With Jeffrey E. Stern
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On the morning of June 14, 2017, at a practice field for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, a man opened fire on the Republican team, wounding five and nearly killing Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise.
In heart-pounding fashion, Scalise’s minute-by-minute account tells not just his own harrowing story, but the stories of heroes who emerged in the seconds after the shooting began and worked to save his life and the lives of his colleagues and teammates.
Scalise delves into the backgrounds of each hero, seeking to understand how everyone wound up right where they needed to be, right when they needed to be there, and in possession of just the knowledge and experience they needed in order to save his life. Scalise takes us through each miracle, and each person who experienced it. He brings us the story of Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Army Reserve officer and surgeon whose combat experience in Iraq uniquely prepared him for the attack that morning; of the members of his security detail, who acted with nearly cinematic courage; of the police, paramedics, helicopter pilots, and trauma team who came together to save his life.
Most important, it tells of the citizens from all over America who came together in ways big and small to help one grateful man, and whose prayers lifted up Scalise during the worst days of his hospitalization. As we follow the gripping, poignant, and ultimately inspiring story, we begin to realize what Scalise learned firsthand in real time: that Americans look out for each other, and that there is far more uniting us than dividing us.
5:45 PM, Tuesday, June 13th
THE PARKS DEPARTMENT
On the evening of Tuesday, June 13th, a man wandered onto a baseball field in Alexandria, looking around.
It’s a well-kept facility with a slight crown, a gentle rounding toward the middle that helps rainwater drain off the sides. It has the effect of making you feel, when you’re standing right next to it, like it rises above you. It makes you feel small.
The air was cooling off, the heat of an early summer day easing away. A late afternoon fog was beginning to lift, moving north toward the Capitol, as parks department staff finished their work. They dragged the field to smooth out the bumps; they laid down fresh chalk on the baselines.
As the man surveyed the field, something caught his eye.
A gate, on the third base side.
It seemed, from where he stood, to be open.
That was asking for trouble. An off-leash dog trotting in to dig up a divot; kids leaving behind a few longneck mementos of their summer vacation.
The man walked over to third base, closed the gate, and locked it.
Then he left for the night.
5:00 AM, Wednesday, June 14th
Wednesday was going to be a good day.
I’m always a little giddy as we get closer to a baseball game, and going into the last day of practice, I was as excited as ever. I feel almost foolishly lucky that I get to play a child’s game, to go outside and smell the grass and feel the sun and throw a ball around like a kid.
I get to wear a real baseball uniform. Putting on that uniform is as exciting now as it was back in Little League. Back then it was exciting because when I put on a baseball uniform I felt like a grownup. Now it’s exciting because when I put on a uniform it makes me feel like a kid. I would lay that uniform on the bed every night before practice. This time, I’d laid out two uniforms, actually—one for that day, my last day of practice, a University of Louisiana-Lafayette uniform, with the fleur-de-lis and “RAGIN’ CAJUNS” across the top.
And one for the big game the next day. I couldn’t help it.
Next to those two uniforms, I’d laid out my suit for the day. Not as exciting, but even after practice ended, it was going to be a good day at work, because of a deceptively thorny, politically controversial issue we’d finally solved: red snapper.
I know, it sounds trivial, but fishing is a huge part of the culture down in the Gulf, where I’m from—like baseball, a thing fathers do to bond with their children. For years, a disagreement about overfishing persisted between the Department of Commerce, the state governments, and members of Congress, and with no one agreeing on a solution, eventually the Department of Commerce swooped in and cut the fishing season down to just three days.
For years, congressional leaders from the affected states couldn’t agree on a response, so when I decided to take it on, it was against the better judgment of just about everyone whose advice I value. Even the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, gave me that look when I said I was going for red snapper. That roll of the eyes that says, Your funeral.
And yet, over the past few weeks, all the representatives from all the districts affected had gathered in my conference room on the third floor of the Capitol, often after dinner, often staying late into the evening, talking through every single viewpoint, every possible solution, all its merits and unintended consequences. And though it sounds exhausting, really, it’s why I love my job: because in Congress, issues like this abound, issues that seem hyper-specific, even silly, but that impact spending bills, land management bills—all kinds of broader, more obviously far-reaching legislation. And of course, there’s no such thing as a silly or trivial law to those directly affected by one. But when you put members of Congress in the same room together, feed them, and listen to them, often you can actually forge solutions between people who never thought they could agree on anything.
So, after a lot of late nights debating the finer points of red snapper fishing, we finally landed on an idea everyone could agree on, and forwarded our proposal on to the Commerce Department. The evening before that last practice, Commerce called—we’d convinced them.
I just about hollered. We’d solved red snapper! I felt like we’d figured out cold fusion. Commerce was set to announce the new policy, so Chris Bond and Lauren Fine, my communications staff, put together a series of press calls for after practice. I was excited. I was proud.
We would announce the breakthrough after practice.
That morning, as I rode out from D.C. to the small Virginia ballpark where the team practiced, I had some time to reflect on what—at the time—felt like some of the most important things in life.
I thought about my teammate, Kevin Brady, whose committee was drafting the largest tax reform package since 1986 and who was relying on me to help get the votes to pass it.
I thought about the final details for another meeting I had after practice, about reforming the National Flood Insurance Program.
I daydreamed about the next day, walking into Nationals Park, taking my position as starting second baseman, with my wife, Jennifer, and kids in the stands to cheer me on.
I’d always relished these morning rides to the ballpark, because they were probably the only part of the day I had to myself. That early in the morning, even Horton leaves me alone. Brett Horton, the chief of staff for my whip office, who oversees much of my day-to-day activities and tries to squeeze as much as he can out of every hour. If a meeting is cancelled, it’s not a sudden windfall of leisure time to sit in my office and look down the National Mall, pondering its history and all the people who took in the same view, from the same office, before me.
Brett finds a call to fit in or assembles an impromptu meeting in no time flat.
He denies me a few minutes for lunch if I don’t mount a convincing argument.
But even Brett, the hyperactive Tetris master of the Outlook calendar, has to leave the 5:00 and 6:00 AM hours alone. No one, in any time zone, wants a meeting or a call at that hour.
So as I rode out to northern Virginia for baseball practice, U2 on the radio, and no calls to make, in my mind, I was back in the 80s, a high schooler driving out to the sandlot for a pickup game with the neighborhood kids.
That drive was just about as peaceful as life got.
Players started arriving at around 5:30 AM. It was shaping up to be one of those warm, breezy days that bring a smile to your face and seem to carry your cares up into the clouds. Everything was good. Work was good. Life was good. I felt great. Stepping out onto the field, I was excited about practice, and even more excited about the fact that I would get to see my kids the next day. And after the game, my son Harrison would stay in D.C. for a week. The past couple of years my daughter Madison, who is two years older than my son, had spent a week in the summer with me in Washington, tagging along to meetings, always by my side. Those were incredibly special times for me to bond with my daughter and for her to see what Daddy does whenever he gets on a plane to leave for a few days at a time. This year, Harrison was finally old enough to join me, and I had two tickets to a U2 concert. So out on the field, I was thinking, What could be better? I had a few legislative wins behind me, a summer of baseball, father–son bonding, and a raucous concert all lay in front of me.
By 6:00 AM, practice was under way.
By 6:30 AM, we were trash talking, whooping, and zinging the ball around the diamond. Around us, the neighborhood was coming to life. People were jogging, walking their dogs, looking through the chain links to watch us practice.
Soon, more than 30 people were either playing or hanging around the park. The normal weekday throng lined up for their morning fix at Swing’s Coffee, across the street.
People were beginning to arrive at the YMCA, next to the field, for morning exercise classes.
The area was getting crowded.
By 7:00 AM, most of us had been at it for an hour. Some of the players started to leave. I knew I probably should too, but I wanted to stay just a little longer. Just field a few more grounders, make a few more throws, before leaving the field, heading home to shower, and to get ready for the day.
At around the time our team began showing up at the field, an out-of-work home inspector was visiting a storage unit just outside of the city.
He’d been living out of a van in a quiet neighborhood, frequenting a YMCA to use the showers and Wi-Fi.
There, he met the city’s former mayor, who took an interest in helping him, and gave him job recommendations and bar recommendations. On the mayor’s advice, he started frequenting a barbecue joint down the street, putting on his best khakis and polo shirts and going down to nurse Budweiser and Pabst while the other patrons sipped craft brews.
He watched golf on the bar’s TVs. He avoided eye contact. He bothered no one, not deliberately at least, but people noticed him. Bartenders felt a vague sense of unease. He seemed like a strange but probably harmless pensioner, content to quietly while away his afternoons tending to a beer belly and watching golf. He did not talk politics.
At night, alone behind the glow of a laptop screen, he raged. He was roiled by social media, he battled on it, his posts dripping with scorn and hatred toward the Republican Party and President Trump, and the responses to his posts fueled him even more. He was living a kind of double existence. While quiet and unassuming in person, he was angry and confrontational online, a digital flamethrower, a combatant when provided the anonymity of an online avatar.
But by June 14th, something had boiled over in him. His hatred spilled from words into action.
He returned 30 minutes after going to the storage shed. He sat in his van with a clear view of the field, watching as I practiced with all my teammates. He could see us clearly. We could not see him.
There, in his van, with the sound of baseballs pinging off aluminum bats in the distance, he could load his weapons without anyone noticing. It hadn’t occurred to any of us that we made an ideal target: A bunch of congressmen gathered in one place, with no cover, and hardly any protection. When members of Congress are away from the Capitol, only the leadership get any kind of security detail—a grand total of 10 people out of 535.
Very few members of leadership have ever gone to the baseball practices.
Just after 7:00 AM, Jeff Duncan, a congressman from South Carolina, said he had to leave practice and get to work. He gave me a fist bump and hustled off the field, but before he got to his car, he was stopped by a short, chubby man.
“Excuse me, sir,” the man said. “Who’s practicing today? Democrats or Republicans?”
“This is a Republican team,” Duncan said.
Then the man turned around and simply walked away, back across the parking lot to his van.
Duncan got in his car and drove away. He thought to himself, That was odd.
Four minutes later, the man emerged from his van carrying an SKS style semi-automatic rifle with a 40-round banana clip, a fully loaded nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson pistol in a hip holster attached to his waistband, an extra fully loaded 40-round clip for the rifle, and an extra loaded magazine for the pistol—enough ammunition to kill all of us several times over.
He brought his arsenal across the parking lot and toward the baseball field—a big space where a few dozen unsuspecting senators and congressman were fenced in, with virtually no cover. He came toward us, carrying his weapons to the entrance, about to step onto the field and begin his assault—but he couldn’t push the gate open.
The gate on the third base side wouldn’t budge.
It had been padlocked the night before.
The gunman couldn’t get to us. He couldn’t get onto the field. For the moment, his plan to walk up to us and begin an all-out assault was stymied.
Then he saw Congressman Trent Kelly from Mississippi on the other side of the fence but just a few feet away, playing third base.
The gunman raised his rifle and aimed right at Trent’s head.
Trent noticed movement out of the corner of his eye.
He turned just in time to see a rifle barrel pointed directly at him.
Then the man pulled the trigger.
THE PEOPLE OF VIRGINIA’S 7TH
The bombshell went off when I was on the way to dinner. It was three years before that fateful baseball practice, almost to the day, and for me it started, as most major moments seem to these days, with a text message.
I was hosting a small dinner with some colleagues at Acadiana, my favorite Cajun restaurant in Washington. It’s something I did as a way to unwind, catch up, and learn what other members had on their minds.
On that day, I’d forgotten, or perhaps didn’t even know, that some members had primaries.
I didn’t even know that Scott Rigell—who was sitting right next to me riding to dinner—had one, until he started checking in by text message with his campaign team.
“You’re doing fine,” his manager texted him back. “But Eric’s in trouble.”
Scott glanced over at me. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. “They’re saying Eric’s in trouble.”
Scott’s from Virginia. The only “Eric” I could think of from Virginia was Eric Cantor, but it couldn’t be Eric Cantor. Eric Cantor was majority leader. He was one of the most powerful politicians in the country and had a nearly unrivaled campaign war chest. There was no way he’d be having any trouble in a primary.
I texted Lynnel Ruckert, then my chief of staff. “There’s nothing going on in Eric Cantor’s primary, is there?”
Her response came quickly. “Actually yeah. Returns are coming in. Something’s wrong.”
Here it’s important to point out that even if I’d known that Eric Cantor had an election that day, I still wouldn’t have found it worth paying attention to. The latest polling had him winning by 30 points. His opponent had only two paid staffers, raised less than $200,000, didn’t even spend all of that, and was running his campaign with a flip-phone. Eric outspent him 40 to 1. Eric was so far ahead he traveled all over the country raising money for other members of the party.
Perhaps most important, no majority leader had ever lost a primary. Literally, it had never happened.
At Acadiana, as we sat down to dinner, people were starting to buzz.
Did you hear what’s going on in Virginia?
No way. It can’t be.
We were all glued to our phones. With 40% of precincts reporting, Eric was actually losing.
With 50% reporting, the margin widened.
Sixty percent, and the gap was too big to make up.
Just after 8:20 PM, the Associated Press called it: Eric had somehow just become the first majority leader ever to lose a primary.
I was stunned. We all were. Eric is a friend of mine, and a mentor. As we were trying to process those emotions, though, we also all realized, at about the same time, that the party would soon have some big decisions to make. Eric was the House majority leader, and now we knew he’d no longer be in leadership after November. Which meant the party would need a new leader. November wasn’t even five months away. The jockeying for position was sure to start soon, maybe even within the next few days.
Tim Griffin, then a congressman from southern Arkansas (now the state’s lieutenant governor), was at the dinner, and he turned to me and said, “If Cantor’s out, and there’s an opening at majority leader, that means there’s gonna be an opening at whip.”
It was only minutes since polls had closed in Virginia’s 7th; that’s how fast things were happening.
“Steve,” he said, “you should run.”
I could hardly wrap my mind around it. I was still addled. I was still shocked. All I could think was, I need to talk to Jennifer.
Griffin got more adamant. “Steve, you gotta do it.”
I asked the waiter if we could speed up the dinner. More calls were coming in. More people were asking what I was thinking. I needed to call my wife. I needed to confer with my staff. If I was going to even consider trying to make a run, I had no time to waste. Because if I did run, I was going to be running an underdog campaign, compressed into the impossibly short time period of five months.
Then five months became eight days.
With the news full of breathless headlines—“ERIC CANTOR AND THE BIGGEST UPSET IN POLITICAL HISTORY,” read one Washington Post headline; “THE SEISMIC POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF ERIC CANTOR’S STUNNING LOSS” screamed another—Eric decided not to serve out his term. He’d leave early; he’d resign his position. We weren’t losing him in November; we were losing him immediately.
And the speaker of the House, John Boehner, didn’t want the future of the party’s leadership up in the air, not even for five months.
At some point that day, Lynnel called me. “Boss, I’m hearing Boehner’s calling a snap election.”
“Ok. When’s it gonna be?”
“It’s in eight days.”
“It’s in what?!”
“You gotta make a decision now.”
I called Jennifer again, and we had a conversation that deserved to span at least a weekend in a few minutes, but Jen’s attitude has always been that any sacrifice for the country is one worth making. “Steve, our country needs you more than we do right now. You have to do it. We’ll figure it out.”
I had run one successful internal campaign, to become a caucus chairman, but of course I wasn’t in leadership, and never had been.
My opponent, Peter Roskam, was the chief deputy whip, next in line to move up to whip. I was going up against an opponent who was not only well liked and a good fundraiser, but also the sitting whip’s hand-picked successor (Kevin McCarthy was trying to move up and take over for Eric Cantor).
I was essentially going against the shoe-in.
If I was going to even have a chance, I knew I had to make my case to every single Republican in the House.
I had to talk to 232 people.
In eight days.
Lynnel turned our office into a war room. Brett Horton, who was my policy director at the time, set up shop at the conference table in my office, and together we began mapping out calls. We talked through which issues mattered most to all my colleagues, tried to get them on the phone, then tracked the results of each conversation. Members willing to make calls for me—to join my “whip team”—were really the only supporters I could completely count on, because they were going public with their support.
I worked the phones that first night until well after midnight, until my calls went unanswered, and then went home for a just few hours of sleep so I could get up and be back at it first thing the next day.
Then a complication arose: a spoiler candidate jumped in the race. Marlin Stutzman from Indiana announced he was running.
Now I had two opponents to contend with. A three-way race meant it wasn’t likely any one of us could pull more than 50% of the votes, not in just one ballot. Instead, what was likely to happen was that one of us would be eliminated in the first ballot, and the other two would go head-to-head in a runoff.
The plot thickened.
I’d never had to be so focused on time management in my life. My staff got it down to a science. Everyone had a role, and under pressure, they were all at peak performance, setting up calls, prepping me on the issues, tracking the results of the calls to try and gauge how much support I actually had.
When my colleagues headed home for Father’s Day weekend, I stayed behind. Every single minute I was on the phone with a colleague or waiting to be connected, or, sometimes, both.
When my colleagues returned to D.C. after the weekend, a new opportunity arose: each vote series gave me a captive audience. Each time a vote was called, all the members had to go to the House Chamber, so I’d grab a list of calls I hadn’t made yet and head to the floor to track people down.
Meanwhile, the press saw the compressed leadership race as high drama. The normally empty press gallery, a balcony behind the speaker’s rostrum where reporters can—but seldom do—watch members of Congress slowly turn the grindstone of democracy, was full to the brim.
My hometown publications were out in force; the state hadn’t had anyone in leadership since Hale Boggs was majority leader back in 1971.
This was high pressure.
The lights were on.
This was the Super Bowl. Reporters who’d always ignored me started stalking my moves, yelling out questions as I passed about whether I had the votes.
Sometimes when I approached members on the floor, they’d try to avoid me, turning away like I was an incoming process server, waving a lawsuit. That would get my mind reeling. I know he saw me. Is he avoiding me because he’s already committed to Peter? Does he just think I have no chance? Does he not want to waste his vote on me and just doesn’t want to tell me?
Sometimes I’d see someone on my list across the floor, start moving toward him, and then I’d notice one of my opponents angling in the same direction.
The two of us would pick up the pace, both trying to get there first.
Soon we’d both be powerwalking awkwardly across the floor, two middle-aged men in suits racing across the House Chamber, toward one of the few remaining undecided members. Then, back in my office, we’d read press reports after each vote series about whose hand I’d shaken, who turned away when I approached, and what it meant. It was like reading in-depth analysis in which pundits dissected the political intrigue of a high school dance.
Then I got a boost: the Pennsylvania delegation, which had sworn to vote as a bloc, split. Some of my colleagues from the Keystone State committed to me. I was picking up some momentum. Rumors swirled that Marlin was looking to cut a deal and release his votes. Walking back to my office from a vote series, a reporter hollered at me, “Are you negotiating with your opponents?”
“No deals!” I yelled back as the door shut behind me. I was confident—in retrospect, maybe too confident.
But I couldn’t help it. At the moment, I was flying high. The numbers looked good. I felt momentum, and everything was going my way.
Then a setback: Roskam’s camp started saying he had all the votes he needed already locked up. If he really did, that meant I didn’t. And by then, the vote was only a day away. If Roskam had the votes to win in just one round, it was too late for me to do anything about it.
Before the New Orleans Saints played their very first playoff game in the Superdome during the magical 2009–2010 season, head coach Sean Payton gave a pep talk in the locker room. During his speech, he surprised the players with custom-made baseball bats, inscribed with the words:
SAINTS vs CARDINALS.
BRING THE WOOD
JANUARY 16TH 2010
Running back Reggie Bush was so pumped up he ran onto the field holding that bat, and the Saints went on to win the game, then the NFC Championship, then the Super Bowl.
In the closing days of the compressed leadership race in 2014, a friend from back home, Rick Legendre, reminded me of that moment and gave me what I thought was a great idea.
The night before the vote, I gathered everyone on my whip team for a dinner, back where it all started, at Acadiana. I did it as a kind of rally before the vote and had Roger Williams, a congressman from Texas (but more important, the coach of the congressional baseball team), give a pep talk.
The event was mostly for fun, but there was a little strategy to it as well. Since the next day’s vote was a secret ballot, I wanted to bring everyone together, all in one place, so they could see each other, hear each other, feel how big the group really was. It was proof that it wasn’t just bluster, that we really had a chance.
As the dinner was wrapping up, before everyone left, I brought out my surprise—cherry red Marucci baseball bats for every single member of the team. I’d ordered a hundred of them, custom made by Marucci, the same Louisiana company that had made those for the New Orleans Saints; only this time, they were inscribed with a slightly different message:
SCALISE WHIP TEAM 2014
BRING THE WOOD
The place went wild. The bats were a hit! And I felt they were a way of proving that even if we were underdogs, we were a team. And we had style.
- "This is a heart pounding moment by moment account of what happened on the baseball diamond and a much deeper examination of who we are as Americans and what we must do to tone down the hateful rhetoric in today's political conversations."—Newsmax
- "The firefight described in Back in the Game had me on the edge of my seat."—Townhall
- "The gripping and inspiring story about the June 14, 2017 assassination attempt on him and other members of the House Republican baseball team."—Washington Examiner
- "A must-read for all Americans! Despite being targeted and nearly killed for his political beliefs, Steve Scalise came back stronger than ever to keep fighting for our values. He's a true conservative leader, and his story is powerful."—Sean Hannity
- "Riveting! Steve's story can be a lesson for all of us about unity, bridging divides, and how family and friends are what's most important in life."—Congressman Cedric Richmond, D-LA
- "Steve's faith, from the moment of his injury throughout his recovery, is a powerful example to us all, as he and his family trump over the evil that found us on the field that day."—Congressman Brad Wenstrup, R-OH
- On Sale
- Jun 11, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Center Street