Jamie Dupree is still telling stories, even without his voice

If you don’t know Jamie yet, do yourself a favor and change that

Cox Radio reporter Jamie Dupree was in the room for both the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and Brett Kavanaugh’s 27 years later. (Courtesy John Nolen/CBS News)
Cox Radio reporter Jamie Dupree was in the room for both the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and Brett Kavanaugh’s 27 years later. (Courtesy John Nolen/CBS News)
Posted March 5, 2019 at 5:03am

OPINION — On June 18, 1965, when copies of Roll Call sold for 10 cents apiece, the front page featured an item on the Congressional Secretaries Picnic, including a photo of a skeptical red-headed toddler eyeballing a nearby pal’s lunch plate.

That toddler was Jamie Dupree, the son of two Capitol Hill staffers, who grew up in the shadow of the Capitol, went to college in Florida, and just as quickly made his way back to D.C. and became Cox News Radio’s Washington correspondent.

For more than 30 years, he has been known by fellow reporters and Hill staff alike for his rabbit-quick wit and Houdini-esque powers of somehow being everywhere at once, always with his radio-quality boom mic and recorder in hand. I first met him as a too-eager press secretary who (wrongly) thought my senator-boss should ask me before talking to Jamie in the Capitol elevators. What did I know?

Eventually I would realize that Jamie’s even-handed Q&A’s won over not only members of Congress, who understood that he likely knew more about their jobs than they did, but also Cox Radio listeners who had never met him at all. I’ve been at Trump rallies, the CNN makeup chair, and even in my own house meeting the exterminator, only to hear, “You work in Washington? Do you know Jamie Dupree? Love that guy!”

I later become a journalist myself, and often caught up with Jamie on the Hill or at campaign events around the country. But when I saw him at the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2016, he had somehow lost his voice. “I can’t talk,” he tapped out on his computer for me to read. “Something’s really wrong.”

“Wrong” hardly covers the reality that Jamie faced in Cleveland — a radio reporter at a national political convention who could not form words to speak. How could he file his stories? Or talk to sources and voters? Half of a reporter’s legwork is done over the phone. That was out of the question too. One night, we headed out to talk to House members who had watched Donald Trump accept the Republican nomination that night. After a long moment of silence with a congressman, I asked questions for both of us.

It was hard for Jamie then, and two and a half years later, it hasn’t gotten easier as his rare neurological disorder continues to keep his brain, tongue and lips from functioning properly. He fights against the big things, like the wall he hits when he just wants to share a laugh with his wife, Emily, or the wait-for-it great story he can’t tell his three young children. The little things are a beast too. Try ordering pizza without a single word. Or joining a conference call. Or meeting new colleagues in the halls of Congress or the press galleries upstairs. How would you do it? How does he?

More than anything, how would you continue to work as a radio reporter for nearly three years — 1,000-plus days — without one of the tools that made you great? I don’t know how I would do it. But Jamie has.

With the help of his bosses at Cox, Jamie has developed a text-to-audio approximation of his voice, dubbed “Jamie Dupree 2.0,” for his reports that his faithful listeners cheered when they first heard it. He tweets updates of congressional news like a madman. He works tirelessly in his radio booth on the third floor of the Capitol every day, just as he did before, still nodding and smiling when he gets that money-quote from a member that he knows will make that day’s story come alive.

But the last time Jamie and I walked the halls, I noticed that some of the new members and staff, of which there are many, did not yet know Jamie or his story. Puzzled looks from freshmen followed when he scribbled a quick question for them out on his tablet, as he often does now. For decades, anyone who has worked in the Capitol for any period of time has known him. But without his voice, building relationships isn’t happening as easily as it always did before.

I’ve wanted to write a column about Jamie for a long time, but I waited until the stories at CNN and The Washington Post searching for answers about his illness had come and gone. Because the most important part about him is not that he’s lost his voice, but what he did before that happened and what he’s done since.

Who else on the Hill was in the room for both the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and Brett Kavanaugh’s 27 years later? Who else would email this month, “Can you believe I have a copy of the Iran-Contra hearings above my desk?” And my only answer had to be, “OF COURSE YOU DO.” And who else would keep going, climbing up those stairs to his perch above the Senate day after day and still love every wonderful, terrible, irreplaceable part of the place?

If you don’t know Jamie yet, do yourself a favor and change that. The toughest among you will learn a lesson in grit. The most ambitious will find a walking Library of Congress — a cheat sheet and resource courtesy of someone who pays granular attention to congressional history as it happens. And the institutionalists, the ones who still get a chill of disbelief when you walk beneath the Capitol Dome, will find a fellow traveler who has seen the good Congress has done before and believes, apart from all reliable evidence, it will do again.

“I cannot imagine working anywhere else,” he told me last week. “If I could, I would just sit in the Speaker’s Lobby all day, and watch the show.”

Jamie has never been told by any of his many specialists that his condition can be repaired. He’s tried what must feel like a million different things that were supposed to make a difference, but mostly haven’t. And he’s faced a challenge that would make most of us give up, but never did.

He is still looking for the treatment that will work. And he’s still covering the Hill, decades after his parents strolled that red-headed toddler onto the lawn of the building where he would grow up; make friends; play Santa for the doorkeepers’ children; meet his wife; build his career; bring his own children to play; get mysteriously sick and hopefully, hopefully, get well and talk to us all again.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.