First Person

My life as a teenage political journalist

August 14, 2020
Gabe Fleisher, during a 2017 interview for "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee." Screengrab via YouTube.

I read my first book about politics when I was six years old. See How They Run, by Susan Goodman, was, appropriately, a children’s book: a short, funny, illustrated guide to electioneering published in the heat of the 2008 campaign. 

My parents had bought me the book, but not because they intended to raise a future political junkie. Something about the ads on TV and yard signs on my neighbors’ lawns had captured my attention, and they hoped that the book would answer the questions I had been firing at them nonstop about the mechanics of elections past and present. 

See How They Run, though, only whetted my curiosity. Within a few months I was leafing through Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s nearly thousand-page study of Abraham Lincoln’s wartime cabinet.

My fascination with American politics turned into a full-blown passion the following January, when my dad brought my sister and me from St. Louis to Barack Obama’s inauguration. I was seven. “I feel like I’m in one of my books,” I told my dad as we walked out of the Metro station, the Capitol looming over us. The day was freezing cold, but the excitement in the air was palpable. I could feel history unfolding before our eyes. 

By 2011—third grade winding to an end—I was quite possibly Politico Playbook’s youngest devotee. I had also begun to write, imitating the online news articles I was so prodigiously consuming. I started an email newsletter (the sole recipient: my mother) in which I aimed to summarize the political news of the day. In the nine years since, my mailing list has grown to approximately fifty thousand readers. 

I call my newsletter “Wake Up to Politics,” a title I take literally. Every morning when my alarm goes off, I grab my laptop and start the newsletter from my bed (or, as I call it in my email introduction, “Wake Up to Politics world headquarters”). The process takes about an hour and a half, a frenzy of reading and typing, as I scour a range of major news outlets—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, Politico, CNN, and Fox News, among others—and attempt to distill the most important developments into a concise but comprehensive briefing for my readers. Then I publish, and I’m off to school fifteen minutes later—or at least that was my routine until this spring, when the covid-19 pandemic pushed my classes online. 

I wanted to write about politics in a straightforward way that didn’t assume my readers knew everything already—because I didn’t, either.

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Before lockdown orders took effect, I also jumped at any opportunity to leave my bedroom and do my own reporting. I’ve received press credentials to cover visits to St. Louis by Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Vice Presidents Mike Pence and Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other top politicians. Last year I scored a national scoop when I broke the news of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s presidential campaign. 

More recently, I covered two of the last in-person campaign events—a pair of St. Louis rallies hosted by Biden and Bernie Sanders before the Missouri primary in March. And, then, just a few weeks later, I logged on to Biden’s first-ever Zoom press briefing and was one of four journalists called on to ask a question—carrying on with my reporting even through the pandemic. 

Over the years, I’ve often been asked if it’s tiring to always be thinking about politics. Do I ever wish my first thoughts before sunrise were about something other than the president’s tweets or the latest primary results? Truthfully, no. I can’t imagine an alternative. 

“Everyone has a passion,” an elementary school teacher once told me. “You just found yours early.” Many Americans—far too many, in my opinion—only see partisanship and gridlock in politics, but I see the unpredictable ups and downs of electoral ambitions and the dramatic collision of ideologies on a debate stage or on the congressional floor.  

I find politics so much more fascinating than anything in my science or math classes because it is driven not by abstract formulas but by people. (Apologies to my stem teachers.) For every election that follows a predictable outcome, there are others that produce a Donald Trump, or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The annals of political history, if only you care to peruse them, are stocked with unbelievable tales like these, when conventional wisdom was turned on its head because a critical mass of citizens pulled a lever one way or the other. Formed by compelling characters and controversial issues, they make for rich and dramatic stories—and crucially important ones, with the potential to affect American life for generations.  

But why did I turn this love for presidential politics and history into an early career in journalism? Because I wanted to offer an alternative to the political journalism being produced from the Beltway, much of which felt too insidery and partisan. I wanted to write about politics in a straightforward way that didn’t assume my readers knew everything already—because I didn’t, either.

Now my future is a haze of uncertainty. I commemorated my high school graduation with a drive-by parade. I don’t yet know what my college life will look like in the fall. But I’ve continued to send my newsletter each weekday morning, believing there is no more important time for readers to have a news source they can trust, one that reliably offers the latest developments on the historic events roiling our nation: the pandemic, the protests against police brutality, the lead-up to the election.

After ten years, I haven’t lost my love for politics and journalism. I hope I never will—not when I go to college (hopefully) in the fall, and not after that. And I hope I never give up the perspective that I carried as a wide-eyed six-year-old, as I was trying to sort through the complexities and curiosities of our political system. Because, I’ve found, that’s exactly what my readers are trying to do, too.

ICYMI: The campaign begins (again)

Gabe Fleisher is the author of "Wake Up to Politics," a daily political newsletter with nearly fifty thousand readers around the globe. He is also the host of the Wake Up to Politics podcast, produced by St. Louis Public Radio. Gabe has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, and other publications, and has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. He graduated from high school in May and will be attending Georgetown University in the fall.