Federal Employees News Digest

"Trial by combat'

“Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

Not the best conversational ice-breaker, right? The first reaction is either what-are-you-talking-about or are-you-crazy? It’s definitely a strange, awkward attempt at humor. An event so awful that in some cases it can only be referred to, long after the fact, as if it was a joke. Even if you don’t immediately get it, you would figure the Mrs. Lincoln in question is Mary Todd, wife of Abraham Lincoln. And we all know him. Still, way to start a conversation with a grieving widow. But a “joke” designed to take the edge off a horrible event. It is sometimes called “gallows humor.” Probably, we’ve all done it or heard it. But it is an attempt to smooth things over.   

While many might find it offensive, even today, when it seems almost anything goes, it does sometimes help. So do context and the passage of time. Location and time too. For instance, when I was in third and fourth grade, my mother and I lived in a boarding house about seven blocks away from Ford’s Theater in downtown Washington D.C. When we lived there, it was “only” about 90 years, and five city blocks, from the assassination.  Ninety years is a long time in some situations. And five city blocks is a long way in some situations.  But in context both are just a flash in time and space.

Still no matter how cool and sophisticated you are, you need to be careful with the “joke, like the Fords Theater review” —for obvious reasons. Unless you are from this area or a Lincoln scholar, you might not know that Fords Theater is where Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, was killed. Shot to death, almost at the end of the civil war, by John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor of the day. The line about Mrs. Lincoln’ enjoying’ the play at which her husband was murdered is like so many sayings—designed to lighten things up with people discuss horrible events. Or sad topics.  Especially years after the event.

So I guess we’ll have an equivalent phrase—probably sooner rather than later—about what happened and what didn’t happen last Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol building. When millions of us watched for hours, in horror, rage, unbelief or all three, what was happening. A joint session of Congress was meeting to certify, or not, electors chosen in the November national election. President Trump said the vote was stolen or tampered with in half a dozen states. Millions agreed. But more, including courts and most politicians from both parties didn’t agree that the election had been stolen.  And what was being attempted. Depending on your politics the “good guys” who were trying to save democracy were either people inside the U.S. Capitol building on official business trying to protect and preserve Democracy, or the people outside, who stormed the building hoping to overturn the election and protect and preserve Democracy.

While it was a worldwide media event many if not most of us watched, we all saw something different while looking at and listening to different things. And for lots of us, in this era of social media, it was a bonding process.

I was in touch, via text, with all four of my adult children. Two in this area, one in Richmond, one near Seattle.  All grew up here in a newspaper/news household so they get it. I also visited throughout the evening with one of my grandsons who had interned with a member of Congress who was mourning the sudden death of his young son.  All my kids knew some of the players (members of congress) in the drama. Or went to school with their relatives. For them growing up in a household where news, politics, editorials, was part of dinner. No wiser than kids—if you can call 50-year olds kids—anywhere. But pretty sharp. Been there. Done that. Attended or knew the players in political plots, riots, impeachments, etc. in the past.

Bottom line they, my ‘kids’,  may have been more interested and plugged in than many people their ages because of how, when and where they grew up. The headline in Thursdays Washington Post said: TRUMP MOB STORMS CAPITOL. The subheads read: PRESIDENT INCITES CROWD TO ACTIONS OF INSURRECTON, VIOLENCE.

That newspaper, and many others, will go into museums where what is known as the “first draft of history” are stored. For future generations to see what we were seeing, maybe understand what we were thinking. Maybe even why.

Usually, when I write stuff I just do it. Turn it in and run. But when it is a “heavy” piece, I like to run it by different groups. Not do you like it? But rather so you understand? Does it may sense based on your age, sex, interests, even where you grew up? It’s a learning experience because you the writer/guide/teacher realize it doesn’t make sense to others. For good reason.

I was going to try to lighten up the ‘mob storms Capitol” piece, for posterity, by quoting one of the president’s top attorneys who said he thought the election should be settled in “trial by combat.” Presumably POTUS against POTUS-Elect. To the finish.

So I did my age/gender/education/geographic homework. I asked a young woman in the newsroom what she thought about the trial-by-combat (you know too the death stuff) played out. She said she had never heard the term. Had no idea what it meant.


Then I asked where she was from. “D.C.,’ she said “Well the trial by combat thing is a lot like the, “Other-than-that- how’d you like the play Mrs. Lincoln?” thing, I asked her. “What about it?’ She said. “Never heard it. Have no idea what it means.”

Double Gulp!

You get it, right?


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