David Hawkings ’82 keeps a nonpartisan eye on the evolving political theater.
By Jamie Stiehm
Eyes smiling, bespectacled David Hawkings ’82 is parked in a perfect place mid-summer for a member of the Fourth Estate: in the stands of the history-breaking Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Roughly half his regular “beat” people — Congressional representatives — are here, but the arena is teeming with many more thousands of people.
It’s a democratic ritual — small d.
The week before, he covered the tumult at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, missing its usual “Teutonic precision” as political rookie Donald Trump starred, after winning a spirited primary battle in a crowded field of governors and senators.
Sporting a bow tie and khakis, Hawkings, 56, can write home to his wife, Betsy, and two sons that he’s witnessing Hillary Clinton claim the mantle of standard-bearer after a long journey. But for now, he will “pound out” deadline daily journalism for readers — some soaked in the hurly-burly of Washington politics, others who like to watch from the safer berth of federal agencies.
For 21 years, he has been an editor at the gentlemanly Congressional Quarterly; he began writing a column for its scrappier sibling Roll Call after the two merged in 2009.
Whether it’s Philadelphia or Cleveland, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Hawkings says, “You look to see whether delegates come close to embracing the vibe of a nominee.” That’s it, in a “nut graph,” from the one-time editor of The Bucknellian.
“Political theater is worth watching in person,” Hawkings says as he surveys the floor scene. At home, he prowls the halls, tunnels and Speaker’s Lobby of the Capitol and prefers the noisy, diverse House over the sedate Senate. “The House is the most fun in the world,” he says. His work remains, in his words, resolutely nonpartisan and down the middle.
Hawkings’ first rodeo was the 1980 Democratic convention in New York City, when he was an unpaid intern for The New York Times. There he heard Sen. Edward Kennedy deliver the lofty, bittersweet speech known as “The Dream Shall Never Die.” He was bitten by the political news bug.
On the first day of the Democratic convention, his expertise shines and surfaces — in timing and delivery. Hawkings dashes off a neatly put sentence that refers to both party races: “The dissidents have made way more noise than the establishment was prepared for,” he writes, meaning vocal populist supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Republican nominee, Trump.
As the adage goes, journalism is the rough draft of history — and so future historians may pore over his lines to fathom the rough cross-currents of today’s partisanship. Hawkings’ job is to chase and capture the moment at hand, the characters in front of him and how they play together on stage.
For example, he writes that Senate leaders Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are tensely “ice cold” toward each other, an often overlooked dynamic. “It’s my tiny way of contributing to democracy,” Hawkings says, as “a loving critic of the institution.”
His most memorable moment as a political writer, he says, was seeing Congress rise to work together after the 9/11 attacks occurred. What about right now, when no love’s lost in the angry House? “I do love it less,” he says evenly.
As he walks out of the convention hall, Hawkings still has a boyish step — though he’s climbed high on the Hill.
Jamie Stiehm is a Creators Syndicate columnist on politics and history. She lives in Washington, D.C.