Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Long Read: The Odd Couple

They were on the opposite sides of just about every one of Washington's policy debates, he was the rising star of a White House tech advisor and she was the established Hot Air conservative columnist, but of course they were married and had a daughter and were deeply in love.

And then Jake Brewer was killed last month during a charity bike ride for cancer.

In a superficial sense, Jake Brewer and Mary Katharine Ham were a true D.C. anomaly. Bipartisan relationships have always been fairly rare in Washington, where politics are felt so strongly, and Jake and Mary Katharine were far more than Election Day partisans: Their disparate ideologies shaped their increasingly high-profile careers.

But they didn’t see it that way, Mary Katharine recalled at their home in Alexandria recently. Just because politics defined their jobs didn’t mean it defined their lives.

Mary Katharine, 35, leaned back into their sagging brown couch, tucking her feet to support her pregnant belly — their second child, due in December. She was wearing Jake’s cowboy boots, with his wedding band on a chain around her neck.

It was here on this couch that they had their last fight, where she apologized for starting a political spat — she can’t remember now what it was about — when he was just trying to tell her about his day at the office. She scrolled through her phone, looking for that initial e-mail she had ignored back in 2008. “Would be great to have you there,” he had written. “Not only to have a bit of both sides, but mostly just ’cause I think you’d be great to have regardless.”

She laughed: That was so Jake, always eager to hear the other side even while committed to his own. He seemed like a success at anything he tried — triathlons, photography, singing — and found the same ease in the advocacy work that brought him to the District: first environmentalism, and later government transparency and technology, rising to a top job at the petition Web site On the side, he co-founded an immigration advocacy organization, Define American.

Mary Katharine came to Washington a few years earlier in 2004, frustrated with a small-town newspaper job that gave her little outlet for expressing the conservative arguments she was craving. She had grown up in the struggling public schools in Durham, N.C., which convinced her that bigger doesn’t mean more efficient in government. A job at the Heritage Foundation led to opinion-writing gigs; her gift for fast-talking rants and punchy comebacks earned her regular TV appearances opposite Bill O’Reilly and the ladies of “The View.”

Their lives, like their careers, could have existed in these two worlds apart, surrounded mostly by people who agree with them. Washington makes that very easy.

Instead, they went on a date to an Indian restaurant, which led to a ping-pong bar and staying up until 4 a.m. talking about the annual Mule Day festival in Jake’s home town of Columbia, Tenn.

They were both almost 30, and it just worked. They had the same level of energy and talent. As one friend would later say, they were magnetized from the start.

But the elephant in the room wasn’t the silent type. Commenters on liberal e-mail groups fretted that the relationship was a bad idea, that she would snoop through his e-mails, do something to hurt the cause.

When Jake called his mother, Lori, to tell her he’d met someone beautiful and smart and funny, he paused to say, “But there’s something you should know. She’s uh . . . she’s . . . uhm . . .”

Lori screeched: “Oh, my God, she’s Republican !”

And yeah, I know.  I find Ham to be depressingly banal, even for a Heritage Foundation flunkie, but these two really did love each other and they had a second child on the way, and sometimes we forget that there are real people behind these pundits and politicians, who are human, flawed, and scared just like us schlubs out here in the cheap seats.

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