Get the best stories to your readers as they happen. The Washington Post News Service streams breaking news, enterprise and features with photos, graphics and video directly to you.

For Garrison Keillor, the woes appear gone

By Paul Farhi
For Garrison Keillor, the woes appear gone
Garrison Keillor onstage at Sellersville Theater in Pennsylvania.

SELLERSVILLE, Pa. - Garrison Keillor seems right at home.

He's deep into telling a new Lake Wobegon story - a particularly absurd and convoluted one about a writer from New York who comes to the mythical Minnesota town to research a book about two local celebrities, a pair of once-conjoined twins named Peter and Paul. Well, there's this dog, see, and he doesn't much like this writer and ...

Really, it doesn't matter, does it? The 79-year-old storyteller and humorist is getting chuckles on all the right beats from an audience of mostly gray heads. The vibe is nostalgia for the nostalgia of Lake Wobegon and a million Saturday nights gone by, when Keillor stood on a stage and told his wry, whimsical stories on "A Prairie Home Companion," the monstrously popular public radio program he created, wrote and hosted for 40 years.

Before the fall of 2017, that is. Before Minneapolis Public Radio cut ties with him after a female colleague accused him of sexual harassment at the height of the #MeToo awakening, and before other allegations of workplace affairs and inappropriate comments swept Keillor, then 75, into a rapid if fitful retreat from the spotlight.

He's spent the past four years trying to find his way back.

On a sparkling October afternoon, Keillor is freshly arrived from New York City, unaccompanied, for an appearance in this handsome little town in the exurbs of Philadelphia's exurbs. The 324-seat theater, a former stable dating to 1894, is almost full. Keillor talks for nearly two hours straight in his warm, familiar baritone, reciting limericks and poetry, reminiscing about growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s, about the joys and pitfalls of his advancing mortality.

He mentions nothing of his fall from grace; if you didn't know about it, you'd have no idea from hearing him. But after leading the crowd through an a cappella singalong of patriotic and religious songs - "My Country 'Tis of Thee," "How Great Thou Art," etc. - he does add a little coda.

"I have no regrets," he tells the room. "I have no regrets. I have enjoyed thinking about my mistakes, and the disasters. ... It's all amusing at this point. Ambition is gone. Thank you, Jesus!"

The details of Keillor's alleged transgressions are still officially fogged by lawyers, settlements and nondisclosure agreements. Most of his accusers have not gone public, including the woman whose complaints triggered his dismissal. But some elements of the key allegations that precipitated his downfall - which involve the unnamed female colleague's accusation that he attempted to grope her - have spilled out, in part due to Keillor's attempts to defend himself with occasionally shifting accounts that minimize, blur or excuse his own conduct.

The news was at odds with Keillor's public persona as the gentle, avuncular satirist of Midwestern puritanism. But coming squarely in the middle of #MeToo movement - the accusations broke on the same day NBC fired "Today" show host Matt Lauer - the fallout was swift and harsh. Minnesota Public Radio, Keillor's longtime broadcast partner and "Prairie Home's" distributor, announced it was severing ties with him, scrubbing all 1,557 episodes from its archives - decades of Lake Wobegon stories, Guy Noir sketches and Powdermilk Biscuit jingles. Keillor's longtime publisher, Viking-Penguin, dropped him; The Washington Post ended his weekly column.

Soon, "Prairie Home" itself was gone, too. Though Keillor had retired and handed over hosting duties a year earlier, MPR changed its name to the amorphous "Live From Here." The official statement was as cold as the Minnesota winter: "MPR will end its business relationships with Mr. Keillor's media companies effective immediately."

Keillor had once made the cover of Time, hailed as a latter-day Mark Twain or Will Rogers. But at an age when he might have kept busy accepting lifetime achievement awards, he was suddenly radioactive, a pariah.

"It was a cancellation," Keillor says in an interview, one of the few he's given in recent years. "It's something you dread. The child in you dreads it. The ostracization."

He quickly rationalizes: "If it happened in my 40s (at the peak of his success), it would have been horrible, devastating. But it didn't. I was winding down, going back to the solitary life of a writer. And then covid came along. We've all been locked in."

Keillor is sitting on a couch backstage at the Sellersville Theater. He's a big, slow-moving man, with an owlish face, an unruly spray of hair and eyebrows like tumbleweeds. He wears red sneakers over red socks, a kind of trademark.

"It's unjust," he continues, "but compared to what? I'm living most of the time in New York City. Every day, there's something in the paper that breaks your heart. Kids finding used needles in the park, getting stuck and contracting HIV. A van carrying migrants crashes and kills innocent people. ... What is my injustice compared to these things? Nothing."

Regardless of what he says onstage, he does have a few regrets. But they are about family and friends he ignored when "Prairie Home" was reaching 4 million listeners a week and Keillor was being lionized as an American original. "I've made a number of wrong turns," he admits. "When you're 79, you can't help it."

But no regrets about that. And as he's made clear since 2017, he's not apologizing.

- - -

Two things become immediately clear in talking with the fans who've come to hear Keillor speak in Sellersville. One is that they're not really sure what his public shaming was all about. The second is that whatever it was, they forgive him.

"I'm glad he wasn't canceled too far," says Collin Klamper, a Keillor fan who drove three hours from Washington's Maryland suburbs. Klamper, 49, said he "never understood the details" surrounding Keillor's disgrace, but "it felt silly to me. It seems like an overreaction. It's a sad state of affairs."

Trish Sneddon, 64, was puzzled, too. "It didn't really make sense to me," coming so late in his long career, she said. Sneddon began listening to Keillor in 1980 when "Prairie Home" went on a national satellite uplink. Now she's here with her son, Ozzie, 25, who started listening to Keillor at 10. "For us, in a way, Lake Wobegon became real," she said. And so the details of what he was accused don't seem very important. "Does what happened negate an amazing body of work over a lifetime?" she asks. "It doesn't for me."

If his fans remain hazy on how Keillor got himself in trouble, it may reflect the passage of four years since the accusations first made news - and Keillor's effort to subsequently present his own highly sanitized retelling of the events that brought him down, in his 2020 memoir, "That Time of Year."

In his account, he was the victim, not the villain: His accuser - a woman who had done research and written for the program for 13 years - conspired against him with a former writer and director of the show, he wrote. He alleges that both sought severance payments after Keillor retired from "Prairie Home" in 2016 and his successor, musician Chris Thile, replaced them with a new creative team. Keillor claims that both wanted more money than they were offered - and found common cause in a conspiracy to soak him and MPR.

"They drew up a list of allegations against me and MPR, demanding cash and confidentiality," he wrote.

Keillor cops to nothing more than a long-running consensual email "flirtation" with the woman. Among the thousands they wrote to each other, he acknowledges that he once confessed a desire to "lie in a hammock" with the woman, a chaste and particularly Keillor-esque image. As he describes it in his memoir, "We were just two aging adults having an adolescent fantasy."

There was "no unbuttoning," he writes, no physical contact - except once, which Keillor describes as a fleeting and misunderstood gesture: When the woman sought consolation from him one day in 2015, he said he placed his hand on her bare shoulder to show his support. She winced, he apologized and that was that: "(We) stayed friends until her attorney demanded the money."

Except it's not that simple.

Keillor writes of his shock at finding himself on the front page of the New York Times along with other men felled by #MeToo allegations, baffled that "the writer of flirtatious emails" could be equated to "rapists and brutes who exposed themselves and threw women up against walls."

Yet his version of events ignores or elides many of the crucial details previously made public, many of which challenge his self-portrayal as wronged and misunderstood.

In 2018, an internal investigation by MPR concluded that Keillor engaged in "dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents" with his accuser over several years. The woman, who has never been publicly identified, described instances of "unwanted sexual touching," according to MPR's then-president, Jon McTaggert. He declined to enumerate them.

McTaggert acknowledged that a former employee - a "Prairie Home" writer and director later identified as Dan Rowles - had brought the woman's allegations to MPR's attention as he was leaving the program. But McTaggert denied Keillor's assertion of a conspiracy. (Under a later settlement with Keillor, MPR restored online access to the "Prairie Home" archives; a spokesperson declined further comment).

Joni Thome, the Minneapolis attorney who represented both Rowles and the woman, also disputed Keillor's suggestion that her clients had conspired against him. "That did not happen," she said firmly.

In the wake of Keillor's departure, reporters at MPR News - an outfit owned by MPR - interviewed dozens of former colleagues and subordinates and found several women who felt "mistreated, sexualized or belittled" by him, including a college student inspired by a class he taught only to have him proclaim his attraction to her when she inquired about an internship with his production company.

"It was a bigger blow to my confidence than I realized at the time," Lora Den Otter told MPR. "It made me sort of more easily give up on wanting to be a writer because that self-doubt became a lot stronger."

The MPR report also stated that Keillor, who is married, had at least two extramarital relationships with women on his staff. (Keillor has acknowledged one such relationship but denied others.)

MPR News also uncovered an instance in 2012 when Keillor wrote an off-color limerick, referencing (though not naming) a young woman who worked at a bookstore he owned in St. Paul. Keillor rhymed her alma mater, Macalester College, with the lines, "the way she is built/could make a petrified phallus stir."

Keillor posted his creation on a whiteboard behind the cash register. Employees said they were taken aback by the verse but feared Keillor's disapproval if they removed it. Instead, they covered it up with books and a portrait of St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald. Eventually, a manager erased it. (A friend of Keillor's said he wrote the limerick after suffering a mild stroke and doesn't remember the incident but has apologized for it.)

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune later reported that the MPR staffer at the center of the original complaint had complained about Keillor's advances to managers and colleagues at his production company on five occasions starting in 2011; she also reported three instances of unwanted physical contact. Among them was an allegation that Keillor had placed his hand on her leg during a 2015 car ride, and that in 2011 he had "trailed his fingers up and down her left thigh" in the show's production office. No remedial action was ever taken by the company, the paper reported.

The Star-Tribune also quoted several emails Keillor and the woman exchanged, paradoxically supplied by Keillor himself in an effort to defend himself. Keillor's emails to the woman became more "threatening" the longer she rebuffed him, a "close family friend" of the woman told the newspaper.

"I have sent an e-mail to GK just now," she wrote to a co-worker in 2011, according to the paper. "He will understand, upon reading it, that I want nothing to do with him apart from a working friendship. ... I feel sad and nervous."

Kate Gustafson, managing director of Keillor's production company for two decades, denied last week that she received any complaints about his behavior from the woman. She maintains that Keillor's "MeToo moment" was "blown out of proportion" in the news media, though she said she's not at liberty to provide a blow-by-blow defense. She called him "the most generous person I know."

Keillor is dismissive if not outright contemptuous of the reporting about him. "MPR News got a Sigma Delta Chi Award for locating five women who left the show feeling unhappy," he wrote in his memoir. "Somebody could write the same story about former MPR employees and win a Pulitzer Prize."

It was Keillor himself who related the incident in which he said he placed his hand on his staffer's shoulder to console her. But his account of that moment has changed over time.

Keillor told the Star-Tribune in 2018 that he touched the woman's shoulder and then "my hand slipped under the leading edge of her blouse," suggesting inadvertent contact. She recoiled, he said, and he apologized.

But in an email sent to the woman in 2016 and revealed by the Star-Tribune in 2018, he acknowledged that the "slip" wasn't an accident. He wrote that he was sorry he "impulsively put my hand under your shirt."

Two years later, Keillor's memoir airbrushed all of this. There's no mention of blouses or wandering hands, only a little story of consolation and forgiveness - for him. "(I) put my hand on her bare left shoulder by way of comforting her, and she winced," he wrote, "and I wrote her a note of apology the next day and she forgave me."

- - -

And now, like Al Franken and Louis C.K. - two other humorists whose highflying careers hit a brick wall in 2017 amid sexual-harassment accusations - Keillor has embarked on a comeback tour.

Early last year, though, news of his return to live performances ignited pushback on social media. Minnesota's Feminist Justice League announced plans to picket a scheduled appearance in Duluth, arguing that Keillor "never took accountability for the ways he made female co-workers feel sexualized and harassed." Keillor's booking agency canceled the show. A benefit performance for the Woman's Club of Minneapolis was canceled, too.

When a Twin Cities magazine, Mpls.St.Paul, ran a cover story about Keillor's would-be comeback in late 2019, a columnist quit in protest: Famous men, Nora McInerny wrote, "get to be multidimensional in a way that accusers and survivors do not."

Some event promoters have had trouble getting out the word about Keillor's shows. A few public radio stations declined to accept ads promoting him for fear of alienating listeners and donors, Gustafson said, which cut him off from his most avid fans.

But judging by the enthusiasm in Sellersville, some of the heat may be dissipating. Bruce Ranes, the theater's general manager, said he had some qualms about booking Keillor but encountered no dissent - and the show was a financial success.

Keillor's 14 bookings this fall are taking him to such small towns as Menomonie, Wis. and Jim Thorpe, Pa., and small venues near bigger cities, such as the Birchmere music hall in Alexandria, Va. (Birchmere management declined to comment on the show.)

Keillor professes to being oblivious to all of this. He says he spends most of his days writing, typically rising around 5 a.m. and working alone and uninterrupted until noon. He lives with his third wife, violinist Jenny Lind Nilsson, in New York and Minneapolis. He is writing a twice-weekly column that he publishes through the Substack email-newsletter service and two books he will self-publish next year - one on "the beauty of getting old," and a new Lake Wobegon novel, "Boom Town."

The plot involves the changing complexion of what Keillor dubbed "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve." But time has no longer forgotten Lake Wobegon: Millennials have moved in, as has a company that makes a health remedy extracted from tomatoes, transforming the wheat and soy fields into vast tomato patches attended by Mexican farmworkers. Several of Keillor's familiar characters, who'd never aged in all the decades he's told stories about them, finally meet their end.

Keillor recognizes that the story reflects his own advancing age. But another theme breaks through: Even in a self-constructed world, you can't stop change.

What is Tommy Tuberville doing here?

By Ben Terris
What is Tommy Tuberville doing here?
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill on Oct. 6. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON - Tommy Tuberville had a decision to make. So did the other Republican senators huddling with him in the storage closet.

It was Jan. 6, right-wing rioters were ransacking the U.S. Capitol, but these lawmakers were already in a secured part of the complex and had been milling about a hearing room with a larger group of senators. They weren't hiding from the mob. They were hiding from their colleagues.

The group, led by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., had planned to object to the certification of Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential campaign - a gesture of solidarity with President Donald Trump, who had spent months trying to overturn his loss. The siege of the Capitol by Trump's supporters, however, had some lawmakers thinking that formally objecting to Biden's victory might be a bad look.

So into the closet they went, for privacy's sake - around a dozen Republicans, including the Alabama newbie known as "Coach."

"You've got 25 seconds to call a play," Tuberville said recently, thinking back on the scene. "You can't call a bunch of timeouts."

It was the former college football coach's first full day in the Senate, and already he was being called off the sidelines. Earlier on Jan. 6, Trump had wanted to talk to Tuberville but called Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, by mistake; Lee had handed Tuberville a cellphone in the Senate chamber. Tuberville said he didn't have time to find out exactly what Trump wanted. Vice President Mike Pence had been whisked to a secure location, and Tuberville and his colleagues had to get moving, too. "I know we've got problems," Tuberville recalled the president saying before the call ended. "Protect yourself."

Inside the storage closet, a bunker within a bunker, surrounded by stacked furniture, the senators weighed whether the mob's demonstration of loyalty to Trump that day might affect their own.

"There were 12 of us gathered to talk about what happens now, where do things go from here," said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

The mood was "very heavy," remembered Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.

"I do remember saying we have to pull the country together," said Lankford, "We are so exceptionally divided that it's spilling into the building."

"I didn't really listen to them," Tuberville said about the closet colloquy.

He does remember a few details. "One thing that was brought up was that people were hurt," he recalled in one of several interviews with The Washington Post. Plus, Biden was going to end up president, whether they objected or not. "Do we want to continue this," Tuberville remembered his colleagues mulling, "if there's not going to be a result we are looking for anyway?"

Some Republican senators changed their minds after the closet huddle, but Tuberville's vote was not in question. Coach stuck with the play and formally objected to certifying the electoral college votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Nevermind that neither election administrators nor the Justice Department had found evidence of voter fraud at a meaningful scale. Or the subsequent warnings from democracy experts such as Rick Hasen, co-director of the University of California at Irvine's Fair Elections and Free Speech Center, who told The Post that Tuberville and his fellow defectors had ratified the violent actions of the insurrectionists, and Ian Bassin, executive director of the nonprofit Protect Democracy, who said that they had made it more likely that the next attempt to overthrow an election will succeed.

And nevermind any consideration Tuberville might have owed to his new colleagues. "I see those 13 enablers, along with the president, as trying to destroy this country," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told The Post in February, a few weeks after the attack.

"I wasn't voting for me, I was voting for the people of Alabama," Tuberville recently told The Post. "President Trump has an 80% approval there. I told them, 'I'm going to vote how you want me to vote.'"

Tuberville owes his Senate seat to Trump's endorsement. His primary opponent, Jeff Sessions, had angered the president when, as attorney general, he recused himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. "He immediately ran for the hills," Trump said of Sessions at a campaign rally for Tuberville. And so Alabama voters sent Coach to Washington - a living, voting example of Trump's vengeance against anyone more loyal to checks and balances than they are to him.

In the nine months since, however, Tuberville has surprised people by declining to play the role of MAGA firebrand. He's been trying to position himself as a relationship builder and an aspiring insider. He's hired staff from outside MAGA world. He's done PSAs about getting vaccinated against the coronavirus. He called Trump's rhetoric leading up the Jan. 6th a "mistake." And while he believes there were "some problems" with the 2020 election, he is not yet convinced that voter fraud caused Trump's loss.

That said, Tuberville is not sorry about voting against certifying the election.

"I have no regrets," he said.

This is a story about Tommy Tuberville, but it's also a story about Jan. 6, and what comes next for pro-Trump Republicans who want to forget what happened last winter while remaining loyal to a leader who won't let it go.

Coach, like most members of his party, is not dwelling on what happened on Insurrection Day. But if a new senator casts a vote at odds with the very foundation of democracy, what makes him think he can just move on?

- - -

On a recent day at work, Tuberville spotted Tester - the flat-topped Montana senator who'd called him and his cohort enablers in Trump's bid to destroy the country - and asked for his autograph. "I've got to get you to sign our class picture," Tuberville said. "I'm trying to get all the stars."

"I feel honored," Tester replied.

It was late September, and temperatures had cooled.

"The first six months here were totally miserable," said Lummis, who had also doubled-down on objecting to certifying Biden's victory. "It's gotten so much better."

"It still troubles me," said Tester, thinking back on Tuberville's Jan. 6 vote. "But you have to compartmentalize here." Plus, the Montana Democrat added, "He's a good guy."

Score one for Coach, who seems well-suited for the country's most-exclusive comity club. Tuberville is 67, with a helmet of salt-and-pepper hair. He led four NCAA Division I football programs over two decades, including a lengthy stint at Alabama's Auburn University, and his celebrity has allowed him to arrive to Washington with the kind of social capital most freshman lawmakers could only dream about. Military generals turn into little kids asking him about his coaching days, according to someone who works in Tuberville's office who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the environment there. And that's to say nothing of his fellow lawmakers.

"Hey, Coach!" said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., slapping Tuberville on the back as they passed each other in the hallway.

"Coach!" called out Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., his voice echoing through the rotunda. "Thanks for saying nice things about me in Florida the other day, that got back to me."

Walking through the Capitol, Tuberville seemed at ease, trading banter in a deep drawl that makes him sound like the actor Sam Elliott.

"Them Bulldogs didn't do it!" he hollered to Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., as they passed each other on an escalator, referring to a narrow loss by Mississippi State's football team.

"Nice question in there," he told Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as they left a weekly Republican policy lunch. "It's good to flood the zone."

"Flood the zone," Collins repeated, laughing. "Even I know what that phrase means."

Unlike certain other Trumpy newcomers like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., or Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., with their ostentatious contempt for the "Democrat Party," Tuberville has approached his more liberal colleagues with a "the-dude-abides" geniality. He's swapped stories with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., over glasses of wine and made plans to tour the NASA facilities in Alabama with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Tuberville said he chats with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., at least once a week and has been a guest on the Democrat's houseboat, where he recalled talking football with Pete Buttigieg, Biden's transportation secretary.

When you're trying to make friends and influence people who might be tempted to hate your guts, it helps to be a fun guy to be around. And Tuberville, a fan of bad jokes, good gossip and cringey sports metaphors, is easy to like. "I've been around coaches for 40 years," said Paul Finebaum, a college football talk-radio host known as the Mouth of the South. "And he is the most easy-going guy to talk to - on the golf course, over dinner."

It was a skill that served him well in his previous career. As a coach Tuberville earned a nickname of his own, the Riverboat Gambler, for his impetuous play-calling. But he also understood - as Trump seems to understand - that success is built in the offseason, when a coach stacks his roster with players who can be trusted to execute with the game on the line, no matter how questionable the play-calls.

"When you're recruiting players, (coaches) have to say a lot of stuff. It may not necessarily be true," Devin Aromashodu, who played wide receiver for Tuberville at Auburn, told The Post in 2020. "But I do know that he's very, very persuasive."

Tuberville was also legendary for his capacity to move on - sometimes abruptly. In 1998, when he was head coach at the University of Mississippi, he declared that the only way he'd leave Ole Miss was "in a pine box;" he took the Auburn job a few days later. In 2012, when he was head coach at Texas Tech, Tuberville was out to dinner with a group of potential recruits when he excused himself to take a phone call, which turned out to be the University of Cincinnati offering him a job; he never returned to the table.

Ambitious. Enthralled by the spotlight. Always in search of a better opportunity. It's no wonder Tuberville got into politics.

"It didn't surprise me that he threw his hat in the ring for a bigger seat," Robert Khayat, who was chancellor at Mississippi while Tuberville coached there, said about his decision to run for office. "I thought that sometime during his tenure at Ole Miss, his ego became a little bit out of balance. Maybe a lot out of balance. "

The reasons Coach cites for getting into government are those of a pre-Trump, standard-issue Republican. He says he wants the government off the backs of job creators and out of schools. He's a conservative Christian. As the son of a World War II officer, he speaks of a lifelong love of the American military.

Winning in this era, however, only required one play: Hand it to Trump.

"God sent us Donald Trump," Tuberville said in a campaign ad, "because God knew we were in trouble." He warned of foreigners changing the country from within. "Folks," he told a gathering of Alabama Republicans last summer, "they're taking over, and if we don't open our eyes, it is going to be over with."

He avoided interviews, ducked debates and offered little by way of policy proposals. It didn't matter. He blew out Sessions in the primary, then coasted to victory over Democrat Doug Jones in November.

Afterward, Tuberville kept parroting the president. In December, at a rally in Georgia, he said that Democrats had been willing to "lie, cheat and steal" to take back the White House.

"It's impossible, it is impossible what happened," he told the crowd, referring to Trump's defeat. "But, we're going to get that all corrected."

Soon, Trump was hyping the idea of Tuberville abetting a procedural revolt on Jan. 6, to the dismay of the GOP's Senate leadership.

"It's his training as a football coach," said Khayat. "If you find a play that works, you keep calling it until it stops working."

- - -

Being a senator isn't all shaking hands and making laws. It's also about holding people accountable. So when the Pentagon brass visited the Capitol to answer questions about President Biden's military withdrawal from Afghanistan in a closed hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tuberville wanted to make sure he had a good question to ask the generals. But first ...

"Coach, we have Miss Alabama waiting in the other room."

"Oh! Miss Alabama," Tuberville replied.

He turned to his national security adviser, Morgan Murphy, who had accompanied him into the waiting room of his office.

"Morgan, can you get me a question?" he said.

"I'll have one for you," Murphy assured him.

Delegating comes naturally to Tuberville. As a coach, he fashioned himself as more of a chief executive than an X's-and-O's guy, according to Tony Franklin, one of Tuberville's former offensive coordinators.

"You can be a guru type, genius coach that understands every aspect of the game and is creative and innovative," said Franklin. "Or you can be just a politician, manager, money-raiser. And that's what Tommy was."

When he became a senator, Tuberville expressed interest in trying to get a handle on the rules and strategy. "I want to learn the fundamentals, how it all works, to where every day when I'm there, I understand it," he told the Alabama Daily News in November. (In the same interview he misidentified the three branches of government as "the House, the Senate and the executive.") Sure enough, Coach has become a student of the institution whose norms he'd subverted on his first full day: an eager rookie who will dutifully sit through hearings, even as his colleagues duck out early.

"It's a different playbook here," Coach told The Post, "and it's like it's in a different language."

He's working his way through it, one metaphor at a time.

"You've got a lot of head coaches here," he said. "Especially in the Senate, you have 100 head coaches here."

"We've got an offense and a defense here, but ultimately we're on the same team."

For all his learnings, Tuberville has shown little curiosity about the X's and O's of what happened before and during Jan. 6 - even the plays that were drawn up to include him.

On the evening of Jan. 6, as law enforcement regained control of the Capitol, Rudy Giuliani left a voicemail for Tuberville on Sen. Lee's phone. (He, like Trump, apparently had the wrong number.) In the message, which was posted online by The Dispatch, Giuliani asked Tuberville to object to 10 different states and give the president's team "a fair opportunity to contest" the election.

In May, Tuberville helped the Republicans narrowly block an independent, 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection. Nevertheless, the contours of Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election have come into sharper focus in recent months: In their book "Peril," Robert Costa and Bob Woodward detailed a hail-mary scheme from a conservative lawyer to have congressional Republicans circumvent the certified state electors - and the voters - on Jan. 6 and declare Trump the winner of the election.

Tuberville told The Post he knew nothing about all that. He says he's not sure he's even listened to the voice message Giuliani tried to leave for him.

"I'm trying to keep up with things going forward," he said. "If I look back, I get all confused."

- - -

'I've never done cocaine," Tuberville told Lauren Bradford, Miss Alabama, "but they say it's really good."

The were talking about the addictiveness and dangers of social media. Coach had digressed.

Bradford laughed, and then everyone posed for pictures.

A lot of outsiders come to Washington just so they can spend their time hating on it. But Coach loves this stuff - cracking up Miss America contestants, quizzing four-star generals. In September, he traveled to Europe with a handful of colleagues including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and met the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

"He was the president on their version of 'House of Cards,'" the senator noted with amusement.

Tuberville was back in his office. A painting of his undefeated 2004 Auburn team hung on the wall. A Coach Tuberville bobblehead, produced in 2002 for distribution by Arby's restaurants, sat on the shelf behind his desk.

"I've got enough of this stuff to fill 10 offices," he said of his football memorabilia.

Coach is a hoarder - at least that's the word he says one of his two adult sons uses. There's a barn on his property in Alabama where Tuberville keeps most of his mementos along with a seemingly endless inventory of furniture, paintings and home decor accumulated over years of moving on. His wife, Suzanne, has been trying to get him to throw some of it out, so far with little success. It's not that Tuberville is all that sentimental about "all that crap" - he just can't seem to get rid of it.

Some stuff just sticks.

Jan. 6 is something that has stuck, not just to Tuberville but the whole Republican party. Far from moving on, Trump's obsession seems to have deepened: Last week, he referred to solving "the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020" as the "single most important thing for Republicans to do." Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, has been barnstorming the country holding rallies for "Stop the Steal" crowds. And after Republicans in Arizona spent months conducting a dubious "audit" of the last election in Maricopa County (which affirmed Biden's win there, in spite of everything), similar efforts are taking shape in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas. More than 6 in 10 Republicans believe Biden's win was fraudulent, according to multiple polls, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

"The fact that it's being swept under the rug and treated as another political moment is incredibly dangerous," Rick Hasen, the election law expert, said about the insurrection and its aftermath. "You could see this as a low point in American politics, or you could see it as a dress rehearsal for what's to come."

Or, to put it in more-familiar terms: Jan. 6 might have been practice. The play didn't work, but that doesn't mean Team Trump hasn't been building on the schemes in the offseason.

Tuberville made it clear on his very first full day in office, huddling in the closet with his new teammates that he was no longer a head coach; he's now a player. And when the next play call comes in, everyone knows which side he'll be on.

In late August, Trump appeared at an Alabama rally where he would once again decry the "most corrupt election in American history" and assure his followers that "the evidence of the fraud is monumental, and more is coming out."

But first, the crowd would hear from the former president's supporting act.

"We got the best two things coming," Tuberville told them. "We got football coming right around the corner, and we got Donald Trump right back here!"

- - -

The Washington Post's Kent Babb and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

His collection of miniatures from around the world fills 16 rooms. And he's not done yet.

By Eddie Dean
His collection of miniatures from around the world fills 16 rooms. And he's not done yet.
Detail of a

It's Sunday in a typical village in Venezuela. The Mass in the cathedral is over and the market square is packed. There are fishmongers and queso fresco vendors and a newspaper hawker and kids playing hide-and-seek and other games, and, in the center of the commotion, a cow that's parked itself near the church door.

The figures are as small as Jorge Flores's eyeballs as he peers into the window of the barbershop, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput. He points out an inch-high man getting a shave next to another tiny customer reading a newspaper. Then his eyes dart back out to the crowd, where he points to a girl in a ring-around-the-rosie circle who's tumbling to the ground after losing her grip in the chain of hands.

"This is a very funny moment the artist put into the scene," says Flores with an impish smile. "That's what miniatures are all about - the details and the craftsmanship and the charm. This is art. It doesn't have to be a Raphael to deliver a message of joy and fun."

The elaborate and exuberant set of nearly 200 pieces, molded from clay and hand-painted in vibrant colors, was made by a woman in a craft shop in Caracas more than 50 years ago. It's one of thousands of such miniatures from around the world displayed in the Potomac, Md., home of Flores, 74, who has spent a half-century amassing his collection.

There are strutting roosters from Portugal; a pearl from China handwritten with poetry; Navajo Kachinas dancing in feathered ceremonial regalia; trolls from Norway; a marimba band from Mexico whittled from toothpicks; bronze gods and cornhusk dolls from Nepal; model ships from Vietnam; an ebony Noah's Ark from Malawi; a half-inch Don Quixote twisted from a single strand of wire; minuscule food dishes from Thailand; a spotted cow from Germany licking its side with a tongue out of a Tex Avery cartoon; a sandalwood figurine from India of a Rajasthani woman in a traditional dress, with hidden pocket-drawers that reveal famous royal maharajahs and epic battle scenes with warriors and elephants; and a street peddler from the Salvadoran town of Ilobasco (when you lift the lids of her pottery, there are also "live" armadillos for sale).

Flores's vast mini-world fills 16 rooms. It's a staggering display of visually arresting objects that can be an overwhelming experience when you take the host-guided tour. Just when you think you've seen - or maybe hallucinated - it all, Flores ushers you into yet another room with shelves of more small-scale wonders waiting their turn in the spotlight. By his own estimation, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 figures in roughly 4,000 sets.

Incredible as it may seem after viewing his stash, Flores is a discriminating, finicky connoisseur who rejects most of what he comes across in his never-ending quest. He has strict criteria for what makes the cut: The piece has to be handmade and meet his standards of creativity and workmanship. Most important, it has to bring a smile to his face.

Most of the sets come with a backstory about the artist and how Flores tracked the piece down in a far-flung part of the globe. Take one of his favorites, a set of carved wooden figures from Mozambique. It depicts a real-life event during a deadly flood in 2000 when a pregnant woman escaped the rising waters by climbing a tree, where she gave birth. The set features the dramatic scene when she and her baby girl, Rosita, are rescued by helicopter. "Every year on her birthday Rosita is in the newspapers with a new photo and story about her life," he told me. "They still remember her in Mozambique."

As with many of the countries represented in the collection, Mozambique is not just a place on a map for Flores. He worked on malaria vaccines with a clinic based there during his time as an infectious diseases expert with the National Institutes of Health.

In the last decade, his collection has more than doubled in size, and he has become a patron as well as a collector. He and his partner, Elizabeth, who accompanies him on search expeditions, have befriended many of the miniatures artists. One is the Jangid family of Jaipur, India, who come from a long line of traditional wood carvers. The exquisitely wrought figurine of the Rajasthani woman is one of many pieces he has commissioned from the family. For Flores, it's a way of not only adding to his stash but helping to financially support the practitioners of a dying art.

"They are poets," Flores says of the artists. "They enjoy the work they do. It brings out their soul and goes into every piece they make. They have a lot of originality and craftmanship, and they deserve to be known outside their villages."

It was a homely frog prince, tiny as a thumbnail, that first helped spark Flores's obsession. He bought the German-made, painted-wood piece for 70 cents at a shop in Cambridge, Mass., where he was a clinical-research fellow at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s. His collection soon expanded after trips to Mexico, a destination for folk-art miniatures including fleas in traditional dress performing a hat dance.

It wasn't long before the completist streak of his miniature mania took hold. "I think you have to have the passion for collecting that is kind of an unnatural gene defect," he told me. "Collectors collect because they're curious and they want to bring things together and look at them all together. Let's say that I had the New York Yankees in little figurines handmade by a rural artist, and if I didn't have Mickey Mantle, it wouldn't be complete, right? You have to have everyone from the team."

His collection now includes 120 countries, with miniatures hotbeds like India, Mexico, Vietnam, Germany, Indonesia and Japan well represented. Recently he has been able to fill gaps by acquiring hand-stitched figurines depicting a crochety old couple from Montenegro and a set of the earliest Christian churches from Armenia.

A friend and colleague, Dave Keuler, has seen the collection twice. "It's an absolutely jaw-dropping display of artisanal mastery with pieces that reflect so many traditional cultures," says Keuler, a clinical psychologist from Silver Spring. "It captures so much of what's great about what it means to be a human being - that creativity and stick-to-it-ness and passion and desire to memorialize cultures."

An avid antiques collector, Keuler thinks the pieces deserve a wider audience. "It feels like a national treasure," he says, "and I hope it finds a place where it can be enjoyed by people. I hope it doesn't end up in boxes." Indeed, with his recent retirement after 32 years at NIH, Flores says he now wants to find space to open a miniatures museum in Montgomery County.

Recently, Flores acquired several prized sets that were custom-made for him by a Peruvian couple in Lima. The painstaking work took two years from commission to completion, and Flores says it was worth the wait. One is a set of the National Children's Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The artisan mistakenly put two batons in the hands of Dudamel instead of one. When Flores saw the pair of batons, he was delighted. "I won't dare to ever change that," he says, noting that it will give him a teachable moment if school groups ever visit his future museum: He will test the children's knowledge of classical music by asking them what's different about this conductor - aside from being very small.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Romance scams cost consumers a record $304 million as more people searched for love online amid the pandemic.

By michelle singletary
Romance scams cost consumers a record $304 million as more people searched for love online amid the pandemic.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON -- Pandemic loneliness pushed many Americans online in search of a love connection. But a surge in romance scams often left them with an empty bank account as well as a broken heart.

For the past three years, people have reported losing more money on romance scams than on any other type of fraud, according to the FTC's Consumer Sentinel Database. Last year, the reported losses for romance fraud reached a record $304 million, up about 50% from 2019. And many of those losses were reported by older people.

Adults 60 and older reported losing about $139 million to romance scams in 2020, a new report from the FTC finds. That's a significant increase from the $84 million seniors lost to such scams in 2019. It's important to note this is only what people reported to authorities.

In this loathsome scheme, con artists use fake dating profiles to impersonate people looking for romantic relationships. The contact could also start as a friend request or message on a social media platform. The criminals ultimately persuade their victims to send them money via gift cards or wire transfers.

Before covid, schemers made up all kinds of reasons not to meet in person, and the repeated cancellations could alert some people that they were being bamboozled. But the pandemic gave criminals cover. Guidelines on social distancing provided a plausible excuse to keep the relationship online and avoid meeting in-person.

"What scammers do in a romance scam is they make up reasons why they can't meet their supposed love in person," says Kati Daffan, an assistant director in the Federal Trade Commission's division of marketing practices.

The pandemic inspired new twists to the stories that scammers typically use to defraud their victims.

"People reported that their so-called suitor said that he couldn't travel because of the pandemic or canceled a date because of a supposed positive covid-19 test," Daffan said. "Nobody should feel ashamed of coming forward to tell their story if this happened to them because scammers are incredible about coming up with believable stories."

The FTC's analysis is based on self-reported data from consumers. The FBI estimated in its annual Internet crime report that more than 23,000 people lost more than $600 million in confidence fraud, including romance scams, last year. This is up from $475 million in 2019.

These numbers don't surprise Kathy Stokes, director of AARP Fraud Prevention Programs. She also runs AARP's Fraud Watch Network. Many people are still isolated because of the pandemic. They are lonely and, in the case of a widow or widower, grieving. This makes them more vulnerable and susceptible to being generous.

"The pandemic may have driven more people online, whether it was to a dating app or a dating website, or to just engage more in social media or online games," Stokes said.

The problem is the scam can go on for months or years, draining people's life savings.

"And we're not talking just about $1,000 or $10,000," Stokes said. "We had victims call the helpline who have lost half a million dollars. Once they realize that it has been a scam, they are devastated financially and emotionally. And we hear from families where these poor victims end up dying by suicide."

We need to recognize this isn't about people being simply gullible. These scammers are super-sophisticated and organized.

"It's not the guy in his mom's basement making a call one at a time, trying to find somebody to get over on," Stokes said. "It's criminal enterprises, often transnational."

An Oklahoma man was sentenced last month to four years in prison for managing a group of money launderers in an online Nigerian romance scam that stole at least $2.5 million from many victims, including elderly individuals across the United States, according to the Justice Department.

In Texas, 11 suspects have been charged with targeting widowed and divorced seniors on dating sites such as Match.com, Christian Mingle, JSwipe, and PlentyofFish.

The criminals concoct sob stories of needing funds to pay taxes, cover travel costs or pay down debt. In the Texas case, the suspects siphoned tens of thousands of dollars at a time from victims' accounts, the Justice Department said.

There's a lot of outreach to get the message out about scams, especially romance scams. Many victims are often too embarrassed to come forward and admit they were hoodwinked. The FTC's Pass it On campaign provides fraud prevention materials and resources. Share the information with anyone you know who could be a target. AARP has resources at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.

If you know a friend or relative is talking to someone online, pry. Daffan suggests doing a reverse image search, because often the scammers will copy someone's photo as part of a dating profile or pretend to be a real person with a presence online.

Scams fall into the category of "see something, say something." This is a warning for those of you who love someone who is looking for love. Do what you can to help them avoid losing their heart along with their money.

- - -

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Propounding weird language is worsening today's social fraying

By george f. will
Propounding weird language is worsening today's social fraying

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

Advance for release Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, and thereafter

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Today's pervasive sense of social fraying is exacerbated by a proliferation of weird language. National anxiety will find political expression.

Never mind the secretary of homeland security calling the southern border "closed," a garden-variety fib refuted by graphic journalism. And disregard the Biden administration, the supposed restorer of norms, violating not only norms but possibly also laws. A norm: President Joe Biden waited until after the Senate confirmed Lina Khan as a member of the Federal Trade Commission to announce that she would be chair. A law: It is illegal for tax-exempt churches to engage in political activity, but Vice President Kamala Harris has made a video, to be played in Black churches in Virginia, advocating the election of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.

People expect no better from government officials, who are puzzled by voters' reluctance to trust them with multiple-trillion-dollar tranches of their decreasingly valuable money. Speaking of inflation:

Travelers increasingly find cards in their hotel rooms saying, or implying, approximately this: "This facility is so distraught about our imperiled planet that your sheets will not be changed daily unless you selfishly insist." Perhaps altruism actually motivates this money-saving policy. Conceivably, however, inflation is involved: When a business' costs go up, it can pass the increase along to customers -- or it can cut other costs by eliminating services.

The Federal Reserve, which did not foresee today's inflation, foresees it being "transitory." Meaning that it will not be forever. But, then, the laws of thermodynamics suggest that pretty much everything in the universe is transitory. What matters is how long things will last.

Or which large numbers of dollars to worry about. A recent New York Times article was about the "glut," "dizzying amount" and "avalanche" of third-quarter campaign contributions to House and Senate candidates of both parties. The Times was astonished by the sum $450 million. This is 4.5% of the $10 billion that Americans are spending this year on Halloween candy and paraphernalia. Or 0.128% of the $3.5 trillion price (itself a substantial understatement) of the Build Back Better legislation that the Times endorses and that even-more-progressive people consider skimpy. Those who are alarmed about the amount of money in politics might consider reducing the amount of politics in the distribution of money.

Ohio has been added to the list of now 19 states -- containing more than a third of the nation's population -- that California's government says it will not pay travel expenses for state employees to visit. Ohio has offended easily offended California by allowing physicians to refuse to perform procedures (e.g., abortion, gender-transition surgery) that violate their convictions.

History's largest U.S. infrastructure debacle -- the maybe, sort of high-speed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco rail project -- was supposed to cost $33 billion and be completed last year. Today's fantasy cost is $98 billion -- expect the guess to triple again -- and construction of the first leg, connecting Bakersfield and Merced, is scheduled to begin in 2029. Consideration is being given to using conventional -- not high-speed, not green -- diesel trains of the sort that already connect Los Angeles and San Francisco (as do planes, cars and buses).

Walgreens is closing five more stores -- bringing the total in recent years to 22 -- in San Francisco, where laws against brazen, large-scale shoplifting are often unenforced. In Chicago, a police report says that prosecutors told investigators there would be no charges in a deadly gunfight between two factions of a street gang because the fighters were "mutual combatants," meaning they were consensually trying to kill one another. Portland, Ore., the nation's 26th largest city, is in the second year of riots, originally about George Floyd, today perhaps for fun, and an officer explained why police did not intervene in last week's episode of fires and smashed store windows: Pending "clarity," police are following "the most restrictive interpretation" of a new state law limiting crowd control measures.

In June, when Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testified to a Senate committee about "birthing people," a.k.a. mothers, he was already falling behind the swift evolution of progressive nomenclature. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine's revised "lactation-related language" respects mothers by identifying them as "human milk-feeding individuals."

Almost nothing infuriates people as much as inflation -- government's failure to preserve the currency as a store of value. Even more infuriating, however, is a pervasive sense of arrogance and disorder, which now includes public officials and others propounding aggressively, insultingly strange vocabularies. Next November, there might be a cymbal-crash response to all this.

- - -

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

The ice between the U.S. and Russia may be thawing - for now

By david ignatius
The ice between the U.S. and Russia may be thawing - for now

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- A modest thaw appears to have begun in the Biden administration's relationship with Russia -- including agreement on a little-noticed joint effort at the United Nations on the contentious issue of cybersecurity.

The Russian-American relationship, overall, remains a "mixed picture," with sharp disagreements and suspicions on many issues, a senior State Department official said in an interview Tuesday. But the administration feels it's making slow progress in some parts of the security agenda that President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin set in their summit in Geneva in June.

The joint cybersecurity initiative was packaged in a resolution submitted to the U.N. General Assembly last Friday. The language is mostly diplomatic boilerplate, but it commits the two countries to support two U.N. cyber efforts, one Russian-backed and the other American, that a year ago were on a collision course. The resolution has been co-sponsored by 55 countries and will likely pass overwhelmingly before year-end.

Russia and the United States, in essence, have agreed to seek a common set of "rules of the road" to prevent malicious cyberattacks. The two nations differ sharply about what those standards should be -- and intense competition will continue in the trenches of the organizations that oversee global telecommunications. But in principle, there's now a shared commitment to cybersecurity.

Andrei Krutskikh, a top cyber adviser to Putin, recently hailed the joint resolution as a "historic moment," according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, which termed the resolution "a real diplomatic breakthrough." U.S. officials say that overstates the significance of the resolution, which State hasn't announced formally.

"What we are doing is to lean into setting norms, standards and rules of the road for cyberspace through the U.N. and other international bodies," said the senior State official. A year ago, Washington had been pressing its cybersecurity agenda through a report by the U.N.'s Group of Governmental Experts, while Russia had backed recommendations of a rival forum known as the "Open-ended Working Group." The joint resolution embraces both.

"Despite our serious differences, the United States worked with Russia . . . to develop a resolution that welcomes these two reports and calls on states to be guided by them," explained the senior official. "If the United States and Russia had put forward competing resolutions . . . Russia would have likely pushed forward (and likely passed) a resolution that would have doubled down on promoting authoritarian control of the Internet," the official argued.

Russia also helped derail a Chinese proposal for a new U.N. working group to regulate data security, though that may have been more about Russia protecting its own turf than cooperating with the United States, according to independent experts. Russia didn't want a possible competitor to its own working group, and Beijing ending up withdrawing the proposal.

Russia hasn't yet delivered on curbing ransomware attacks by cybercriminals operating from its territory, a subject Biden discussed with Putin in a July phone call. Moscow agreed to form an expert group to assess the threat, but the State Department official said it hasn't yet taken aggressive action against Russian-based hackers. "We've made it clear that if they won't act, we will," the U.S. official warned.

A Biden-Putin initiative at Geneva for new talks on strategic stability is also moving forward, but slowly. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman met her Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, in Geneva on Sept. 30 for a second round of follow-up discussions. They agreed to form two working groups, one dealing with objectives for future arms control talks and the other with new strategic capabilities. At a time when technology is transforming the future of warfare, the two sides are commendably groping for language with which to discuss arms control efforts in an age with new arsenals of weapons.

Russia has also been helpful on some other issues, officials say. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to press Iran to return to nuclear talks, and Lavrov did so promptly, the State official said. And though Moscow is aggressively pursuing its own interests in Afghanistan, it has also worked with the United States on some issues after the withdrawal of American troops.

The most ominous issue ahead is the still mysterious question of the "Havana syndrome" affecting U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers abroad. Russia is a prime suspect for what many believe are deliberate attacks using directed energy systems that have caused medical problems, sometimes severe, for about 200 U.S. government personnel.

When confronted by U.S. officials, the Russians deny any involvement -- but that's hardly conclusive. U.S. officials need stronger evidence than they've gathered so far. But if they find it, the current thaw could return to a deep freeze -- or worse. If Russia is found to be deliberately targeting U.S. officials, a severe crisis lies ahead, recent cooperation notwithstanding.

- - -

Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Metro's disruptive derailment fallout couldn't come at a worse time

By megan mcardle
Metro's disruptive derailment fallout couldn't come at a worse time

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, and thereafter

(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- On Oct. 12, near Arlington Cemetery, a Metro subway car partially derailed, forcing about 200 passengers to walk about 600 yards through a tunnel to reach the station exit. At that, we got off lightly, for the accident was the train's third derailment of the day, according to National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy. Moreover, it stemmed from a problem with the wheel assemblies that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has known about for years. Those problems, Homendy said, could have led to a "catastrophic event."

Metro has since pulled the problematic 7000-series cars from service, leaving the system operating at drastically reduced capacity. Most lines will run one six-car train every 30 minutes. WMATA has said that the service reduction will last at least through this coming Sunday, which actually comes as good news, since it leaves alarmed Washingtonians some hope that the inconvenience will be temporary.

Yet hope mingles with despair, because the gesture toward Sunday is hardly a guarantee, and also hardly the first time we have seen a prolonged service outage due to problems long ignored. Worse still, it has happened during a national ridership crisis for public transit -- a fact that may yet turn a minor derailment into a true catastrophe for Washington's subway system.

Metro's long-term problems stem from a stew of poor decisions: Initial underinvestment and a complicated governance structure led to chronic underfunding, which resulted in deferred maintenance that was made worse by high labor costs and poor management. Some of those problems have been at least partially resolved in recent years, but the backlog of necessary updates have forced Metro to reduce service, and ridership, so work could be done.

Falling ridership of course means falling revenue, leaving Metro continually scrambling for funding to avoid making even deeper service cuts that would in turn repel even more riders, necessitating further cuts -- the dreaded transit death spiral. Further woes emerged with the rise of Uber and Lyft, which appear to have reduced transit ridership in many cities, including Washington. After ridesharing came "micromobility" -- electric scooters and e-bikes, which offer a plausible substitute for close-in mass transit, even for the lazy.

Thus, even before the pandemic, Metro seemed to be at risk of a death spiral. The pandemic made those fears not merely real, but frighteningly imminent, as basically every major public transit system saw massive ridership declines, particularly on the rail systems favored by affluent workers who had gone remote.

Emergency injections of federal cash staved off the problem for a while. But ridership still hasn't recovered in most places. In New York City, weekday traffic is down almost 50% from pre-pandemic levels, and that's a relatively happy number; in Boston, weekday trips are down about 60%, while in Washington the drop is more like two-thirds, and in San Francisco, a dire 75%.

And unlike most earlier woes, the pandemic-induced problems look potentially permanent. Shutting down service for repairs and upgrades may dent ridership for a good long while, but eventually reliable and comfortable service should help win back those riders, and more. Uber and Lyft never seemed to be a long-term threat to mass transit, either, since well before the pandemic played havoc with their business model, those rides were being heavily subsidized by both drivers and investors. It was always clear that eventually, we were going to have to pay a lot more for ridesharing services -- at which point, presumably, people would climb back aboard their trains.

Micromobility innovations, on the other hand, might pose a more durable problem. And the pandemic, and the Zoom revolution, clearly pose a more dire one: a possibly permanent shift away from downtown offices.

That's a disaster in the making for rail systems in particular, since they are far less flexible than buses and are often designed to funnel outlying workers into central business districts. Even a modest shift toward remote or hybrid work could significantly depress ridership, not just because fewer people will be commuting to downtown offices, stores and restaurants on any given day, but because infrequent commuters may decide to move farther out in search of cheaper housing, then drive in rather than ride. Falling ridership means rising costs to carry each remaining worker, and declining voter support for plugging the resulting budget gaps with subsidies. Obviously, the bigger the shift toward remote work, the bigger those problems get.

That makes right now the worst possible time for a major service outage, because so many employers are still deciding when, and how often, to bring employees back. Unreliable transportation is bound to make remote options more attractive to worker and employer alike. If WMATA can get those cars back into service quickly, probably little lasting harm will be done. But if it can't, one casualty of last week's accident could end up being Metro itself.

- - -

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

The sharpest pens in the industry serve up points of view to chew on.

Bury your dead-tired strips and grab something fresh, meaningful and hilarious.

Serious therapy and serious fun to give readers a break from breaking news.