• Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Ep. 529 — Neil King Jr. – The Axe Files with David Axelrod

The Axe Files with David Axelrod



And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.

Neil King Jr. earned a reputation as one of America’s finest journalists during a career that spanned continents and decades. In 20 years at the Wall Street Journal, he covered post-Cold War Europe and later in Washington, terrorism, intelligence and global economics. But a bout with a deadly cancer caused him to reorder his priorities and a 330 mile walk from Washington, D.C., to New York City gave him new perspectives on his life and our country. It also gave route to a splendid new book, American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal. I spoke with Neil King this week about that journey and the longer arc of his fascinating life. Here’s that conversation. Neil King, it is great to see you, my friend. And we should stipulate right at the beginning that we are old friends. But you’re not here just because you’re my old friend. You’re here because you wrote this magnificent book, American Ramble A Walk of Memory and Renewal. And it’s an extraordinary book because we experience with you this 26 day walk. You took 330 miles from Washington, D.C. to New York City, and it was a walk laden with meaning. And we will get to it. But as is our habit here, I have a few questions for you. Before we get to that. I want to start with your family. You are a fourth generation Coloradan. Don’t live there anymore, but you’re a fourth generation Coloradan. Tell me about your family because they’re deeply embedded in the Rockies there.

Yeah. You know my great grandfather on my father’s side. It’s one of those interesting moments in American history when you’re talking about the 1870s, he went to what became Northwestern Law School. He headed west from a farm basically in in Illinois and became a founder of a town the town of Delta, which is on the western slope of the Rockies. And, you know, I went there years ago. You can see his initials on the original plat deeds when they laid out the town. And he was a kind of a town, Burgher. He was the first mayor, one of the early mayors of that town. He became a judge and he then went and was on the Colorado State Appeals Court.

Yeah, court of appeals. Alfred Rufus King. And my grandfather then was the dean of Colorado School of Law at the University of Colorado for a long time, I think the longest serving of Denver law about law school. My dad was a lawyer in turn in Boulder, Colorado, for years and years.

Boulder City attorney at one point.

He was, wow, you’ve done your homework. You know, I have had four siblings and none of us were drawn to law.

I was going to ask you about that.

I don’t know. I might have been the likeliest one to fall for the lure, but it just didn’t really ever take hold. And my dad kind of applauded us for that. And we all kind of went our different ways and all of us went into that direction, despite the fact that it had been in the family for multiple generations. And, you know, I’m the only one of really my family going back many, many generations to have succumbed to the lure to move east, everything else. And my family’s story literally going back to the beginning, when the folks first arrived on the continent, had an always a eastward I’m sorry, a westward migration. All of my siblings either live now in Colorado or in San Francisco. And for whatever reason, I have lived most of my life, either in Europe or in on the east coast of the United States.

So you can take the boy out of Colorado, but you can’t take the Colorado out of the boy. This wanderlust of yours, it’s not a revelation that came late in life. You were hiking and traveling from a very early age.

I kind of joked that I, I graduated from high school and I sort of walked right off the platform of my diploma and just headed east and went straight to Europe, spent the whole year there. I ended up taking a year off between high school and college and traveled all over the place. I ended up in Alaska working on a fishing boat, and I was a fairly consummate hitchhiker back in the days before hitchhiking. Just, you know, went by the wayside entirely. And I’m one of the few folks around, I guess, at this point who can say that they literally hitchhiked from one coast to the other all in one go. You know, since the days of Jack Kerouac, that’s become a thing that nobody does anymore.

Yeah. I mean, you’re you’re you could write a well, you mentioned some of it, but you can write a book just about those travels, including a stint in a essentially a monastery.

Yeah. Which is an odd place for a kid steeped in Catholicism to land. But it didn’t take I guess. Is that-

Yeah, that was I tell that story a little bit in the book that I I was in Sri Lanka and I was I heard about a monastery there in this incredibly beautiful place in the middle of the island. And I, I went there and the monks said, okay, you can come join the monastery. And I, I had to get special outfit of clothing and give up, you know, leave everything behind. And it lasted about two and a half weeks until the, you know, the pressures of trying to think of nothing or whatever I was there to do kind of closed in on me. And I and I fled further on my trip around the world.

You must have been the tallest aspiring monk there.

Yeah, the guy himself who was the head monk, was actually from the Netherlands. So he wasn’t exactly tiny. But yeah, I think I did have that honor.

You’re you’re a big dude. How tall are you?

Yeah. There you go. So and then you went back to Columbia University and you studied philosophy, I’m sure, as your dad and mom probably pointed out, to an incredibly useful degree. But then you decided to take up journalism. Why?

You know, I’d always been essentially at heart a writer. And I just figured that the best way to be a writer and make a living as a writer was to go into journalism. So I went to Northwestern Journalism School and went off to Florida for my first job.

Met your wife there we should point out, my dear friend Shailagh Murray, another great journalist in her own right now.

Absolutely. We were at Northwestern, we met there, and our journalism careers actually became almost identical until she left journalism to go into the White House, because we both went to Florida. We had our jobs there.

At the Tampa Tribune, right?

Exactly. Yeah. Which was a fantastic time in journalism. You know, all the crazy people that ended up in I mean, literally crazy people, serial killers and every other kind of person that would end up in Florida in those days. And we got to cover it all. And then we we left there. We went overseas to Prague.

And don’t gloss over this decision. You’re two young reporters. I was a young reporter once. You have good jobs at a reputable newspaper and you left and you went to Eastern Europe, to Prague, and you had no you had no jobs, Right? You just, this was a bet that you were making that you could somehow pick up your journalism careers in a place you’ve never been.

It was exactly that. Yeah. You know, both of us decided that we were going to kind of make a big jump and that it would be too hard to sort of apply and work our ways oversees. It was it was a fantastic time to be a foreign correspondent. You know.

A few years after the the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed. So you were there at what was a really hopeful time.

I tell people that it was the longest, sustained good news story that any journalists could ever ask for. We ended up in Prague. The American public was so thirsty for news about the opening up of the Soviet Union and that whole sphere, and we just told stories for a year and you could travel without much danger to all of these countries as we did, and just sort of tell the myriad stories of a region awakening. And that was a really fantastic stretch and an amazing time to be in Prague in the early nineties.

So I have to take advantage of having you here and ask you to look back at that time because it really was a hopeful time. You know, everything seemed possible. Russia itself was opened up. There was a sort of a nascent commitment to democracy, to capitalism and so on. Tell me, as you look back, what was happening then that led to where we are now?

Well, I mean, it’s a you know, that was an amazing time because we all you know, America was astride the globe. Our model of life was so predominant. We had the, you know, peace dividend and all that sort of stuff that was coming our way, you know, domestically. But on the other hand, and we certainly see this now in Russia, that the privatization of the economy was a huge bonanza for the rich oligarch types who immediately began to take over. And it became not in all of those countries, but in much of them, particularly in Russia, just a huge kind of kleptocracy. And, you know, we saw the hopeful phase of that, but we also saw the beginning of the sour, dispiriting side of it as well.

And how much were we responsible? How much was hubris on the part of the U.S. that we could simply install American style capitalism, American style democracy in places where they really democracy didn’t have deep roots?

You know, I think we were and not in large part, but we were definitely had a hand in all of that. I mean, just throwing things up willy nilly and the sense that capitalistic forces are such that they sort of create their own rationality over time, you know, the invisible hand, so to speak. The invisible hand can also be a kleptocratic, you know, pilfering hand. So it doesn’t always work so cleanly. And I don’t see a lot of indications in some of these places, particularly Russia, that it’s going to even out over time and become something that we would recognize as what we would have wanted to see happen there.

That region obviously is an extraordinarily interesting region to cover today, but an entirely different way.

Yeah, it’s much more dangerous today, obviously, for a journalist in those days. I mean, I went many times to Russia and did stories. That by today’s standards would have gotten me, you know, thrown in jail, as is the case.

Yeah. Sadly, with a reporter from while you’re The Wall Street Journal, which is a good segway for me, because after almost, what, a decade or so in Europe, is that what you spent?

So we had the great fortune when we were in Prague of actually being hired on first stringers by the Wall Street Journal, and we became the Prague cause. Shailagh and I, both the Prague correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and then we were hired on officially as reporters in 95, and we moved to Brussels and we covered all kinds of things throughout the rest of that decade. And we basically missed most of the Clinton administration because we were outside of the country. And then we came back to Washington as writers for The Wall Street Journal into the Washington bureau right towards the end of the Clinton administration.

You spent 17 years, is that right? 17 years in the Washington bureau there?

Yeah. Yeah, there were quite amazing years.

Yeah. It shows you including 9/11, you you were on the crew that covered 9/11 and and won a Pulitzer Prize for your coverage.

Of course, that was such an extraordinary moment that any of us around have witnessed and will never forget. But I was one of just two terrorism reporters, two national security reporters. I actually had written the first profile of Osama bin Laden that had run on The Wall Street Journal in, I think, 99. And, you know, that was planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers. There were two of us that we didn’t know instantaneously what was going on, but pretty quickly did. And-

Was it was your instinct that this could be bin Laden?

Yeah, absolutely. Definitely. I mean, it was clear the minute the second plane hit as it was becomes clear to most of us that something big was afoot here. And I think it became immediately apparent that this was an Al Qaida operation. And, you know, that transformed my career and, of course, all of our lives.

You ended up covering politics in addition to terrorism, politics, energy, foreign policy, intelligence and global trade. You were the chief economic reporter for the global economic reporter for the Wall Street Journal 20 years in total, 50 countries you traveled to which fed your crazy wanderlust. Why did you leave the journal?

You know, it’s funny in a way. When I look back at my journalism career, I kind of feel like I’ve run out of a lot of burning buildings. I mean, we did the foreign correspondent thing when that was really in a lot of ways at its heyday, which was also pre-internet. We had a lot of liberty to roam, to do stories that might take a week or more. You know, my time in Washington was also fantastic. I got to cover so many different things. I kind of just wanted to to move beyond in a lot of ways and sort of look to what else was possible. And I think that I could fairly say that, particularly in the last two years. And in doing this walk that became the book, I have truly found in some ways what I was sort of destined to do all along. It’s been, I’m really glad that I jumped from traditional journalism and went about things differently.

Was the Murdoch purchase of the Journal a factor in your decision?

Kind of, yes and no. I mean, I do have to say I’m no Murdoch fan by a long shot, But, you know, he helped save the Journal in a lot of ways because the owners at that time weren’t exactly the most creative force and nor were they necessarily in a position to do much creative with it. But by the time I left, I wasn’t terribly pleased by how they had covered the 2016 election. It was not exactly evenhanded, and there are a lot of things that were sort of frustrating about the place at that point so I left at the end of 2016.

And you went to a firm called Fusion GPS, and I have to raise it because it is now. It is a name that is emblazoned in history because of the role that they played in the 2006 election. They were the firm that commissioned the Steele dossier that has gotten so much attention. And you you’re very conversant with that because once you joined the firm, they wrote a book called Crime in Progress about the election and their role in it. What are your reflections looking back? Because, you know, the the fundamental if you ask people generally, the sense is that was all garbage. That was all untrue, it was all politically motivated. But you worked with the two guys over there who were veterans of the Journal and among the most distinguished investigative reporters in the country.

Yeah, you know, it was a fascinating turn for me. I walked in the door, I think, three days before BuzzFeed actually published the so-called dossier. I was not there when they came in. Did or did any of that work. I had actually signed on with them on Election Day, which of course, in the middle of that day, everyone had the expectations that the election would turn up a different way. You know, the work that Fusion did quite to the contrary to the dossier itself or whatever reputation it has gotten, is was markedly different then than the dossiers on method, which was, you know, Chris Steele going out and basically.

Getting raw intelligence.

Well, tapping sources and talking to people and fusion’s work model has always been to to do very rigorous, open source, very verifiable document based research. And that’s what it continues to do. And as all of the work that Fusion did, looking at Trump outside of the dossier, it was very much that way. And as we’ve come to understand, not only was Donald Trump and his people very much interacting with the Russians all of that year, of course, and Putin trying to do what he did during that election year. But, you know, Trump’s own business was going back to the very early foundations of his company, have been sketchy at best and worthy of a lot of close attention, which Fusion helped give, along with many reputable and reputable news organizations. It’s quite a story that we continue to see ongoing.

The thing that is remembered is the sort of prurient allegations in the Steele dossier that have been proven out. I mean, how do you reflect on that? I guess I shouldn’t. I don’t want to lead you.

Yeah. Some of the feel, you know, the most prurient things, as you say, are the things that stick the most in people’s minds. I mean, you know, it is the fact, I will say one thing about Chris Steele. He was the one who raised the flag on what was going on with Russia and its efforts to get involved in the election. I think even before the FBI was really onto that in early June of that year, just before that huge email dumps and all this stuff that occurred that we saw play out through that summer. So there was also an element of presence there. It’s these things get muddled as we look back on things. It was a fascinating stretch. I then left there at the end of 2019 with my ambitions being I was going to take a time off, I was going to take this walk to New York and kind of do almost like a adult gap year. And then of course, Covid kind of botched that up a little bit and delayed my plans for a year.

Well, not just Covid, but you also had a kind of catastrophic event or potentially catastrophic event in your own life. Talk about that.

I’m very open to talk about it. I welcome talking about it because it played into my my own psyche and my own life plan so, so strongly and a weird way, so well. So in 2017, I got one of those diagnoses. Nobody likes to go see a doctor and have him utter the word cancer. And it was a fairly advanced cancer that had come out of nowhere like these things do.

A very yeah, I mean, yeah, it was one of the worse esophageal cancer. And, you know, when I looked up the numbers, I was something like, you know, 12% survival, five year survival rate. And that was quite a it was a four year experience essentially where I had a relapse a year and a half later after going through all this stuff through that fall. And I hate to be one of those people that too loudly trumpets the benefits of a cancer diagnosis if you if you survive it. But in my case, it kind of did wonders for my sense of how to allot my own time and and how I saw the world. And by the time I came out the other end, which is in a lot of ways really just before I set off on the walk, I was kind of a changed person in many ways that I was appreciative of.

We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You know my wife Susan very well. She had cancer in in the nineties. And one of the things we did when when she got the diagnosis is we bought a farm in Michigan and it was ramshackle and needed tons of work and so on. Part of the reason we bought it was because we wanted to focus on a goal beyond the treatment. How much was this book which you had had in mind? How much did it become sort of a goal of yours that I’m going to get through this and I’m going to and I’m going to take this work and I’m going to realize and I’m going to realize what are things that I had deferred that I now are going to put on the front burner?

Yeah, I think it was a big motivating factor. And not only that, it just helped kind of condition my my psyche and my attitude towards stepping out my door the day that I set out on this walk as a as a different person and with a very distinct frame of mind and a very distinct sensibility towards what I was going to encounter. I mean, we can talk about it some more going ahead here, but it became a kind of time out of time.

You know, it’s fascinating not to get too esoteric here, but the the Greeks have two words for time. There’s Kronos, which is what we, you know, think of as chronological time, kind of mechanical time. And they have an expression called crossed, which is a kind of time that’s like a revelatory time. That’s some transformational time. It’s the sort of time that leaves a stronger imprint on your memory. I think it’s, you know, kind of the time that we tend to allot to vacations or to those most magical moments that stick in your mind decades later. And the fascinating thing about the whole concept is this walk, the 26 days of it, it all took place in that kind of Kairos sort of time. It was every arm, basically every minute of it. Still to this day, two years later, has this clarity about it in my mind that no 26 day stretch in my life has where I could I could bore you endlessly with stories about every day. And it leaves an imprint, in part because I had sort of stepped out my door into sort of like going into Narnia through the back of the wardrobe in that C.S. Lewis book, you know, into this Kingdom that’s just outside all of our doors. But it was because I went about it in a certain way.

Before we get to the walk itself, right before the walk. There was an event that was a watershed event in our history, I think is fair to say, which was the insurrection at the Capitol. And, you know, one of the things that this one of the really extraordinary things about this book is that it takes us back to the beginning of American history and, you know, some of the ideals that drove it. And it also speaks to our common humanity. But this was quite different on January six. There was, you know, a sense of aggrievement and division and so on. And you were there. You you live not far from the Capitol.

What did you see and how did that shape your thinking as you set off on this walk?

You know, let me just step back a tiny bit before I get to that. You know, I was going to go out my door on the 29th of March of 2020. Everything that came along that month made that impossible. I waited exactly a year to do it. And you know what happened between that year? We had we were slammed by Covid. George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. All of those social justice protests and riots took place across the country. We had the spate of statues being tore down and a real, real debate in our country about the nature of our beginnings, of our past, of our national story, a deep discussion which I think should be ongoing about who do we honor and who do we want to dishonor or forget about from our past? We had a disputed election. We had the whole kind of nature of truth, you know, being called into question. And then we had those events on January 6th with which I walked from my house and watched play out live. I didn’t, of course, go inside the Capitol, but I watched it as a witness. And so by the time I walked out my door, I was walking past a capitol that was still ringed by razor wire with National Guard troops around it. And it really drove home to me how I was truly stepping into a historical context with all of those questions that I wanted to think about, which is what are we collectively? What is our story? Who are the founders? Which are the founders that we should honor? How, what do we make of this time? And, you know, are our best days as a country still ahead of us, or are they distinctly behind us? And, you know, the the January six events were just one of a tableau of different things that really set the stage for me personally as I wandered right past the Capitol.

So let’s let’s talk about the walk and just just a couple of minutes on the sort of preparation for it, because there isn’t like, oh, yeah, I’m going to walk to New York, let me grab a walking man. You really spent a lot of time considering where you were going, where you were going to stop, you know, how much you were going to do each day and the history of the areas through which you were going to walk. So talk about preparing for this.

You know, there were really, I guess I would say, three forms of preparation. The first one was through that year when I had to postpone it, I immersed myself in dozens and dozens of the travel logs that so many people had written in the early years of our republic, 1820s and thirties. Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens being among the best known, but people who had come to America to look it over wonder if it was going to survive, wonder what it was going to become. And I really sort of absorbed myself into those narratives. And and I took a very similar point of view in a way when I walked out my door. The other form of preparation was, of course, physical. I did a lot of walking with a heavy pack on my back and that kind of thing for months beforehand. And then the third was the determining the route I was going to take and where I was going to sleep every night and who I wanted to meet with. And in that one I really decided I was going to go due north of Washington. I wasn’t going to go up I-95, I wasn’t going to walk up the Jersey Shore. I was going to go up along the cross, the Mason-Dixon line, up into Pennsylvania, across into Lancaster County, one of the great era regions of experimentation in American life, and cutting all the way across to Valley Forge, into Philadelphia, etc.. It was kind of a asking, somewhat roundabout way to get to New York City, where I really wanted to emphasize certain places that were important to me, that told stories, but also important to us collectively. Civil war battles, sides, places in the Revolutionary War, you know, underground railroad sites, rail beds. There were important canals, the whole bit. And so there was a lot of advance planning, including the people I wanted to meet. I met a lot of people serendipitously, which was fantastic. And there were a lot of people I met by planning.

Yeah, Well, let’s talk about both. First of all, how much let me ask you, but just again, to set the stage, we had this rucksack on your back. How much did that way?

You know, I very intentionally went superlight. I had no I decided I was not going to camp. No tent, no slipping back. I stayed there mainly in Airbnbs and inns and things like that. And my backpack was about 17 pounds and the heaviest thing I had in it-.

Was your laptop, probably.

Yeah, Yeah, exactly. My laptop. Yeah.

Now you had that laptop, did you? I know you were sending correspondences to your friends throughout the trip. Was it your always your intention that this would be a book?

The original idea to walk to New York was not a book idea. It was just a dang. I wonder what it would be like if I were to do it. It became by the time I walked out the door, a book I did. I realized in the time in between that there was just so much richness in along the way and I was going to mind it. I think in a way like no one ever has between those two cities. And I guess I was competing a bit with all those folks I was reading about in the 1830s and forties. I was like, okay, I’m going to try to do the best account of a slow walk between these two places of any that I’ve read. So yes, by the time I walked out, I fully intended to do that.

So the stories in this book of the encounters that you had are fantastic. And in some ways the most arresting stories are the stories of your encounters with everyday people. Not people of note, particularly, not politicians or- talk about that and what you what you learn from these encounters.

On the second day. I’m just on the true outskirts of Washington and by a series of events I want to describe right now, I run into this older couple, Mennonite couple walking down a small lane and it comes to pass that I mentioned that I’m heading to this town called Effort in Pennsylvania. And they immediately brighten and they say we used to live near there and that little house on on Crooked Lane next to these people that we haven’t seen in years and we’re wondering how they’re doing, etc., etc.. And I said, well, look, I’m going there. I will bring good tidings of your well-being to them and pass along your regards. And they were sort of astonished that I would do that. And I did it. I got there eight days later and it became I said immediately when I left them to myself, I said, wow, I just experienced a parable like something out of the New Testament, you know? And that day itself, I encountered several of what I came to see as parables, one off encounters with people that were pregnant with meaning that others of us can detect and feel. And, you know, I think it was the next day I ran into this guy, this black guy who is out at the end of his drive, getting his garbage cans in, and he said, hey, where are you going? And I. I said, I’m going to New York and I live in the capital. And he immediately his name is Ted embarked on this incredibly great Thurman.

I loved that. Yeah. This was the guy in Randall’s town.

And I called it the parable of the tuning fork. He said, I know what you’re doing. You’re. You’re trying to put yourself in tune. The whole nation is out of tune and out of joint, and you’re feeling it. And if you can get yourself in tune, you will get the nation in tune. And I was like, Ted, are you really putting that sort of, keeping that burden on me that, you know, I will have to put the whole country in in harmony? And he said, yes, that’s exactly, this is a holy walk, he said it was right before Easter. So there are so many of these encounters like that that just were just marvelous in their own way. I mean-

I can’t remember whether it was him or you, but the idea that when you tune in to radio, you get the music or you get the static. So hopefully your walk will tune you. When you hit the tuning fork, it will be it will be give, it will give the right vibration that yields healing. That’s pretty profound for a guy taking his garbage out.

Yeah, and in that case, I actually he was about to start and I said, Hey, Ted, do you mind if I hit my phone record? Because I got I think I got a feeling I got to get this, you know? And he said, no go ahead. And it was it was a fantastic sermon that just there at curbside. And, you know, I met a mennonite auctioneer who was, you know, very Trumpy and had very distinct, very old fashioned views of how the world should be organized. And, you know, it was snowing out and I had to get some directions because I was lost from him. And he invited me in to this bar. And we talked for a while. And, you know, despite his views, it certainly didn’t align with my views. I found Ken Keeney as his name to be fascinating.

Yeah, exactly. And, you know, he was an auctioneer. And his bar, that barn was filled with all these amazing older tractors that he really loved. And he was showing me what made them marvelous. And, you know, to me, it was this a great lesson that if you’re in one place, kind of a common ground setting with another American, another fellow human being. Yeah. Okay. You may disagree on some things, but you’re going to find some things that you like that you have in common that that person you know something about him or her that is funny. And we got on really well and it and when I walked away from there, I was like, you know, we all need these kind of encounters more often. We need to mix it up more. We need to get out in the world more.

The truth of the matter is that if your only interaction with people who have different points of view is how they’re described to you on Facebook, it is a poisoning kind of experience. So the ability I mean, I look, I have a lot of neighbors in rural Michigan who I’m sure have very different views than mine, but they’re still good neighbors. But it’s almost we are so hardened in our silos that to step outside of it is to step outside of them is considered sort of a dangerous and unnatural act.

Yeah, I know, I mean, you know, we where instead where we should humanize. Of course we now demonize and in some ways this walk was kind of my effort to humanize.

You did meet it’s so interesting to me in the same community of York, Pennsylvania. You also met the mayor who you went from Ken Kenny to a guy who could have been imagined by Ken Kesey. Describe the mayor of York, Pennsylvania, and your interaction with him.

You know, Michael Helfrich, who I actually saw just recently, I’m going to see in a couple of days. He I described as if there are 14,000 mayors and all the land. Michael Helfrich has to be among the most unusual. He you know, was once in the Rainbow family and talked to me openly about all the times they had dropped acid in the woods in Oregon and various places. And he now lives in a house built in 1767, if I have it right, and is an ardent follower of Thomas Paine. And when I went into his house, I was everything. And it was from the 18th century, including all of the collected works of Thomas Paine, which were almost all printed when Paine was still alive, essentially. And, you know, I said to him, Michael, when was America last great? And he said, 1791, when the Battle of Yorktown was over. And we had ended our war with the British and we became a divided and fracturous as country. And I was like, wow, we weren’t even a country then. And we were, you know, our best days were already behind.

You made a point of that. He was an extraordinary character. You made a point of going to the Mason-Dixon Line, which has almost mythic importance in American history. Explain why you went there and what you found.

I, of course, had no choice but to cross it because that’s what you cross when you go north. And if I could just make a call out to whoever is listening, that just the sort of vital importance of going to the places themselves and not just sort of driving and jumping out of your car, but kind of arriving to them at them by foot, contextualizing them. It just to me anyway, it just was resonant with so much meaning because this is a border between north and south that for, you know, decades and decades had such incredible significance, particularly to the enslaved populations of the South. And, you know, I thought about that for hours as I walked toward it. And along these roads, it would have been the same roads that somebody would have skirted along on their way to try to get out of there. And then when I got to the line itself, I found this incredible 1830s German built farmhouse that at that time anyway, was abandoned. And, you know, right underneath the front porch of it ran the line itself. And it was just the whole thing was so fascinating just to ponder the person who had built that farmhouse, how the line between, you know, at least the theoretical line between slavery and freedom had run right underneath this front porch. And then just to look at the sort of the pride and beauty of the structures of the barn and all these other things that these people had built, you know, the different kinds of hinges that were all clearly handmade. And it was it’s a great example of lived history right there under your fingertips, you know, And it was a fantastic hour or so I spent there.

There. I mean, one of the reasons this has mythic importance in American history is that it was sort of a dividing line between free states and slave states. So it’s so interesting that a house can sit on top of that line there. Lincoln said a house divided against itself cannot stand. But there’s this house and it’s on both lines. And it does speak to the fact that there are transcendent things. I mean, obviously the battle over slavery was a defining battle for our country. And yet there were people on both sides of that line who, well, they had vehement disagreements over that shared qualities as human beings. So the symbolism of a house standing on both sides of the line is really something. We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as a history buff. What struck me was you visited two grave sites speaking of the war and slavery and so on. One was of the 15th president of the United States, James Buchanan, who I think deservedly is viewed as a disastrous president who opened the door to what would come, which was the Civil War through his leadership or lack of leadership. And then Thaddeus Stevens, who represented Pennsylvania in the Congress and who was an outspoken opponent of slavery, both from the same town.

That was another magical moment where I literally walked into the town of Lancaster at a time, as I describe in the book, that these sort of tectonic plates are shifting. And they were just taking the name of James Buchanan in elementary school off that school. This was the meticulously preserved house that James Buchanan had lived in and his reputation was plummeting while the house that Thaddeus Stevens, who was truly one of the founders of our second founding after the Civil War. He was the one really one of the prime forces that pushed Lincoln to do the Emancipation Proclamation to let Blacks into the military during the Civil War. And he was a cantankerous character.

And a really extraordinary person whose her deserves much, much more notoriety, much more fame than he has now. And, you know, one of the points I make in passing, but I think is an important one. You know, when we all look back on history, we like to put ourselves in it from this point of view of the good people. So all of us assumed that if we had been around, we would have been staunch abolitionists. Well, the reality is they were a tiny portion of the population, and I really think we should not only own our James Buchanan’s, but we should realize it inside of a lot of us is probably more James Buchanan than Thaddeus Stephens. It’s not easy to be Thaddeus, and have him vanguard morally in the way that he was. It’s often a lonely place to be, and I think we all need to be a little more humble and realizing that not only that, but a lot of times the person that seems the most sort of obstreperous or even overly loud or obnoxious, those people are off and on to something. And Thaddeus Stevens is very much of one of those people. So that was a fantastic day, just sort of seeing that in this case, the balance is starting to right and Stevens is beginning to get the due he deserves.

You also visited a school in Lancaster that made an impression on you.

Yeah, I mean, that is such a fantastic story. I won’t tell that length, but I just came up the road the next day and saw this amazing game of softball being played by these young women and young men at this school, the young women all dressed in these long floral dresses and playing the most incredibly aggressive, bona fide game of softball I think I’ve ever played. Seeing played. And then they we started talking and the teacher came over and they all invited me inside and they wanted to sing some hymns to me. So I went downstairs and they sang these two fantastic hymns to me. And, you know, I was with them for maybe half an hour all together. I’ve remained in touch with that teacher, Neil Weaver. I’m going to see them in a couple of days. They’re going to do a well, a kind of book event, but they’re also going to sing in that same place again. I went up to a Christmas concert at the end of last year that they invited me to, and it’s kind of extraordinarily when you can walk at your door over 26 days and form 10, 12 bona fide friendships that people have remained in contact with since then.

Especially people who are completely different than you, and at least on the surface, leading different lives, lives that you probably couldn’t even imagine.

Profoundly so, you know, and I had a discussion actually in the basement of the church after they sang to me with Neil Weaver, this teacher and I said, tell me a little bit about the Mennonite faith. And in doing that, he quoted this line from Saint Paul to the Romans. And I’m not exactly like a big Bible reading guy, but the line kind of just like lit up in my head as really kind of the motto of the whole walk. And it is Do not conform to the world, but transform yourself through a renewal of your mind. And when he said that, I said, wait, say that again.

You should have had that in your pocket when you set out on this walk.

You know, I know. And you know, it’s funny. There are so many times that I can’t even find people that mention lines or phrases or whatever where I had to say, Wait, what did you just say? And that was one of them. Because that whole concept of let the world, you know, form, you don’t don’t conform to it, but transform yourself through a renewal of your mind. And you know something we should all constantly attempt to do and. It’s something that I very avidly attempted to do through the whole of the walk.

This goes back to maybe more mundane stuff, but I don’t think. But I think somehow not because you got at some point caught in a snowstorm and your phone had died.

And you were trying to get to your next stop and you really don’t have a clue where to go. And I guess you knocked on a door.

Yeah, that was when I met the guy. Ken Keeney. The auctioneer.

Oh, he was the guy who. That was the snowstorm.

And at the end of our conversation, I said to him, Ken do you know why we had this conversation? And he said, No. And I said, It’s just my phone died and I. I needed to find a person to give me directions. And there you were working in this bar. And I appreciate that. And you know that again, there again, it was one of those kind of terrible like aspects to the whole story that I really loved.

This MAGA guy. Yeah. Saved you from being lost in a snowstorm is essentially the headline there. You know, there.

Was another guy jumping way ahead, but I was in New Jersey in a very Trump area of New Jersey on the other side of I-95. And I’m walking along and I look over and there’s a driveway with this truck out front and these flags flying and MAGA stuff all over. And for a second, I’m kind of like, got to be sort of interesting to have a full blown discussion with with this guy and that exact moment he walks out of his house on his way to give out his own wall. And he says to me, What are you doing here? Where are you going? And I said, Well, I mean, I live near the Capitol. I’m walking to New York. And, you know, there had been a little bit of an issue the whole way about kind of hospitality and who offers what to whom.

And the minute I said what I was doing, he immediately said, can I get you a water, beer, a clementine?

Which is really interesting because at the beginning of the book, one of your first experiences was with a guy in the suburbs of Washington and Maryland, and you’re passing through this well-to-do community and you stopped and you asked the guy you had a canteen with you, you know, where you could get some water. And he basically directed you like miles away and said, you know, we’re a little suspicious of, you know, unkempt strangers coming through our. So what a contrast.

That was on the day of parables. I call that the parable of the empty water bottle, where we didn’t see fit to fill my water bottle out of his hose.

Yeah. No, this guy, I guess this was in East Brunswick, New Jersey, where you had this this, this ladder almost at the end of your walk, the one you describe with the Trumper who, uh. And you had a long conversation with him.

Yeah, and he would understand. Well, because you knew these people from your time with the with President Obama that his story was one of those great odyssey stories where he hadn’t been keen on on Bush when Obama came along. What he actually said to me in the driver was that the white guys hadn’t done a great job, but I figured that I would give the Black guy a chance.

And he had supported Obama when Trump came along. He himself was a person who nursed a lot of different kind of grievances and gripes about things, which he aired many of them to me when I was in his driveway. And Trump kind of appealed to that sort of kicking at your critics thing. And that was why one of the reasons that he had supported Trump, it was just a fascinating sort of odyssey that he had taken.

You had to get across the Hudson and you essentially meandered your way into a yacht club to try and find someone who came across. You found a guy named Stu Conway to help you finish that important leg of the journey. Tell me about him.

Well, actually, that was to get from Perth Amboy across to Staten Island. I had to get across the Arthur Kill.

You know, that was a great moment where, you know, one of the things I talk about a fair bit in the book is the whole, you know, idea of privilege. And, you know, I have a lot of privilege that came my way. I had relatively little to fear being a white guy of my age walking down the road. But, you know, in this case, I had to figure out how I was going to get across this body of water. And so I made my way onto the Raritan Yacht Club Dock, and I told the folks there what I was trying to do, and they sort of brightened to the whole idea because I, you know, was off on this lark of adventure. And so they said, Oh, we think we know a guy. And so they put forward this guy, Stu Conway, and he drove an hour in the next morning from his house to take me across on a launch to the other side. And that was it was just a great thing. And, you know, when it comes all kind of belonging, did I belong on that pier at that yacht club? No. The only reason that I kind of did is I was off on an adventure. And those are the sort of things that those people, sailors of the like, understand, and they kind of took to that.

You wrote the most durable form of belonging starts oddly with solitude, and I was interested in that. Explain that.

You know, I think a lot of it is the more comfortable any of us are with ourselves and the more sort of transferable we feel we are from environment to the environment, the more easily we feel like we belong in different places. And I you know, if there’s anything you can do to make a person feel welcome is to make them feel that they belong in the place that they are. And I stepped into a lot of foreign settings along the way. And, you know, the Bard Mennonite farrier who is shooting a horse out of various bars and things along the way. And along that way, people, by and large, made me feel welcome and feel like I belong there. And that that was a good thing.

Yeah. You know, your reportorial history probably was helpful in this regard.

Absolutely. That makes a huge difference. You know, as you have also I’ve done a lot of this just kind of talking to people along the way.

And dropping into places you’ve never experienced before.

Precisely. Yeah, exactly.

So I just want to close by asking you a few personal things. Your brother Kevin, was dying during this walk. You were very close. You were one of five boys, I guess, right?

Four boys and one girl. One sister. Yeah.

And you were in contact with him. You wanted him to vicariously share this walk.

You know, my brother Kevin was a fantastic soul in so many ways and told amazing stories, experienced things so vividly, and did a lot of his own adventures walking. And, you know, he got the worst kind of cancer there is, glioblastoma, which goes, you know, into the brain. And almost nobody survives it. And it basically slowly rid him of his ability to talk well or to walk really at all. And the fact that I was walking and talking throughout the year that he ended up dying and certainly gave a different backdrop to the walk. And I shared various moments with him along the way. And I talk about some of this in the book itself. It certainly made a lot of it a lot more vibrant, just thinking about him.

Speaking about talking, I’ve known you, as I said, for a long time, and you were a guy with a deep, resonant bass voice. People can hear that your voice is is a bit raspy now. So that was a mystery that came along the way after the walk, right?

I know it happened beforehand. I had got bit by a tick that day with Lyme disease and botched up one of my vocal cords. So it was another one of those lessons where, you know, for a while I was actually not very able to talk at all. I’m certainly, it’s gotten a lot better since then.

You said that made you a better listener, which was another lesson. So you’ve drawn all these lessons from your challenges, really. Tell me how that has changed you as a person.

I think it’s just made me filled with a lot more like true kind of ongoing gratitude about a lot of things. And, you know, there’s a great moment, I would say, in the book where it’s at the very end and I meet a friend of mine and we walk up Fifth Avenue and we go we go into Central Park and we arrive at the Angel of the Waters, which is that fantastic statue at the Bethesda Fountain. And this friend of mine says in a Hebrew prayer, that is a very ancient prayer. I kind of look at as like the foundational prayer of all prayers. And it basically goes something like, Lord, thank you for creating me, for sustaining me, and for allowing me to be here at this present moment. You know, thank you for for making this moment possible.

Yes, yes, yes. It’s it’s a it’s a it is the foundational prayer.

Yeah. It just sort of incorporates all of it. Right. Creation and sustenance and just thank God for being here. And in a lot of ways, I think the truth that I don’t even want to say travails, but the experiences that I’ve had over the last few years has just kind of compounded that sense of thankfulness for being here. And it’s a great state of mind to be in. It’s a little bit of I like to say I’m distinctly living on what I look at as bonus time, and there’s no time as good as when it’s time.

Yeah, right. Absolutely. The ability to value every day and to make the most of every day is something, you know, we’re we’re all basically living under a death sentence. And we don’t know when that sentence is going to be enacted or it’s going to be executed. But too often we act as if we’re going to live forever.

And we miss so much of life that way. And part of why I loved your book is that this was your defiant statement that I’m not going to submit. I’m going to appreciate every day however many days I have. And what do you hope that people will get from this book?

You know, one of the things I’m doing out on the hustings, so to speak, is really wanting to kind of drive home the fact that, yeah, okay, I did this thing and I’ll talk to you about this thing I did. But I really urge other people to do their version of it. And it doesn’t have to be a three week plus walk to New York, but some version where you really go out and look closely at some aspect of the country and really sort of honor it and see it for the complexity that it that it has. And. And, you know, one of the things that I like to talk about is just kind of granting yourself the freedom to be wondrous about things and then sort of shirk or shed cynicism or whatever it is that kind of prevents a lot of us from just seeing things the way they are, at least in my mind, which is, you know, it’s when I get to the Susquehanna and the Delaware and these things that I’m like, these are amazing rivers and I’m going to just talk to you a bitd about how amazing these bodies of water are. And it’s some of it is just the attitude that you bring to these things otherwise seem kind of commonplace, right? Oh, yeah. I know about that. And kind of, you know, going about it with a fresher eye or fresher outlook. I call the book A Walk of Memory and Renewal, and it’s a national memory. It’s also a bit of a personal memory and it’s a personal of national renewal. And I you know, the thing that comes about, if you sat out attentively and an undistracted way to go on a long walk like this, not listening to podcasts or music and your.

Way to say, now you’re going too far.

All right. It just hasn’t a cumulative effect over time. And, you know, by the time I got to New York, I, I was in many ways a changed being in large part just because of the additive effect of what happens to you and how you see the world. If after many weeks, in my case, you’re just paying attention to a single spring, to the people you meet, to the lay of the land and the story that our country tells as you go. And it’s it’s it’s just can be a miraculous thing to see it go off for a long walk, that’s all.

Yeah, no kidding. No kidding. Well, listen, I look forward to taking one with you. It’s American Ramble, a walk of memory and renewal. It is an uplifting read and lots of important lessons there. Not just about life, but about our country. So, Neil King, it’s great to see you. I look forward to sitting down soon and sharing more stories over over a beer.

I look forward to that, too. And this has been a great pleasure, David. I really appreciate it.

Thank you for listening to The Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Miriam Fender Annenberg. The show is also produced by Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald, and special thanks to our partners at CNN for more programing from the IOP, visit politics.uhicago.edu.



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