Alumni Feature: Mitchell Hailstone (PPE ’13)
A communications director on Capitol Hill, Mitchell Hailstone (PPE ’13) navigates the tension between being in the center of policy battles and tending the garden of his soul and family.
Should we be Gandalfs or Tom Bombadils? was a recurring discussion for Mitchell Hailstone (PPE ’13) and his classmates at King’s. “We had these nerdy Lord of the Rings-themed debates on whether we should be on the frontlines changing things like Gandalf, or leading a quiet life away from the center of things, tending a garden and a forest, like Tom Bombadil,” he says. Their debates still inform a tension that he continues to live today, now as a communications director on Capitol Hill.
At King’s, Mitch had been deeply involved with student life, serving on The King’s College Student Council and as helmsman and president of the House of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He thrived on probing conversations with his professors and classmates. “I had bought into the King’s mission completely,” he says. When Mitch graduated from King’s, he had a strong sense of mission, but no clear direction. Since he felt that going home would mean giving up, he stayed at a professor’s home in Brooklyn that first summer and lifeguarded until he landed an internship with a conservative think tank in D.C. “I heard it was like King’s,” he says. But he was surprised by the atmosphere, which tended to be shaped by political party priorities and winning arguments, rather than intellectual curiosity. He says, “I wasn’t ready for the frontlines just yet.”
In the meantime, the loneliness of city life began to creep in. “College had been a safe place,” he says. “NYC wasn’t a challenge until after college.” At King’s, he hadn’t felt part of the City, more like on the outside looking in. After his D.C. internship, he heard that the John Jay Institute was a place for rigorous intellectual formation. He became a John Jay Fellow in 2014. “It was a very monastic experience,” he says. At a manor outside of Philadelphia, he lived and prayed with fifteen other fellows of varied vocational backgrounds and Christian traditions—Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Orthodox. They read a book a day, discussed for three hours each morning, and wrote about it at night. “That really honed my writing and communication skills,” he says. After an intense five months tending the garden of his own soul, he felt ready for action. “I wasn’t wondering anymore,” he says. “Like Chesterton says, you can’t live going around with an open mind like an open mouth—you need to close it on something. I knew what I believed and where I stood.”
But he needed to further build his skill-set and to make connections. After concluding his John Jay Fellowship, Mitch took an election-cycle job with the College Republicans of New Hampshire, traveling to university campuses, engaging with students’ political beliefs, convincing college students to vote, and to vote Republican. Through that experience, persuading undergrads that it was in their best interest to vote, he realized that he enjoyed persuasion—and was good at it.
That’s when he set himself on the way of Gandalf and moved back to Washington, D.C. He honed his persuasion skills through more (often unpaid) internships. Contrary to popular opinion, he says, working entry-level jobs in D.C. does not yield much money; he had to do odd jobs on the weekends to make ends meet until he was a proven and valuable communicator. He landed his first job with a public relations firm in Alexandria, Va., and through his role there helped Carly Fiorina during her presidential bid and worked on the effort to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. In 2017, he led media and communications for eight-term Republican member Trent Franks (R-AZ), and then worked for the infamous “giant-killer” Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) before recently becoming communications director for freshman and rising star Rep. Mark Green (R-TN).
The King’s class he uses most in his work is Dr. David Tubbs’s Public Policy, which taught him “to seek out the other side’s arguments and address them responsibly.” C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man also undergirds Mitch’s work, especially the idea addressed in Lewis’s first chapter about raising men with chests, as does Reinhold Niebuhr’s Children of Light and Children of Darkness. “The Children of Light agree on the goals, but may disagree on the methods,” Mitch explains. “Healthcare policy would be an example. Most everyone wants people to be taken care of, but disagree, sometimes hugely, on the way to accomplish that. Recognizing an interlocutor as a Child of Light helps in that you know there is common ground; you just have to find it. But the Children of Darkness disagree on fundamentals. They turn around the very definition and nature of things, such as calling death life or vice virtue.”
While on the Hill, he also met and married his wife Betsy, a high school English teacher passionate about promoting literacy and training to become a reading specialist. The daughter of an Anglican priest in Nashville, she had moved to the D.C. area from Mississippi where she had learned to teach at Title I schools in the Delta. They met through mutual friends, started talking, and never stopped. They now attend Christ the King Anglican Church in Alexandria, and welcomed their first child in February 2019. Betsy experiences her own tension, between taking care of her own child and meeting the needs of other children assigned to her care in school.
So the need for the way of Tom Bombadil, to tend the garden of the souls of one’s own family and to make a home, remains. “Raising children and taking them to church is one of the greatest things you can do,” Mitch says. “I’ll always be grateful to my parents for taking me to church, for teaching me about Jesus, for having that foundation.” He also continues to value the formation that leads to continuing maturation, and of knowing what you believe and where you stand. You need to be grounded, he says, but also to keep growing.
“Do all the reading assigned,” Mitch tells current King’s students. “And be friends with people who do all the reading assigned. Find time to digest the assigned content with those friends.” He adds, “Most of my time now is spent trying to squeeze in time to read books or find people who are like-minded to discuss ideas. At King’s you have all those things at your fingertips. You’ll miss it once it’s gone.”
Mitch feels the tension between being in the center of the battle and tending the garden, especially as he and Betsy start a family together. “There’s a phrase on the Hill—cashing out—that refers to when someone sets aside his ideals and works for a cause that he doesn’t believe in for the money,” he says. He expects this temptation to increase as the tension between needing to provide for a family and working at a low-security job grows. When he faces deep discouragement in his work—which is often—he says, “It can feel like what I’m doing is just shouting into the wind,” and not making any difference. Sometimes, as Tolkien’s Aragorn notes, “We must do without hope.” But also, as the wizard Gandalf reminds the hobbit Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”