George Covington — The Secret of Politics

Circa 2008

Politics is often a strange tapestry, woven from diverse threads. Understanding it is simpler if you have a good sense of humor and a greater sense of irony.

Almost 20 years ago, I called an old law school buddy to discuss two matters: his boss and the media’s betrayal of Americans with disabilities.

“Dave,” I said to him, “it took the American media 200 years to create the negative images and stereotypes used to describe disabled Americans. It took the media only two weeks to negatively protray your boss. Do you think he would be interested in helping us change the media’s negative images and stereotypes of people with disabilities, if we helped him change his image?”

That’s how I became the Vice President of the United States’ first and last special assistant to deal with disability policy.

The first threads of my unique tapestry were woven several years earlier, during my days as one of “Barry’s Boys.” Between 1961 and 1964, I was a Young Republican from Texas, crusading for Senator Barry Goldwater, who was running for president.

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Like many young people, my venture into politics was a reaction to the time and place into which I was born and raised. In our little corner of East Texas, my mother and I were certain that we were the only Republicans. But in my junior year of high school, I discovered like-minded rebels who resented the establishment. During my freshman year at Texarkana Community College, I was president of the only Young Republican Club within 180 or so miles. I stuck with Barry through the presidential election debacle of 1964, which effectively ended my career as a political activist. I discovered, as Goldwater did, that the Republican Party was moving to the right side of the eagle. By today’s standards the neo-cons make Barry and I seem like raving Libertarians.

Many people might look at my past and wonder how I can say that my political activism lasted for only three years. The answer is simple. I learned the secret of politics: work for the official and not the candidate, and you can have a more substantial effect on history.

Within one year, I served on the staff of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (a Democrat) and on the staff of the Vice President of the United States (a Republican).

The Speaker, Jim Wright of Texas, was considered to be one of the most powerful leaders his party had seen since Lyndon Johnson. Some might assert that he learned his skills at the knee of Machiavelli. In the world of politics, however, that is not necessarily an insult given that, for some, the end goal of winning elections is accumulating power. Wright later resigned amidst a scandal that would barely cause today’s politicians to blink. His alleged crime: He insisted organizations buy large quantities of a book he’d written before he would agree speak to them.

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When I went on to serve as special assistant for disability policy, I was on the staff of one of the most ridiculed Vice Presidents in U.S. history. Because of his verbal faux pas, the media portrayed him as a bumbling idiot, and a political liability who couldn’t spell. However, compared to our current President, Dan Quayle was really more like Daniel Webster than George Bush could ever hope to be. Quayle was also a man whose integrity and honesty were never challenged. I once said about him on a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) mini-series, “I have a genuine affection for the man … and I don’t give a damn how he spelled potato.”

On the same PBS special I was asked, “What substantive things did Dan Quayle do?”

“Washington isn’t about substantive things, it’s about images,” I replied. “The Vice President came to our events, promoted our events, and allowed me to work for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

In four years, Dan Quayle met and shook hands with more disabled Americans than all the Vice Presidents in our history. He was fighting for the Americans with Disabilities Act even before I met him.

For the record: Between 1964 and 1994, I was a registered Democrat, and not known as a particularly conservative one.

I’ve been asked many times what I told the Vice President about the disabled and disability issues. I still clearly remember two things:

“All disabled people in this country are not middle class white guys in wheelchairs.” And, “If you can’t accept the fact that people with disabilities can be saints and sinners, then you can’t accept the fact that we’re human.” Just like politicians.

by George Covington

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