If Steve Scalise hadn’t shown up for baseball practice on the morning of June 14th, 2017, it is likely an Illinois man named James Hodgkinson would have been forever known as the mass murderer responsible for more political assassinations than anyone else in American history. That morning, while most of the country was still asleep, two dozen Republican congressmen gathered at Eugene Simpson Stadium in Alexandria, Virginia for their final practice before the annual Congressional Baseball Game. They’d been on the field for about thirty minutes before the first shots rung out.
“The players (in the dugout) were unarmed, confined to a small space. They were sitting ducks,” writes Scalise in his book Back in the Game: One Gunman, Countless Heroes, and the Fight for My Life. “The gunman would be able to mow them all down, to kill a dozen congressmen in a matter of seconds, plus staffers and other volunteers.”
Scalise was the only member of leadership present that morning, and because he was there, so were Dave Bailey and Crystal Griner, two Capitol Police officers assigned as the security detail for the then-House Majority Whip. As soon as Hodgkinson began firing, Bailey and Griner responded, engaging in a six-minute-long gunfight that ultimately left Griner wounded and the would-be assassin dead.
Steve Scalise, a Republican representing Louisiana’s First District, was the first and only member of Congress who was felled by the gunman, shot in the hip as he practiced near second base. His book, Back in the Game, which debuted last November and which was cowritten by veteran journalist Jeffrey Stern, recounts the terrifying pandemonium of those six consequential minutes and the often agonizing months he spent in recovery and rehabilitation.
Stern also was one of four co-authors of The 15:17 to Paris, an account of the heroic efforts of the three Americans who successfully thwarted a terrorist attack on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. While the book received generally positive reviews, Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation, which debuted last year and earned nearly $60 million at the box office, was criticized for straining its narrative around a single, brief event.
Although Back in the Game contains several compelling and potentially cinematic moments, the book is similarly bogged down by its focus on the Big Event. Nearly half of the book is a slow-motion, second-by-second retelling of the assassination attempt. Readers are provided very little background or context about the protagonist- Scalise- or the gunman.
We also learn nearly nothing about the lives of the two most notable heroes of the story, Dave Bailey and Crystal Griner. Scalise never mentions that both of them are African American, and we only learn toward the end of the book that Griner is married to a woman, details that the media found notable considering Scalise’s strident conservative record and his acknowledgement that he attended a white nationalist conference in 2002 (for which he publicly apologized).
Indeed, considering Back in the Game was written by a member of Congress, the extent to which Scalise avoids almost all mention of partisan ideology is surprising; the only real policy discussion in the entire book is about the regulations of fishing redfish. Donald Trump makes only a couple of appearances; shortly after the news broke, we learn that President Trump telephoned Scalise’s wife, Jennifer, and awkwardly lamented the fact that it was his birthday.
The book is at its best when Scalise describes the mental, psychological, and temporal confusion he experienced both during the shooting and throughout his recuperation. Make no mistake: He was much, much closer to death than had been widely reported.
Back in the Game will never be considered a part of the canon of Great Louisiana Political Books, and while it is competently written, it’s largely an extended, apolitical thank you letter to the medical professionals and law enforcement officers who saved Steve Scalise’s life. Perhaps this was an important and necessary exercise for the congressman, but for readers, particularly those who have followed Scalise’s career, Back in the Game is still- somehow- a remarkably impersonal memoir.