Jamie Raskin’s new memoir, Unthinkable, is an emotional account of personal and national tragedy. The Maryland congressman lost his 25-year-old son, Tommy, to suicide on December 31, 2020—and buried him the day before Raskin and his family were caught in the middle of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Raskin led the ensuing impeachment trial and now sits on the committee investigating that day’s events. We sat down with him at his home in Takoma Park.
You write about your father, the progressive activist Marcus Raskin. What did he teach you that you’ve carried into government?
When he was at the Kennedy White House, his boss, McGeorge Bundy, would introduce him as “the conscience of the White House.” My dad hated that because if he was the conscience, he wouldn’t have any power—and nobody else had to exercise any conscience. He was adamant that you work in a way that integrates your power with conscience and a sense of moral imperative. He was also emphatic that official politics is not everything. It cannot be a replacement for music or art or love or family life. That’s an important lesson for people who grow up in Washington around official power.
Are there moments from January 6 that especially stick out to you now?
When we were on the House floor at the proceeding, we didn’t know about the magnitude of violence that was taking place. We had no sense of the way in which the whole building was being overrun. And then someone sent me the picture of the insurrectionist carrying the Confederate battle flag right outside of the House floor. I walked over to Liz Cheney and showed it to her. She just shook her head and said, “Oh, what have they done?” And at that point, everything began to fall apart.
One of the things I blame myself for is that there were signs of unrest and insurrectionary activity which a lot of us closed our eyes to. The illusion that the government can survive regardless of what kind of violent chaos is taking place outside is gone for me. We have to pay attention to all of the threats and extremist activity, the harassment, and the deterioration of civility in the country.
What was it like writing the book?
I wrote it between March and August. I was pretty sleepless during that period because we were drowning in agony about having lost Tommy. We were getting thousands of letters from all over the world—friends, family, people who lost loved ones to suicide, people who believed in Tommy’s [humanitarian] causes. I started trying to reply to everybody, because that’s very much in the ethos of my office, but we had more than 15,000. That was impossible. So writing the book was cathartic and therapeutic.
You grew up here, and there are signs around your neighborhood thanking you for being a “savior of democracy.” What’s that like?
This community has been so wonderful to my family. People have been very supportive through all of the trauma. When my colleagues say that Washington is a transitory or ephemeral community, I just have to laugh. They have no idea how deep the roots are here.
This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Washingtonian.