The year in bylines

Here are 10 pieces that I enjoyed reporting and/or writing this year. Some short-ish (900 words), some really long (7,400 words). Half are related to politics, alas, but it was that kind of year. Here they are, in ascending order of how much time it would take to read them.

1. The quality that made Prince & Bowie immortal (4 min). A dual appreciation of two flamboyant men who transcended the macho bullshit of our time.

2. If you had to explain 2016 a hundred years from now, what would it take? (5 min). At the RNC in Cleveland I heard about a Smithsonian team that was doing spot archaeology, so I made a point to catch up with them in Philadelphia at the the Democratic convention. It's tough to find an original angle on an event that's so over-covered by the media, but I loved this one. It was like time traveling.

3. Retirement beards (5 min). You can't spell "profundity" without "fun."

4. This is what it feels like at the Democratic National Convention (7 min). A scene piece designed to be crackling and tactile, with the help of my colleagues Monica Hesse and Ben Terris. The DNC was perfectly cast, programmed and choreographed, and yet it all felt like a charade. I left Philadelphia with a pit in my stomach, but not before channeling some acid through my keyboard on deadline at Joe's Coffee on Rittenhouse Square.

 Scenes from the DNC in Philly. Photos by (clockwise): Michael Robinson Chavez and Melina Mara for The Washington Post, John Minchillo for the AP, Toni L. Sandys for The Washington Post.

Scenes from the DNC in Philly. Photos by (clockwise): Michael Robinson Chavez and Melina Mara for The Washington Post, John Minchillo for the AP, Toni L. Sandys for The Washington Post.

5. The compassionate cunning of John Kasich (11 min) I wrote this for our National desk, so it was a bit more pro-forma. Plus it hinged on a very opaque and soporific topic: health-care policy, which required hours and hours of phone reporting before I began to understand it. But Kasich himself is a lively mark, and I had the good fortune to be on the bus with him in New Hampshire. 

6. Hillary Clinton: always running (12 min) The only assignment that truly daunted me this year. What was left to say about Hillary Clinton? I went to her hometown in Illinois for five days to figure that out. My best friend in that endeavor was the microfilm at the Park Ridge library. I looked through every issue of the town's two local newspapers from 1964 and 1965, and suddenly I had a fresh understanding of both Clinton as a teenager and the village it took to raise her.

7. James Taylor (13 min). Every year the Post goes long on the Kennedy Center Honorees, and this year, for the first time, I was assigned an artist who didn't really mean anything to me. With the help of Timothy White's biography, as well as a lovely 90-minute conversation with Taylor in Beverly Hills, I developed an appreciation for the man and his music. 

 Illustration for The Washington Post by Cristiano Siqueira

Illustration for The Washington Post by Cristiano Siqueira

8. The elite charm of the bro-geoisie (14 min). I interviewed Eric and Donald Trump Jr. for an hour each, separately, and tried to understand their father through them.

9. Hard lessons (17 min). I followed a class of Georgetowners for the entire spring semester. Their class was held at a prison in Maryland. Their fellow students were inmates convicted of murder.

10. The Polaroids of the Cowboy Poet (40 min). "I feel like Joe Gould," my subject, Chris Earnshaw, said to me in 2012, and suddenly I had my angle: To get a Joseph Mitchell-style story into the newspaper. Mitchell was a New Yorker writer who famously profiled a bohemian derelict named Joe Gould in two parts: the first in a freewheeling paean called "Professor Seagull" and the next, 22 years later, in a kind of mea culpa titled "Joe Gould's Secret." Gould claimed to be writing a million-word "Oral History of Our Time," but Mitchell later found that there was no proof of its existence that Gould was a mad genius without a body of work that evidenced his genius. Chris Earnshaw, on the other hand, had such evidence: thousands of exquisite Polaroids taken in the 1970s, plus a panoramic worldview that shatters the sensations of time and space. Chris is as amusing, eloquent, savant-like and infuriating as Gould comes across in Mitchell's writing, but at one point his abstract genius had a conduit into the real world: Polaroid photography of Washington's age of destruction and renovation in the 1970s. The trick was to turn Chris's bonkers biography and gorgeous photography into a story suited for The New Yorker circa 1950 — which nevertheless used the multimedia elements of today — to tell an epic but intimate story about art, genius and the passage of time. I don't think I necessarily got there with the writing, even after nearly four years of scattershot work, but I'm still delighted that the piece was finished and published. Much credit to our web designer Matt Callahan, audio/video team McKenna Ewen and Erin O'Connor, photographer Bill O'Leary, photo editor Nicole Crowder, print designer Michael Johnson, and editors Carrie Camillo, Ann Gerhart, Rich Leiby, Mitch Rubin and Liz Seymour. -30-

 A 1976 Polaroid of a man named Don Fincke in New York. (Photo by Chris Earnshaw; print by Joe Mills)

A 1976 Polaroid of a man named Don Fincke in New York. (Photo by Chris Earnshaw; print by Joe Mills)