Everybody in the White House has a sandbox, including the offices of the president and the vice president. Between 1989 and 1993, I served Vice President Dan Quayle as special assistant on disability policy. Thus, my sandbox was the first to have the sign that read “Disability Policy.” Others included “Domestic Policy,” “Foreign Policy,” “Agricultural Policy,” “Education Policy” … You get the picture.
My goal was to ensure passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and among my duties was to recommend events that would showcase various aspects of the disability community. My nemesis was the vice president’s advance team, whose job it was to make every event as quick and easy for him as was humanly possible. On the other hand, my role was to ensure that he got up close and personal with as many Americans with disabilities as possible. So you can see how his advance team and I were often trying to kick sand in each other’s faces.
One such event was the 1990 Paralympics in Long Island, NY, where the confrontation occurred in a nearly empty hotel ballroom. I knew trouble had arrived when I asked the advance team, “Who’s introducing the vice president?”
“We’ve got the mayor and a few other politicians ending with the county executive, who will introduce the VP…”
“Does the county executive have a disability?” I inquired.
“No,” they said, as if they’d never even given it a thought.
“Does anyone scheduled to speak have a disability?”
“The vice president of the United States will be introduced by a person with a disability,” I stated firmly.
“Sorry, can’t do that,” they insisted. “Everything is all set.”
“Want to bet?” I told them.
As my voice rose, so did the number of people venturing into the ballroom to find out what the matter was. Suddenly, the organizers of the event and several board members with disabilities surrounded me; the latter had scheduled the sponsoring trials.
My peers were content to stay out of the line of fire; they were just happy to have the vice president coming to this event at all. But to me it was a political issue. When politicians speak to a constituency, the introduction ought to come from a member of that constituency.
A young political toad on the rise tried to defend the county executive.
“Everything has been set,” he croaked. “My boss has his speech written.”
“And your boss can give his speech,” I said. “But after that, he’ll introduce a person with a disability who will introduce the vice president. Now do you have a suitable person with a disability who can do this?” I asked.
The only name they came up with was a blowhard who was blind and whom I had known for years. “There’s no way that slob will introduce the vice president,” I said. “Who else you got?”
“Well, we have Len Sawich, but he’s a dwarf.”
“I’ve never met him, but I’ve talked to him on the phone and he’s articulate. He’ll do.”
The young toad began to sputter. He could see his career flashing before his eyes. His boss, rather than introducing the vice president, would introduce Len Sawich. Talk about a comedown! How was he going to explain that to a career-mad politician on the rise?
“You can’t have a little person introducing the Vice President of the United States!” the leader of the VP’s advance team shouted. “We’ll have to cut the podium in half!”
“No. He’ll pull up a chair, hop on it and introduce the vice president,” I said slowly as though to a child. I also noticed that the crowd of spectators watching this show had grown to around 100.
“You can’t have a guy on a chair introduce the vice president of the United States,” an advance man howled.
“Wanna bet?” My volume increasing with each breath.
“What about security?” he said in a barely suppressed scream.
“If he pulls a gun,” I said, “shoot him!”
The advance man stomped out of the room. “We’ll see,” he threatened. “I’m calling the White House on this one.”
One negative word from the vice president, and I’d be the proverbial 98-pound weakling who’d had sand kicked in my face. While I realized that this victory might last only 10 or 15 minutes, at least I’d tried to stand for what was right.
“As soon as Len’s plane lands tonight, have him come straight to my room. I don’t want him talking to any of the other officials, and I certainly don’t want him waylaid by the advance squad,” I told my assistant.
Leonard Sawich, PhD, arrived before midnight. When I opened the door and he strolled in I said, “You sound taller on the phone.”
“And you sounded like you could see,” he shot back. I instantly decided that I had a friend and an ally.
I had first heard of Sawich many years before, when he had debated an African-American over whose civil rights were violated the most. When his opponent said, “For 400 hundred years, my people were sold as slaves,” Sawich shot back, “So, what? For 2,000 years, my people were given as gifts.”
I knew he was sharp and capable of giving a good speech. Only later would I learn that he’d been a standup comic for a number of years, and made a living on the lecture circuit before settling down to become a state-level bureaucrat.
The next morning I was notified that the county executive would introduce Sawich.
As the vice president’s motorcade arrived in the morning, I met with his press secretary.
“The advance team said they were calling the White House about the way I was arranging the event,” I said.
“Oh, they did. They even called the VP out of a meeting and told him you were screwing up.”
“And?” I asked.
“And they told them it was Covington’s event, and they needed to do it Covington’s way.”
At my briefing, the vice president said, “How’s it going, George?”
“It’s going fine, Mr. Vice President,” I told him, and then added, “I think you should know that you’re going to be the first vice president in history introduced by a little person. You’re going to be introduced by Dr. Leonard Sawich. He has a Ph.D. in psychology and is an aide to the governor of Michigan. He’s extremely articulate, president of the Dwarf Athletic Association of America, and widely known and respected in the disability community.”
“I’d like you to be able to work the crowd if we have time for it. The area where you’ll be speaking will seat about 100 people. Only about one quarter of those will be people with disabilities; they lead the organizations that are competing here today. If you could walk across the track and actually shake hands with the athletes, it would be great.”
“We’ll make time,” the vice president said.
Before his entrance, each politician intoned the same litany of clichés, just as Sawich and I had predicted the night before. They made a point of stating how great it was that all these people with disabilities had overcome all of the challenges put in front of them and were here today:
“Yadda yadda barriers, yadda inspiration, yadda yadda– we can all learn a great lesson from this yadda yadda.” Each of the politicians received polite but cool applause from the crowd.
The 2,000 people with disabilities who had to listen to all this yammering were thinking: “You damned idiots, it’s you who put the challenges in our way. Why don’t you get them out of our way, and we won’t have to inspire you anymore.” But none of us said it; we just thought it really hard.
After the county executive delivered his excruciatingly long speech on how wonderful the vice president was, he devoted roughly three lines to introducing Len Sawich, then begrudgingly relinquished the microphone.
Len pulled a metal folding chair up to the podium and jumped up on it, looking out over the crowd, pausing for the room to settle. Most of the audience members had competed on the local, state and regional level to get to the trials for the Paralympics. They were also advocates who knew what discrimination meant. Len Sawich could relate.
When he had the attention of all 2,000 athletes and their 1,000 trainers and coaches, Len began to belt it out like a Southern preacher.
“Do you know why I like Dan Quayle?” He yelled into the microphone. “I like Dan Quayle because he’s the first vice president who ever came to our events. I like Dan Quayle because he doesn’t say we’re confined or bound to wheelchairs. I like Dan Quayle because he isn’t condescending. He treats us like individuals and people. And most of all, I like Dan Quayle because he doesn’t patronize us by calling us inspirational,” he practically screamed.
The 3,000 people on the other side of the track went wild. There was screaming and hooting and applauding that went on for several minutes. Len had more than warmed the crowd up; he had whipped them into a frenzy. The vice president was moved. After that fired-up introduction, he walked across the podium and hugged Len. This brought more screams and applause. Quayle then delivered the speech that I wrote for him.
“You are not disabled athletes. You are world-class athletes who happen to have a disability,” he said. “No one can look at you and see what you do and ever hold the same images and stereotypes again.” He ended with: “I think I speak for all America when I say, those of you who win here today and go on to Barcelona, go for the gold!”
Quayle really punched that last line, which I’d suggested he give “extra emphasis” in the speech I’d written. The crowd was ecstatic and, as Quayle passed me going down to the track, he leaned over and said, “Extra emphasis.” He was in a jubilant mood.
Instead of looking to the politicians on the podium, he turned to Len Sawich and said, “Len, let’s work the crowd.” Then, he and Len shook hands with 3,000 people for more than 30 minutes, and I felt a rush of pride in how everything had turned out—from that initial shoving match in an empty ballroom.
During this one event, Quayle shook hands and talked with more people with disabilities than all the previous vice presidents in history combined.
by George A. Covington