Jamie Stiehm is the author of the new book Waves, Fits & Starts, a collection of her Creators Syndicate columns. She also wrote Past and Present, Volume I, a previous collection of columns. In addition to her work for Creators Syndicate, she writes a column for U.S. News & World Report, and has been a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and The Hill. She is based in Washington, D.C.
Q: Many of your columns combine history and politics. What do you see as the right blend of the two?
A: It’s uncanny how many political events have happened before in some form or other, so I started weaving that into my work. As I got deeper in to the history, I was having a dialogue between past and present--that’s the name of my column!...Almost every column I write blends them.
Q: You worked as a reporter for many years. Do you prefer writing news stories or columns?
A: By far I prefer columns. I’m glad I have the training and the chops as a reporter that I acquired at The Baltimore Sun and The Hill…I could have gone straight into columns—I did!—but I was advised that I had to go get the story and [bring it] back on deadline.
It has translated well into writing columns. Covering Capitol Hill, you get a sense of it as a big village. [I also gained] an understanding of the city of Baltimore.
Q: For those who might be unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe your column?
A: I’d describe it as conversational. The reader and I might be sitting down for coffee. I bring something to the table that people might not know.
I don’t like just expressing indignation or approval, but I like to tweak things—to tell people that Dolley Madison and James Madison had a matchmaker named Aaron Burr! I want to surprise people.
Q: Which writers have influenced you?
A: The women who have influenced me are Anna Quindlen, who encouraged me very early on [and] Maureen Dowd, who also helped me along the way. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times wrote me a note or two about my work. He was a staunch liberal.
It means the world to be encouraged in a field that’s so competitive but is very individual. You put a lot on the line of yourself. It buttresses you and your ego to be recognized by very polished and important writers. And women have not had a voice on the op-ed pages until recently.
Q: You wrote in a 2014 column that’s included in the book about a possible Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren ticket. What do you think of that idea now, and what do you see looking ahead for this year’s presidential election?
A: I’ve got a better idea—Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders! You have a mainstream Democrat with political smarts and a truly outspoken populist, a left-leaning liberal who would encourage the base.
Bernie’s message is good for Hillary Clinton’s presentation of herself to the public…I think the contest between her and Sanders has benefited them and the party. Both are becoming very convincing and persuasive.
They’re different enough that they bring out where they differ. He might bring people to the polls who might stay home otherwise; they’re not enthusiastic about her.
Elizabeth Warren—I’d like to see her on the Supreme Court!
Q: So do you think a Clinton-Sanders ticket is possible?
A: I wrote an imaginary dialogue [between them in a recent column]. I think it’s probably just a fanciful notion. I don’t think they get along personally well enough to live together on the ticket.
Q: What will the general election campaign look like?
A: The best in us versus the worst in us. It will be a struggle, a tug of war between the haves and the have-nots. This election is going to decide a lot about our future and our character.
Trump and Cruz [use] putdowns, insults, hate. Hillary Clinton tries to appeal to the best in people…the same is true for Bernie Sanders, who’s trying to say the rules aren’t fair…
Q: What’s your prediction?
A: It’s going to be very, very close. It could come down to [something like] Bush v. Gore, that nightmare. State by state. It’s going to be a grueling election. Whoever wins, the other half is not going to be happy.
Q: What’s the significance of your book’s title?
A: That is my poetic phrase for history. It rolls in in waves, fits, and starts. It is in the first essay [in the book], in Brooklyn—I went to see a Domino’s sugar sculpture on the waterfront.
I wasn’t talking just about the sphinx [sculpture] but what we’ve all lived through in our lifetimes. It doesn’t happen all at once, but in waves, fits, and starts. We have to live with the tempo of whatever time brings us.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m giving public history talks, and people have come to me and said, Why don’t you collect them into a book? They’re fresh, original, and based on a lot of reading and thought.
They have a theme that runs through them—[the people I speak about are] subversives, outsiders, and visionaries. Women and men who didn’t fit the mold, but we need to know about.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Frederick Douglass, Aaron Burr, Rachel Carson. They were often outside the system, but worked to change it from the outside.
Women like Lucretia Mott and Rachel Carson were locked out. They didn’t necessarily have an institution, a university, a think tank to rely on. The people I speak about were following their own conscience, especially Lucretia Mott—she’s my beacon in American history before the Civil War.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The book is a signal that my columns come together in a blend that will amuse, refresh, and take the reader places I’ve been recently, such as London, where I revisited a place I lived when I was in my 20s.
I feel that for whoever is reading this, there will be a journey—remembrances and connections…I hope this with every column, but even more so for the collection. The word I like for my work is sprightly!
--Interview with Jamie Stiehm