Before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, before his chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon instructed the press to "keep its mouth shut and listen," reporter Monica Hesse of The Washington Post was trying to do just that.
Well, we're talking about the "listen" part, at least.
In one off-the-mainline feature, Hesse hung out with a middle-class family from Corbin, Kentucky, known to many as the place where Colonel Harlan Sanders came up with Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But it was politics, and not poultry, the Post was interested in: "This is the first in an occasional series of stories dropping in on families in the first year of a new presidency, and at a time of societal change," an editor's note atop the story read. In introducing the Razmuse family, we see the complexities from the get-go:
They were an American family, at the beginning of a presidential term in which the biggest clarifying lesson was that there were many different kinds of American families trying to share the elbow-space of one country.
There were the ones who hated Donald Trump from the beginning and made it clear. There were the ones who loved him from the beginning and made that clear, too. And then there were lots of ones like the Razmuses, for whom moments of clarity were centered on subjects that were considerably less divisive.
What Suzie Razmus was sure of: how she loved her husband and their three sons. How she was devoted to her faith and her community. How Shane, 13, really needed to eat more breakfast. How that inane “Pen-PineappleApple-Pen” song got stuck in her head every time Henry, 17, sang it. How the low, green mountains surrounding Corbin, Ky., could be breathtaking to newcomers but banal to lifelong residents, which is why, every morning when she drove to the movie theater her family owned and operated, she worked hard not to take the view for granted.
Lots and lots of human details there. Keep reading. You just know where this is going to end up, sooner rather than later.
The Razmuses were the kind of middle-class family whose support the new president’s success would live or die on. And one thing Suzie was not always 100 percent sure of was how she felt about him. She’d voted for John Kasich in the primary. But Kasich dropped out, and Marco Rubio -- whom she and husband, Greg, had also looked at -- dropped out, and Ted Cruz, whom their oldest, Saylor, had grudgingly voted for, dropped out, too. Finally, Greg looked around, acknowledged there were no other options, and decided it was “time to get on the Trump train.”
Suzie, who believed in witnessing history as much as she believed in individual politicians, called up their senator’s office and requested tickets to the inauguration.
So off to Washington they set, and it's there where, I'd imagine, they met up with Hesse, one of the Style section's more prominent writers.
Not much gets by her, and in this nuanced account, we get a full picture of who the Razmuses are and what concerns them. Once again, this passage is long, but I think it's essential. Please keep reading.
Corbin. When Suzie and Greg explained it to people who had never been there, sometimes they talked about Colonel Sanders, who opened his first fried chicken stand in the north side of town. Greg, tall with a salt-and-pepper goatee, occasionally pulled on a white suit to play the Colonel at social occasions, and Suzie, a petite brunette who’d recently finished a term as a city commissioner, had lobbied for and won a commemorative park to draw tourism to the area.
Sometimes they talked about how they wanted tourism to increase, because the railroad jobs that used to run the economy had disappeared. The poverty rate for the surrounding counties was about 30 percent. The opioid epidemic had hit Corbin like a hammer, and the place was beautiful but it was also suffering.
“Lord, please bless this food and nourish our bodies,” Greg said on the morning before the inauguration as the family bowed their heads at a restaurant breakfast. “In your name we pray, Amen.”
“You know, you’d like to think the whole world will change after an election,” Suzie cautioned, “but we can’t expect huge changes.”
The small changes she wanted: deregulation, which would hopefully bring back coal and manufacturing jobs, which would hopefully bring back railroad jobs, which would hopefully help the drug problem because, as Suzie believed, people “were not meant to have too much time on their hands.”
One of the hallmarks of a good reporter, I believe, is being able to work in those bits of nuance so they fit naturally in a story. We segue from opioids to pre-omelette prayers and, to this reader at least, it felt right.
But I do wish Hesse had gone just a hair further with these folks.
Where do the Razmuses' worship? What do they believe? They rent out the theater Sunday morning to a local church, but which one? Do facts matter, as well as colorful details?
These questions are not incidental, not least because white evangelicals are credited with giving Trump an edge nationally. (Whether or not that's the case in Kentucky, which has voted Republican in eight of the last 10 presidential contests is open for debate.) But I'd like to know a bit more about this famiily's faith and how it may, or may not have influenced their votes. God is in the details, and all that.
As the Post continues its examination of families in the Trump era, I sincerely hope lots of faith questions are asked of all the subjects. Make the questions detailed, specific, please.
The answers, pace Stephen K. Bannon, might well be ones we all should listen to.