It was so Washington, the way they met. She was on the dais at a panel discussion on media and politics, holding forth knowledgeably; he was in the audience, smitten. At the steakhouse dinner that followed, Jake Brewer got the courage to walk up to Mary Katharine Ham and give her the hopeful, ambiguous let’s get a drink sometime line.
Then he e-mailed her an invitation to a tech policy luncheon. She never replied.
Soon after, he was sitting at El Tamarindo in Adams Morgan with a friend, and she was beelining for their table. She greeted the mutual friend at his table — and only then turned to him with a friendly stare of non-recognition.
“Hi,” she told Jake. “I’m Mary Katharine Ham.”
It was all so very Washington, for a couple who would become anything but: a conservative pundit married to an Obama White House staffer.
When Jake died Sept. 19 — after he collided with a car during a cancer charity bike ride in Mount Airy, Md. — the 34-year-old technology advocate was mourned on both MSNBC and Fox. His boss, President Obama, released a statement: Jake was proof, he said, that this generation is “capable of making a difference.”
In a superficial sense, Jake Brewer and Mary Katharine Ham were a true D.C. anomaly. Bipartisan relationships have always been fairly rare in Washington, where politics are felt so strongly, and Jake and Mary Katharine were far more than Election Day partisans: Their disparate ideologies shaped their increasingly high-profile careers.
But they didn’t see it that way, Mary Katharine recalled at their home in Alexandria recently. Just because politics defined their jobs didn’t mean it defined their lives.
Mary Katharine, 35, leaned back into their sagging brown couch, tucking her feet to support her pregnant belly — their second child, due in December. She was wearing Jake’s cowboy boots, with his wedding band on a chain around her neck.
It was here on this couch that they had their last fight, where she apologized for starting a political spat — she can’t remember now what it was about — when he was just trying to tell her about his day at the office. She scrolled through her phone, looking for that initial e-mail she had ignored back in 2008. “Would be great to have you there,” he had written. “Not only to have a bit of both sides, but mostly just ’cause I think you’d be great to have regardless.”
She laughed: That was so Jake, always eager to hear the other side even while committed to his own. He seemed like a success at anything he tried — triathlons, photography, singing — and found the same ease in the advocacy work that brought him to the District: first environmentalism, and later government transparency and technology, rising to a top job at the petition Web site Change.org. On the side, he co-founded an immigration advocacy organization, Define American.
Mary Katharine came to Washington a few years earlier in 2004, frustrated with a small-town newspaper job that gave her little outlet for expressing the conservative arguments she was craving. She had grown up in the struggling public schools in Durham, N.C., which convinced her that bigger doesn’t mean more efficient in government. A job at the Heritage Foundation led to opinion-writing gigs; her gift for fast-talking rants and punchy comebacks earned her regular TV appearances opposite Bill O’Reilly and the ladies of “The View.”
Their lives, like their careers, could have existed in these two worlds apart, surrounded mostly by people who agree with them. Washington makes that very easy.
Instead, they went on a date to an Indian restaurant, which led to a ping-pong bar and staying up until 4 a.m. talking about the annual Mule Day festival in Jake’s home town of Columbia, Tenn.
They were both almost 30, and it just worked. They had the same level of energy and talent. As one friend would later say, they were magnetized from the start.
But the elephant in the room wasn’t the silent type. Commenters on liberal e-mail groups fretted that the relationship was a bad idea, that she would snoop through his e-mails, do something to hurt the cause.
When Jake called his mother, Lori, to tell her he’d met someone beautiful and smart and funny, he paused to say, “But there’s something you should know. She’s uh . . . she’s . . . uhm . . .”
Lori screeched: “Oh, my God, she’s Republican !”
Both came to understand the underpinnings of each other’s point of view. Mary Katharine believed strongly that the bigger government gets, the less effective it is. Jake believed strongly that government can be a powerful force for good.
He thought she was sometimes too cynical. She sometimes told him he was too naive. One fight went like this:
Mary Katharine had read a story about the Food and Drug Administration considering limits on the amount of salt allowed in processed food. She began a tirade about federal overreach and the lack of evidence sodium is actually bad for you.
Jake, rhetorically: Are they going to stop me from adding salt to my food?
Mary Katharine: No, but these are free companies, in a free country, they should be able to add salt to whatever they want, so things can taste delicious and be amazing.
Jake, an hour later: Can we please just go to sleep. It’s just salt.
Mary Katharine: It’s not salt, it’s FREEDOM.
Sometimes the spark was the word “illegal” when referring to immigrants. Or a Thomas Friedman column. Or federal procurement policy.
They both wanted a government that worked better for people; they disagreed on how to make that happen. That’s the root of so much partisanship. But instead of calling each other evil, or taking out television ads to knock each other down, they got married.
Clay Johnson, the friend who reintroduced them that night at the restaurant, gave the toast. It was shortly after Obama had released his birth certificate to America/Donald Trump, so Johnson joked that Mary Katharine was so conservative, she insisted on getting both the long and short-form versions of their marriage certificate.
Only half the room laughed.
They continued to shine in their respective careers, their profiles gaining in stature while they worked on the relationship. Mary Katharine gave up on asking Jake to clean his beard trimmings from the sink. Jake gave up on persuading Mary Katharine to buy malbec instead of cabernet. They both learned that it was important sometimes to turn to the other in the middle of the night and apologize for being a jerk.
Married, they could have capitalized on their across-the-aisle relationship — made it their “brand,” a la James Carville and Mary Matalin, with a book deal or a TV gig perhaps.
But anything like that, Mary Katharine said, would have felt false. They weren’t at complete opposite ends of the spectrum; they weren’t even sure they believed in a spectrum. They were fiercely independent, just as they wanted their kids to be. Making themselves a bipartisan sideshow would only get in the way.
Their daughter, Georgia, was born in August 2013. That night, Lori e-mailed Jake a few pages of her journal from 1981, the year he was born. A first-time mom at 24, she had written him a letter for when he became a father.
“Of all the things you will learn and discover,” it said, “I hope one thing for you: that you learn love is the key.”
Babies, they knew, don’t care if you’re a liberal or conservative, or if health-care reform is a good idea. They care if you tuck them into the crib at night singing the only song that will make them sleep, which for Georgia was the Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.”
So when Jake was contacted by the White House with a job offer that would require less traveling than he was doing for Change.org, he decided the time he’d get to spend with Georgia outweighed the awkwardness of telling his colleagues his wife worked for Fox.
He became a senior technology adviser on June 3, right before Mary Katharine published her first book, “End of Discussion,” a critique of political correctness, and right after they learned she was pregnant with their second child. When asked to choose a photo he wanted to hang over his desk, he picked out a frame of Obama and Biden cheering on a veterans’ charity bike race.
The photo was delivered to his office on Monday, Sept. 21, two days after he died.
Mary Katharine couldn’t bring herself to go, so Lori went to the White House to pick up his things. They gave her the race photo, and a yellow sticky note they found on his desk that said, “Cultivate the Karass.”
“Karass”? One of his co-workers looked up the word. It came from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cat’s Cradle.” In it, a karass is described as a team of people on a mission from God that they’re not even aware of, who share a cosmic linkage that’s not obvious on the surface.
You might have found a member of your karass, Vonnegut wrote, “if you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons.”