Politics

“I’m Numb All Over”

Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, were deeply shaken by Wednesday’s shooting at a baseball field.

US Representative Chuck Fleischmann
Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann speaks to the media at the Capitol about the shooting during a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, a second-term legislator, typically carpools to Republicans’ baseball practice with Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis. He texted Davis at 5:58 a.m. Wednesday morning telling him that he’d be ready in three or four minutes. When he got outside at 6:02 a.m., he texted Davis to ask whether he was still there, but Davis had left. Six a.m. was the hard cutoff for this particular carpool.

“Then I just saw [Davis], right there,” Costello told reporters later in the morning, pointing to the cable news set-up area in Statutory Hall. “And we just looked at each other.” Davis had been at-bat when the shooting began. If Costello had just woken up a few minutes earlier and made his ride, he would have been in the line of fire, too.

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Like several of the 20-odd Republican members who had been at the Alexandria, Virginia, field where a gunman had opened fire on them, Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann was still wearing his baseball gear—in his case, a red jersey and a University of Tennessee hat—when he was talking to the press in the Capitol. He seemed to be speaking to reporters because he didn’t know what else to do. Listing whatever facts he knew, in as straightforward a manner as possible, seemed to pass the time.

“I’m numb all over,” he said blankly.

He had spoken to fellow members, like Mississippi Rep. Trent Kelly, who had fought in combat. He found it helpful to talk to people “who had been through this.” Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican and psychologist, had made himself available to members at the Capitol.

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Members will frequently say they are “shaken” by certain news events, but on Wednesday you didn’t need them to say it: The shaking was visible. These men, who usually have confident self-assured talking points ready for when they meet reporters, were in a state of trauma. There were plenty of tears from members who weren’t at the practice, congressional staffers, and reporters who have come to know their subjects on a personal basis. But I am not sure I saw any of the members who were at the practice break down. The shock had not subsided.

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As Fleischmann was speaking to reporters, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows walked past. A reporter covering the South Carolina delegation asked Meadows whether he had heard from South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan. Meadows said he hadn’t but that he would call. He left a message on Duncan’s phone letting him know that everyone was hoping to hear from him and wishing him well, even the reporters.

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“We’re not promised tomorrow, that’s the thing: We’re not. Promised. Tomorrow,” Meadows said. “The fragile nature of human life, it makes you look at things differently.”

He began to tear up.

“You say thank you to those who serve you, like staff members, Capitol Police, reporters,” he continued. “You just say thank you.” He shook the hand of the Capitol Police officer protecting the entry to the House chamber.

Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Meehan is a relief pitcher for the Republican team. Because he threw at Tuesday’s practice, he didn’t go on Wednesday. But the team has been practicing at this field for the last six or seven years—usually starting six weeks before the annual charity game, which will go on as scheduled Thursday night—and Meehan had a good sense of the geography.

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“The place that we throw—all four of the pitchers work out in the cage—was adjacent to the position where the shots began” on the third base side, Meehan said. “But because we had thrown yesterday, nobody was there.”

Duncan and Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis had left the field at 7:02 a.m. Duncan knew this because he had checked his car clock as soon as he stepped in to make sure they’d have enough time to make it to Washington for an early meeting. Duncan, en route to the car, had spoken to a stranger in the parking lot who asked whether the players were Democrats or Republicans. Shortly after Duncan and DeSantis left, the shooting began.

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Duncan and DeSantis play third base and shortstop, and would have among the nearest players to the shooter along the third base line.

There was not much talk on the Hill about gun control early on Wednesday (or other policy issues, for that matter). It wasn’t on many members’ minds, Democratic or Republican, and they wouldn’t have had a well-processed thought if asked. They were concerned, first, with the safety of those in the attack, and second, with how this will change security protocol going forward. Are members of Congress safe congregating in public?

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A point was made in the all-members meeting late Wednesday morning that “we’re all going to be waiting to go, this week or next week to the congressional picnic at the White House,” Meehan said. “And we’re going to have members and families. And oftentimes there’s long lines, and you have lines of members of Congress just sitting outside exposed.”

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“There’s an example [where] we’ve got to start creating contingency plans,” he continued, “in which we don’t create targets by gathering together members of Congress in one place.”

“We’ve very easy targets,” Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta said bluntly. This is the first year since he came to Congress in 2011 that he hasn’t participated in the baseball game.

Members view the baseball game as an escape from the exhausting, soul-crushing grind of having to play a role each day. They have to be on message, pushing an agenda, leveraging every opportunity to defeat the other side. The margin of error is narrow. The baseball game, and all the ribbing that goes on around it, serves as a “suspension of reality,” Costello told reporters.

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“This [game] is a very collegial, very friendly thing, where we go on the other side of the aisle and see Democrats, and we joke with each other about who’s going to win, and who’s playing what position, and things like that,” Costello said. “This baseball game means absolutely nothing, it’s very tongue-in-cheek, and yet it’s a way to kind of momentarily pretend that we’re not fighting about legislation.”

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Meehan said that when they take the field for practice in the morning, the “pressure we all feel on a regular basis” is lifted, and it’s a “return to the fun things.” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise—who was shot at the practice and, as of this writing, is in critical condition—may be fearsome when he’s rounding up reluctant votes in the Capitol. But on the field, “we treat each other like we’re in high school again.” It’s the same when they’re interacting with the Democrats.

“[Ohio Democratic Rep.] Tim Ryan and I had a little thing going, because I struck him out on a curveball a couple of years ago,” Meehan said. “Every time we see each other, we talk about that.” His face was getting red, and he was struggling to get his words out.

“And he just came up and gave me a hug.”

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