In a 2006 interview with Illinois State magazine, longtime Capitol Hill journalist Carl Hulse ’76 recalled covering the 1998 impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton.
Hulse, currently the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, especially remembered the chaos on the day of the House vote in December 1998, when Republican Speaker-elect Bob Livingston resigned at the start of the session. “l would not have been surprised to see a coup,” Hulse told the magazine about that day. “It was that unsettled.”
While Hulse is no stranger to covering such unsettling situations in D.C., it was still hard for him to fathom what took place on January 6.
From his house less than a mile away from the Capitol, Hulse was participating in a live chat with fellow New York Times reporters for the publication’s website that afternoon. They were providing readers in-the-moment commentary on the electoral college vote certification when the news infamously shifted as rioters ransacked the Capitol in an attempt to overturn an election they thought was stolen based on unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud.
“I couldn’t believe it as I was watching it,” Hulse said. “I’m still having a hard time processing it. As somebody who works in the Capitol and sees the level of security there all the time, I just couldn’t believe that people had broken into the Senate Chamber. And senators I’ve spoken to since can’t believe it either.”
The security breakdown played out for the whole world to see. To avoid another catastrophic event, the National Guard deployed thousands of troops to the Capitol and surrounding area for President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. Hulse, who has been working in D.C. since 1986 and calls the Capitol his office on most days, couldn’t remember a time like it, including the immediate aftermath of September 11.
“It’s an armed camp here right now,” he said. “It’s incredible. There’s never been anything like that.”
Hulse, a Hall of Famer in both the College of Arts and Sciences and at Illinois State’s student-run newspaper The Vidette, wrote an article for The New York Times that published on January 13 noting that Congress—and the nation—united after the horrific September 11 attacks in New York, the D.C. area, and western Pennsylvania. That’s not so much the case now as fellow Americans blitzed the Capitol, and people are seeking accountability over unity.
“It’s tense here right now,” Hulse said. “I’m not going to mince words.”
There is still a lot of intelligence to unpack regarding the January 6 event, and there’s no definitive answer to what this means for democracy going forward.
“People saw that what was not possible was possible and that there were people basically willing to overthrow the government, and we haven’t seen that in the U.S,” he said. “I think people are wondering if it is the end of something or the beginning of new unrest in America, and we don’t know the answer to that yet.”
With a front-row seat and access to some of the nation’s most powerful decision-makers, Hulse and his colleagues are the messengers to a nation desperate for those answers.
Hulse said the rhetoric and hostility toward the media the past four years haven’t made things easy. He believes the rise in 24-hour cable news and social media have all contributed to what kind of information gets relayed to the public. “Technology has changed so fast that the rules haven’t kept up with it.” That means a lot of information—whether it’s a tweet, soundbite, blog post, etc.—can get shared by the masses without a team of fact checkers or credible reporting to back it.
He noted how important it is now to be transparent and continue working to build trust with a worried country. “It’s going to take a while to correct this,” said Hulse. “We are trying really hard to show our reporting is fact based, and we do a lot to show people how we collect the news.”
While there’s no easy—or even clear—way forward, Hulse believes a quick coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine rollout could be a starting point on the road back. But even then, he’s not so certain.
Hulse is a proud product of The Vidette and still enjoys the everyday grind of bringing news to readers.
But with a riot and assault on the Capitol, an impeachment hearing, and inauguration all occurring in consecutive weeks, he wouldn’t mind a slower Wednesday once in a while.
“Pretty crazy news cycle.”