One morning in the spring of 2016, the radio man awoke early at his home in Bethesda, expecting, as he’d done for decades, to swing his legs over the side of the bed, gather his thoughts, and start explaining the strange place called Capitol Hill to tens of thousands of listeners throughout the Southeastern United States.
But on this particular morning, the ideas inside Jamie Dupree’s head stalled before they could come out. The words he could manage to form emerged in halting, breathy pops and high-pitched squeaks. Once clear and precise, his voice was suddenly, terrifyingly, inexplicably slushy.
In the months that followed, the veteran Cox Radio news correspondent’s tongue refused to obey him. It curled. It thrust forward. It wiggled and wandered of its own accord.
It was hard for the 54-year-old father of three to believe. But the realization crept up on him: He’d become the radio man who could not talk. Like a pianist who suddenly can’t control her fingers or a sprinter whose legs cease to move, he’d lost something elemental, something at the core of his identity.
In his mind, he catalogued his worries, replaying them in an endless loop:
Job. Money. Kids. Job. Money. Kids.
Eventually, he made two promises to himself: He was going to figure out the mystery of what was wrong with him and try to beat it. And he was going to figure out how to be a radio reporter — without ever talking on the radio.
Jamie Dupree has occupied the Capitol longer than many of the people he covers. He comes from a family with deep Washington roots. His parents worked on Capitol Hill from the late 1950s to the late 1960s.
In his youth, Dupree was a page in the House of Representatives, then interned on the House Ways and Means Committee. But since graduating from the University of Florida, he has been a radio talker, working for 3½ decades as a reporter in Washington, including the past 29 years as the Washington correspondent for Cox Radio. Until recently, he also was a regular on Sean Hannity’s radio program.
Dana Bash, the longtime CNN correspondent on Capitol Hill, calls Dupree “our Mark Knoller,” a reference to the White House reporter for CBS famous for his vast storehouse of historical knowledge about the presidency.
“He’s just got this encyclopedic knowledge — his colleagues love, respect and worship him,” Bash said of Dupree.
It took a while for Dupree’s fellow reporters at the Capitol to realize that something was wrong. Though his professional life was plunging into crisis, he kept smiling.
But his listeners knew right away. A daily presence in their lives had suddenly vanished. His college friend Robyn Feinberg, who lives in Atlanta, where Dupree is a fixture on the radio powerhouse WSB, got in touch by email.
They talked about his family life. About his wife and three children, now 8, 11 and 13.
“His comments about not being able to talk to his children just broke my soul,” Feinberg recalled.
Dupree sought out the advice of a local ear, nose and throat doctor. He had picked up a stomach bug on a family vacation that ended just before his voice left him, and he thought that might be the source of his problem. The doctor knew there was something larger at play and thought that Dupree might be suffering from muscle tension dysphonia, a tensing of the muscles around the vocal cords that can sometimes be brought on by stress. Another possibility was spasmodic dysphonia, a condition in which spasms of the vocal cords affect speech.
The doctor recommended speech therapy. During sessions, Dupree struggled to read aloud Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop” and “Green Eggs and Ham.”
Therapy didn’t work. Dupree was sick of Dr. Seuss. He was getting nowhere.
He consulted experts at Johns Hopkins University. Over several months they injected Botox into his neck and throat. He saw some improvement — but not enough to resume his radio duties. The side effects were awful, he said in an interview conducted primarily by him scrawling answers on an e-writer called a Boogie Board. At times, he could barely swallow.
Everyone, it seemed, had a theory. Rep. Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican, told him to take more B6 vitamins. Cindy Lankford, a speech pathologist who is married to Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), huddled with Dupree one day to try to glean what might have happened to him.
All the while, he needed to keep doing his job. He turned with more energy to blogging, and he gathered raw sound to feed to his stations from the scrums of reporters who linger outside meeting rooms at the Capitol and catch lawmakers as they get off the Capitol subway.
On a recent afternoon, Dupree joined one such scrum outside a GOP luncheon just as an aide was pushing Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) past the pack of reporters in a wheelchair. In better times, Dupree might have called out, and Isakson surely would have stopped. “He calls me ‘Golden Throat,’ ” Dupree scribbled on the Boogie Board that has become his constant companion. Instead, Isakson just rolled on by.
As his condition has stagnated, Dupree has enlisted the help of a colleague, Dorey Scheimer, who has become a stand-in for the voice he has lost — his words coming out of her mouth.
“Even though it’s my actual voice, they want to hear Jamie,” Scheimer, 28, said. “I’m doing my best, but they still want Jamie.”
At home, Dupree fretted about losing connection with his family. He kept coaching his son's Little League baseball team, with other dads assuming more of the duties he had once handled. But some things can't be replaced, such as the easy banter at home. The worst, he said, "is when you want to reply to your wife, but nothing will come out."
As the months dragged on, he took to experimenting. If his tongue wasn’t going to follow orders, he would try forcing it to do his will. Using a pen to hold it down helped a little, and he now employs that low-tech solution to stammer out a few slurred words.
His college friend Feinberg, who works in the printing business, made up bright red cards for him to hand out. “I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK WITH YOU, BUT . . . I am unable to TALK at this time,” they read.
In April, Dupree drove to the Cleveland Clinic for an examination that led to the most conclusive diagnosis to date: He has a condition known as “tongue protrusion dystonia.”
Basically, it boils down to the inability to control one’s tongue. Doctors and researchers are baffled by it.
"We don't know what causes it, and it's quite rare," Alexander Pantelyat, a neurology expert and director of the Johns Hopkins Atypical Parkinsonism Center, said in an interview.
No one has a sure-fire cure, although Botox injections have given some patients relief, Pantelyat said. A couple of cases of deep-brain stimulation surgery — similar to what’s sometimes used for Parkinson’s patients — have shown good results, he added.
Dupree, whose sister, Jacqueline Dupree, is the intranet editor at The Washington Post, returned home still groping for answers. He has reached out to software developers hoping that they might be able to mash together previously recorded clips of his voice that he could assemble into broadcast reports. He was told that the technology might exist, but firms are disinclined to release it.
“They worried about it being used for sinister purposes,” Dupree said.
He was determined to keep working, and with each passing day, more lawmakers were finding out about his condition. In September, he handed one of the cards Feinberg had made for him to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a longtime Republican congresswoman from Florida.
“She read it in disbelief,” Dupree scrawled on his e-writer. “Gave me a hug and promised to help.”
Earlier this month, Ros-Lehtinen recognized Dupree on the House floor, saying that he is "a perfect example of the positive role that devoted and professional journalists play in our free society."
It was the kind of rare honor more often associated with the end of a career. But Dupree was back in his cramped Capitol office the next morning.
A microphone sits on his desk, silent, unused. It’s kind of in the way. But he keeps it there. Somehow, some way, he hopes he’ll be able to use it again, signing off as he always did: “On Capitol Hill, I’m Jamie Dupree.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Mark Knoller was an Associated Press correspondent.)