from South Carolina] said when it was all over, we all could have died. One of those people could have had a bomb. And it’s true.

And of course, Sarah, you were in such a fragile state since you had buried Tommy just the day before. The impact must’ve been so magnified in terms of your reactions.

Sarah: That’s exactly right. Anything can put you over the edge in that state. Where my mind was going was horrifying. Horrifying.

Did it cross your mind, too, that they might have weapons?

Sarah: Completely, completely. That was what we were saying: Do they have guns? Do they have guns? Has there been shooting? That’s the frame by which we look at all these issues now, the frame of gun violence.

What’s your reaction to the attempt to downplay the significance of Jan. 6 by Trump and his supporters?

Jamie: First of all, we had an extraordinary team of impeachment managers. They were remarkably good and focused and disciplined, and 57 to 43 is a resounding statement of the president’s guilt in inciting a violent insurrection against the republic. It is essential that we did that and you can see why today, because they are already trying to engage in an Orwellian retelling of the whole event. I mean, if you listen to Donald Trump, he said that his followers entered the Capitol hugging and kissing the Capitol officers. I don’t think so; more than 140 of them were injured because of the violence being rained down upon them by the insurrectionary mob. It’s just a lie, and it is now an ancillary lie supporting the big lie that Donald Trump actually won the election. So I’m glad that we created a meticulous documentary record in words and in video that will never go away, and it will be a standing refutation to Trump’s big lies.

Tell me about the book you’re writing. What do you want it to accomplish?

Jamie: I’m trying to capture the spirit and the life force of our beautiful son, trying to talk about some of the values of our family. And then I’m trying to talk about the beauty and the fragility of democracy, and how close we came to losing it all on Jan. 6 and how that wasn’t the end of the struggle. That really puts us in the middle of the struggle right now. The Republican Party now has positioned itself outside of the constitutional order. 2020 was an extraordinary year for a lot of reasons, and one of them was that the Republican Party had no platform. It was the first time in history that either the Republican or the Democratic party chose not to adopt a platform. What does that tell you? Well, Donald Trump was their platform; whatever he says goes. That is the sign of either a political dictatorship or a religious cult of personality. So we have to defend everything right now, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and democracy, and everything that our parents and grandparents and prior generations have built. We are upholding the legacy of the people who fought and died in World War II to stop fascism and to uphold democracy. They saw Nazis marching down the street, and they didn’t see good people on both sides. They knew it was time to go and fight to defend the free world. And our parents and grandparents fought in the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the labor movement and the environmental movement and LGBTQ movement and this is our legacy. If Donald Trump and a bunch of neo-Nazi extremists think that they’re going to storm the Congress and we’re going to roll over and give them our democracy and everything that our parents and grandparents fought and died for, they don’t know who they’re dealing with. They don’t know who we are.

Sarah, what are you doing to mark this period, to process it, to crystallize the lessons and the legacy of what you’ve been through?

Sarah: I’m with my family, with the girls and my mother and my brother and Jamie’s siblings, our friends, figuring out how we weave Tommy into our lives going forward. That’s the path I’m on, figuring out what values he stood for and keeping them alive in the work that we do.

Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. The Bethesda Interview is edited for clarity and length.