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Our Favorite People

Welcome to TNR’s 2011 list issue. Earlier this week we named the most over-covered stories, DC’s most over-rated thinkers, and the most powerful, least famous people in Washington. Today’s installment: TNR’s Favorite People in DC.


As the National Association of Evangelicals’ chief lobbyist in D.C. for ten years, Richard Cizik pushed evangelical-supported legislation. That is, until he was ousted in 2008 for his increasingly progressive opinionshe told NPR that his views were “shifting” on gay marriage and implied that he had voted for Barack Obama. Now, he runs the New Evangelical Partnership for the Public Good (NEP), a faith-based nonprofit organization that he hopes will defuse the culture wars and provide more opportunities for dialogue. While we don’t agree with all of the organization’s positions, it provides an important outlet for a more moderate evangelical outlook and takes admirable stances on issues such as climate change, endangered species, and prison reform. It’s also on the right side of history when it comes to gay and lesbian rights. As the NEP states on its website, “We do not believe that denigrating the dignity and denying the human rights of gays and lesbians is a legitimate part of a ‘pro-family’ Christian agenda.”


Barney Frank does not suffer fools. During a town hall in which a constituent compared Obama’s health care reform to a “Nazi policy,” he showed no restraint in his dismissal. “Trying to have a conversation with you,” he said, “would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.” In Washington, most politicians are too scared or just too stupid to go off script. But Frank is neither. And, while his values are unambiguously liberal, he also believes that a lawmaker’s first responsibility is to make laws. His advocacy for financial regulation has been a case in point: The new law that Obama signed in 2010 bearing Frank’s name (as well as Senate sponsor Christopher Dodd’s) made it to the president’s desk because Frank was willing to make the deals necessary to get a bill through Congress. He hasn’t let up since, advocating loudly for the appointment of an aggressive director for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (he was a big Elizabeth Warren fan) and excoriating Republicans who would repeal the measure altogether.


When you hear about “democracy promotion,” someone is very likely talking about Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, the congressionally backed private foundation that supports democratic and civil society institutions all over the world. Perhaps more than anyone else in Washington, Gershman ensures that news of oppression gets out and that opponents of tyranny receive assistance. “I try to bring Democrats and Republicans together,” Gershman has said; faith in democracy is “one of the few places you can go in Washington where people can come together who are at opposite sides of the political fence.” He has been at it, indifferent to partisan U.S. politics, for more than a quarter of a century. Who else in Washington has benefitted so many people in so many places for so many years?


In an era when cable news talkers on both sides smugly repeat the same tropes night after night, Gwen Ifill offers another way of covering politics on television. Her calm, dispassionate style on both “PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week” makes her the antithesis of our current moment in TV journalisma refreshing reminder that watching politics discussed on television does not have to be a thoroughly unpleasant experience.


We finally got it: the anti-Scalia. The past year saw Elena Kagan emerge as the leading voice for the liberal justices on the Supreme Court—a worthy answer to Antonin Scalia’s sharp rhetoric and John Roberts’s analytical acumen. Kagan combines both those qualities. As Jeffrey Rosen pointed out in these pages (see “Strong Opinions,” August 18, 2011), she has the ability “to puncture her colleagues’ bloodless abstractions and tendentious arguments, and to explain the constitutional stakes in plain language that all citizens can understand.” Embodying that rare combination of chutzpah and eloquence, she is likely to play a major role in shaping liberal judicial theory in the coming years.


His record on environmental measures isn’t perfect, and he has fanned conservative paranoia about voter fraud; but, at a time when Republican foreign policy seems to be drifting toward mixed-up isolationism, Republican Senator Mark Kirk has taken up the mantle of sensible internationalism—backing U.S. intervention in Libya, for instance, and pushing for sanctions on the Syrian energy sector. Amid rampant partisan rancor, the moderate Illinois senator has actually demonstrated a willingness to work with Democrats.


Though technically not in Washington any longer, we commend Tom Perriello for his conduct during his brief stint as the representative for Virginia’s 5th congressional district. Knowing his support for the Affordable Care Act and other liberal legislation would cost him dearly, he said: “My ultimate goal is not to get reelected. It’s to know that I did the best damn job I could representing the people of the 5th District and making a difference.” After losing in 2010, he didn’t become a lobbyist. Instead, he left for a six-week trip to the Middle East and Africa, where he worked on peace talks in Sudan. (Before serving in Congress, Perriello had worked for the international prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone—helping to indict Charles Taylor—and has consulted for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Kosovo, Darfur, and Afghanistan.)


Yes, that one. It is not commonly known that the Bard is everywhere in Washingtonthe Folger Shakespeare Library, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Kennedy Center, and any number of black-box stages. Is there any more perfect counterpoint to the ubiquitous blather of the city? While the cowards on the Hill or the equivocators at the White House carry on, there is wisdom aplenty for them on the local stages. What writer, after all, better portrayed the fury of ambition, or the consequences of partisanship, or the tragedies of power?


In a town that doesn’t have much going on in the way of sports, pitcher Stephen Strasburg single-handedly generated interest in the Nationals when he signed a record $15.1 million contract. But, while his debut last year did indeed live up to the epic hype, it was what came next that was truly impressive: a debilitating injury, followed by Tommy John surgery, followed by a painstaking and successful return late this season—suggesting that he might fulfill his immense promise after all. Perseverance is a trait that Washingtonians admire, and Strasburg seems to have it. 


Since the start of the Syrian revolt, Radwan Ziadeh, the U.S.-based head of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, has been one of the most outspoken Syrian activists outside his country—making sure that this potentially transformative uprising doesn’t go unheeded. In the past few months, he has met with Hillary Clinton, testified before the U.N. Human Rights Council, and visited refugee camps in Turkey. His courageous activities apparently have not gone unnoticed by the Assad regime: The government has barred his family in Syria from traveling abroad and his brother was arrested in Damascus in August.

This article appeared in the November 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.