25-Sep, 20:42

12:13, May 26 198 0

2017-05-26 12:13:02
Homework? First I Need to Get to the Bottom of This Comey Story

ST. LOUIS — It’s 7:32 on a recent Wednesday morning, and Gabe Fleisher is racing to put the finishing touches on his daily newsletter, Wake Up to Politics. It’s been a busy 24-hour news cycle. “Another day, another bombshell,” the newsletter begins.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, reports emerged that James Comey, the fired F.B.I. director, had written an internal memo suggesting that, in a private meeting with President Trump, the president had asked him to end the agency’s investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” Mr. Trump reportedly said to Mr. Comey. In the wake of this disclosure, the newsletter recounts, some Democrats in Congress were using the words “obstruction of justice” and even “impeachment.” Meanwhile, the big story from the day before — that Mr. Trump may have shared classified information with Russian officials during a White House visit — continues to roil Washington.

It’s a lot to digest and cogently explain. But a deadline is quickly approaching, and it’s not just the one concerning the more than 2,000 subscribers who expect their Wake Up briefing to appear in their email inboxes just after 8 a.m. each weekday. More urgent is that, in about 13 minutes, Gabe’s ride to school will show up.

For Gabe Fleisher is not a Washington pundit or a producer for CNN, but a 15-year-old freshman at a St. Louis high school.

The free newsletter, which he has been writing in some form since he was 8, is a surprisingly sophisticated, well-researched summary of the day’s political news. It counts among its subscribers Gene B. Sperling, contributing editor at The Atlantic; the MSNBC anchor Steve Kornacki; Major Garrett, chief White House correspondent for CBS News; the “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr. (who on Twitter called Wake Up “one of the best political newsletters to hit my inbox”); the author Mark Halperin; and Jim VandeHei, the founder of Axios and a founder of Politico — as well as reporters for The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today, many of whom are among Gabe’s nearly 5,000 Twitter followers. (Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, is also a follower.)

In some ways, Wake Up is the anti-Skimm. It doesn’t dumb-down the daily political news for its audience and it occasionally highlights events that could challenge the interest of even the most-obsessive political fans. (A recent edition included the news that the Senate had scheduled for that day a “cloture vote on the nomination of John Sullivan to be deputy secretary of state.”) But this young journalist makes it an accessible, and even engaging, door-opener for readers, particularly young people, who want to know what is going on and why everyone is suddenly talking about some guy named Flynn.

“I feel a sense of responsibility,” Gabe said. “Not everyone reads it every day, and it’s obviously not the only thing people read. But some people tell me that it is. And that’s a responsibility that I take seriously.”

And he does it all on little more than six hours sleep.

“To think that, at his age, that I would be waking up every morning, to do what he is doing, there are no words to describe how that would never happen,” said his father, Randy Fleisher, 53, a rabbi, sitting in the living room of the family’s two-story brick home in the University City neighborhood of St. Louis as Gabe sat across from him, checking his phone. “It’s a pretty remarkable thing.”

Dressed in a baggy T-shirt and dark gray sweatpants, his sleep-tousled hair falling to just above his shoulders, Gabe is sitting up in bed, hunched over his Lenovo laptop, typing away. Within reach are his alarm clock, which went off — as usual — at 5:55 a.m., a recent copy of Time magazine, his iPhone (which he picks up occasionally to check his Twitter feed) and a stack of books he has been reading: “Personal History,” by Katharine Graham; “A Memoir,” by Barbara Bush; “Front Row at the White House,” by Helen Thomas; and “Shattered,” by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen, a detailed post-mortem of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016. (“I loved their first book, ‘HRC,’ but I don’t think this one is as good,” Gabe said.)

On the walls of his second-floor, 10-by-12 room (“smaller than my sister’s,” he pointed out) are framed articles from Politico (“Missouri Sixth Grader May Be Next Mike Allen”) and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (“Fourth Grader Is Political Junkie”). Also, copies of the Declaration of Independence and the first page of the Constitution, a photo of Barack Obama and Representative Lacy Clay, Democrat of Missouri, and an eclectic mix of bumper stickers from the 2016 campaign — for Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and even the fictional Frank Underwood among them. (“I’m going for a complete collection,” Gabe said.)

Elsewhere are small busts of several presidents; Gabe’s passport to the presidential libraries (so far his has visited all but two of the official ones, Reagan’s and Nixon’s); a miniature replica of the White House; photos of Gabe, his father and his sister, Zoey, at the 2009 Obama inauguration; and one of a 12-year-old Gabe with the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin after a speech she gave in Chicago that Gabe’s grandparents took him to.

And everywhere you look, there are books, books and more books — in a free-standing bookcase, on shelves, on the windowsill and even the floor, all about politics or history, from the four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg to “The Audacity to Win” by the former Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe (“a great book,” Gabe said).

In fact, it was Mr. Obama’s election as president that set off Gabe’s interest in politics. At age 7, he and Zoey were taken by their father on a last-minute road trip to the inauguration. (Gabe’s mother, Amy, the sales director for Caleres, a St. Louis shoe company, stayed home. “I don’t like to drive,” Mrs. Fleisher explained.)

Gabe’s subsequent reading of a children’s book on presidential campaigns, “See How They Run,” further fueled that enthusiasm. More books and those family visits to the presidential libraries followed. Soon Gabe was intently following the news of the day, and trying — emphasis on trying — to share it with his parents.

“He is this bundle of energy,” Mrs. Fleisher, 51, said over a recent pizza dinner with Gabe and his father. (Zoey, 18, a high school senior entering nearby Webster University in the fall and planning to major in vocal music education, was home with a cold.) “And he’s always talking about all the stuff that’s going on, and I can’t absorb it all. I still can’t. I’m like, ‘Comey, what?’ So he would come to me in the morning, and he was just starting to read the news, and would want to share stuff with me, and I would say: ‘You know what, Gabe, I can’t get all this. Why don’t you email me, so I have a chance to think about it and I can ask you questions and we can talk about it?’ So he started emailing me, and then it began to take on more of a newsletterlike format.”

“She was my first subscriber,” her son chimed in.

Soon she was sharing it with family and friends, and someone they knew told a reporter for The Post-Dispatch about it. At age 10, on Super Tuesday, Gabe landed on the front page of the newspaper.

“That was when people started reaching out to me, people I had no connections to, like professors and even some St. Louis politicians,” Gabe said.

As the audience grew, so did his ambitions. He attended more political events with his parents and realized that he liked being part of the mix. In 2010, Gabe and his parents went to hear Mr. Plouffe speak about his experience on the 2008 Obama campaign and the book he had just written about it.

Mrs. Fleisher: “At the end, people lined up to ask questions and Gabe said to me, ‘Mom, can I ask question?’”

Rabbi Fleisher: “He asked a great question.”

Gabe: “It was not a great question.”

Mrs. Fleisher: “Yes it was.”

Gabe: “I asked, ‘Where do you go from here? What’s next for you?’ It was not a great question.”

Another coup has been meeting Ms. Goodwin. First, Gabe and his parents saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning author speak at an event at the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Ill., soon after the publication of her “Team of Rivals,” which Gabe loved. “He ran up to her like we were at Disney World and she was Mickey Mouse,” his mother said.

A few years later, after her book “Bully Pulpit” came out, he saw her again in Chicago. “I went up to get it signed, but she did not remember me,” Gabe said.

Then, in 2014, Ms. Goodwin came to St. Louis for a sold-out speaking engagement. The audience was told they could write questions and submit them. “I don’t even remember what question I asked,” Gabe said, “but I wrote that I was a 13-year-old journalist, and she said: ‘Gabe? Is Gabe Fleisher in the audience?’”

She now follows him on Twitter.

The breakthrough for both Gabe and Wake Up to Politics came in the most recent presidential campaign, when Gabe was able to get press credentials for two of the primary debates held in Des Moines — the Democratic one in November 2015 and the Republican one in January 2016 — and where he was able to sit with reporters and meet some he had admired from afar. One, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, even took a shine to Gabe and helped him wrangle his way into the post-debate spin room. “No one says no to Dan Balz,” another reporter told Gabe when the youngster expressed surprise that he had been allowed inside.

There, he made the acquaintance of Sean Spicer, then a relatively little-known spokesman for the Republican National Committee. As they chatted, Mr. Spicer said to Gabe, “If you want to see a real debate, come to the Republican one here in January,” and then gave him his email address. Gabe followed up and Mr. Spicer got him credentials. “He couldn’t have been nicer,” Gabe said. (Unfortunately, Gabe has so far been unable to get back in touch with Mr. Spicer, now the White House press secretary, about trying to score one of the “Skype seats” allotted to out-of-town journalists at the daily press briefings.)

At the Democratic debate, Gabe also met some executives from Twitter, which was one of the sponsors. A few weeks later, @WakeUp2Politics was verified. “That was a big day,” his mother said.

And that initial shyness about asking questions has given way to an unchecked confidence that has led him to direct-message a reporter at USA Today about how to get on the White House press list and being part of the press scrum quizzing politicians after a debate.

“Being a kid reporter, I have to be a little more pushy,” Gabe said at that dinner with his parents, sharing a cheese pizza with his mother and sipping on his second Coke. “It’s just a fact of life, because when I am trying to get an interview, the first response is always skepticism.”

He added: “Jeff Sessions came to St. Louis a few weeks ago, and I got credentials pretty easily, and I get there, and I have everything I need, and I was on the list and I had my ID, but for a long time they just wouldn’t let me in. I get that. It’s the attorney general and there is going to be security, but they had the dogs check me out, which happened to none of the other reporters, and I just had to keep pushing and say, ‘I’m supposed to be here.’”

It’s precisely 7:45, and after a quick change into his usual school uniform of baggy T-shirt and cargo shorts and a fast brushing of his teeth, Gabe is down the stairs, into his slip-on Nike sneakers, out the door and on his way to school.

This is his second year at John Burroughs, a progressive private high school in the St. Louis suburb of Ladue founded in 1923. Gabe arrived with his reputation preceding him.

“I had heard of him when he was assigned to me as his adviser, when he entered as an eighth grader last year,” said Mark Smith, a history teacher. “I knew that he was this seventh grader who did this newsletter thing and you didn’t quite know what to expect. But I found him to be personable, funny and deeply intelligent.”

His parents say Gabe has managed to have a relatively normal life, one with friendships and outside interests and a keen awareness that his schoolwork can’t suffer.

“I remember really clearly,” his father said. “Gabe had a teacher, I’m not sure what grade, and his comment on the report card was Gabe was able to be socially at ease and also very passionate about government, politics and history. That was very affirming to me. It’s all about balance. I’m less concerned about the grades themselves than if this became all-consuming, to the exclusion of everything else in his life.”

As Gabe explained: “There are times when I am up really late, studying for a test, and I tell myself I have to get some sleep. But I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t love it.” (Though he will take a break this coming week for finals.)

Kate Ward, his biology teacher at Burroughs, said he was not a total anomaly in his peer group when it came to a keen interest in public affairs. “In this political climate, there is a lot to talk about,” she said, “and we are certainly talking about things like climate change and what’s going with the E.P.A. in this class.”

Gabe, she added, “doesn’t start those conversations, necessarily, but the other students often look to him to answer questions about what’s going on.”

Gabe said: “Most of my friends are politically aware. I don’t think I’m an outlier in terms of being interested in politics; most of my friends and even most of my classmates are. But maybe not all of them are on Twitter at 6:30 every morning.”

But, yes, there are times when the newsletter takes a back seat to real life, most notably when Gabe goes off to the wilds of Minnesota, totally off the grid, for 12 weeks every summer. He has been going to a summer camp there for years, as did his father before him, and nothing disrupts that schedule, not even the Democratic and Republican conventions last summer. “Not knowing the V.P. picks, when they came out, that was tough,” Gabe said with a wry laugh.

More recently, he was on a wilderness retreat in the Ozarks organized by his school, with no access to a computer or his cellphone for several days, just as the Comey story was taking its wild twists and turns.

“I came back,” Gabe said, “and I was on the bus, and my phone kept saying, ‘No cell service, no cell service’ and then suddenly it came back on, and I got a notification saying ‘Schumer responds to Comey firing’ and I was like, ‘What?!?’”

How long will the Wake Up to Politics newsletter last, especially as high school becomes more difficult and college looms? His parents seem a little surprised that it has lasted this long, and Mr. Smith, Gabe’s academic adviser, thought “as he entered high school, the newsletter might go away.”

But it hasn’t, and Gabe continues to balance the demands of school, home life and the newsletter with an almost unnerving casualness. “He’s figured out how to be a relatively normal teenager who goes through the messes and problems that most normal teenager goes through,” Mr. Smith said.

While the adults in his orbit seem amazed by his ability to pull it all off — the word “juggling” comes up a lot — Gabe himself has a pretty simple explanation why it all seems so manageable.

“I don’t need a lot of sleep,” he said, “and I type really fast.”