Given her past woes and some of her past performances, Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk’s appearance Monday night at a community meeting was pretty damned striking. She’s back in the ring, man. Throwing punches.
I would even have to go ahead and pay her what may be an old reporter’s ultimate compliment: She’s so solid and back in fighting trim again, she is once again to me a totally unbelievable blowhard just like all the other politicians in town. I would have been suspicious of anything more demure.
At a meeting in the 100-year-old, half-round sanctuary of St. Paul United Methodist Church downtown, Hawk pretty much took credit for everything her predecessor did and then said it was “unheard of” that she was doing it: a focus on justice not convictions, a focus on false convictions, a focus on kids, a focus on “diversion” for the mentally ill. It was all the stuff that her predecessor, Craig Watkins did, which Hawk claimed she had invented.
Wait. Now, wait. You think I’m criticizing her or making fun. You’re not hearing me. You haven’t spent your entire life sitting in public gatherings listening to local officials talk about themselves.
If she had gotten up and said, “I am making modest, incremental improvements in the many brilliant innovations my predecessor set in place,” I would have thought to myself, “Oh, gosh, poor thing, still not quite right in the old gourd, is she?”
When they tell you they have invented a revolutionary new labor-saving device called “the wheel,” you know they’re cooking with political gas. And she was.
For an hour and a half in front of an audience of a little over 100, Hawk was sharp, on her toes and smart, with flawless stamina and full-range effectiveness all the way from tear-jerking to tough. And that was the real question all along, was it not? It was never going to be about wonk issues. It was all about whether she was OK in the noggin.
Maybe you got to town yesterday, so I will recount for you that Hawk, an upset Republican victor in the DA’s race in a blue county in 2014, has been haunted by doubts about her mental stability almost since taking office. Her political staff lied to the public about long absences which turned out to be medical leaves for mental health problems and addiction.
During that turmoil, somebody — I forget who — asked a good question. What if her absences from her desk had been for cancer? Would people be calling her damaged goods because she had cancer?
There was always another important issue here: truth-telling. But I have to admit that the truth-telling issue gets muddy when you start dealing in taboos, kind of like Bill Clinton’s sex life. If you are asking the questions in the first place because you want to burn somebody at the witch’s stake, is the person you are asking them of required to go out there and recline on the firewood for you?
So what is the taboo in this case? Mental health itself. In an age when incredible breakthroughs are offered by brain science, psychotherapy and testimony of recovered patients, lots of people still conceive of mental health strictly in the 19th century cracked model. That is, they think of people who have suffered mental or emotional setbacks as broken in some way that can never be repaired.
That’s just not true. We are surrounded, all of us, all the time, by people who have made wonderful recoveries from setbacks, some of them with treatment, many on their own, cold-turkey.
If anything, the people I know who have been through tough times and mastered them often have a broader and deeper understanding of the human condition, maybe because they have journeyed to its outer realms and back.
But I promise: I did watch her with an eagle eye Monday night.
Community activist Olinka Green, speaking for Black Lives Matter, came to the open microphone and gave Hawk a stout hammering, insisting that the catalog of accomplishments Hawk had touted in her opening speech widely missed the mark of suffering in southern Dallas:
“When we are talking about trust and being able to trust the Dallas Police Department,” Green said, “and talking about going into the schools and dealing with young children, the majority of those young children, their mothers and brothers and cousins and uncles are locked up.”
Her voice rising to a cadenced shout, Green told Hawk, “You can’t talk about numbers. We’ve got to talk about lives. So many of us listening in this room right now have family members who are locked up. There are a bunch of brothers who will not be at the table come Christmas. They’ve been killed by the Dallas Police Department, and there’s no accountability.”
OK, I have a confession to make. Most of what Hawk said to Green in response sounded like officeholder blah-blah to me. But she said the blah-blah really well. And that’s what I was there for. If it had been just the blah-blah, I would have been at home combing burs out of my dog’s fetlocks. I was there for the delivery.
Hawk held her composure. She didn’t let herself get bullied. She came back swinging: “These are issues that we need to address,” she said with spirit. “That’s why I have committed to do this [community meetings] every month, because I want folks to come here and tell me how they feel and to understand, to see what we can do to make a difference.
Then she went off into another long brag-fest about the innovations she has put in place: “That’s why I talk about how mass incarceration does not work. That’s why I talk about having a DA’s office that has a diversion unit. A DA-driven diversion unit is virtually unheard of.”
At a certain point in the evening, I became aware that whenever Hawk referred to something else she was doing as “unheard of,” a favorite phrase of hers, somewhere near me in the pews a soft bleating noise was issuing, like the sound of a sheep being gently but repeatedly prodded in the rib cage.
I looked up, and, aha! Whom should I find myself sitting right next to but Heath Harris, who had been first assistant to Hawk’s immediate predecessor, Watkins. With small encouragement from yours truly, Harris started whispering hoarsely that all of the things Hawk was claiming she had invented and was calling “unheard of” — for example her focus on non-DNA-based wrongful convictions — had been in place and were innovations of Watkins.
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I almost felt a tear starting at one eye, and then I remembered having heard the very same bleating noise coming from Bill Hill, Watkins’ predecessor, when he had to sit by and listen to Watkins claiming he had invented the exoneration program that Hill, in fact, had launched.
It’s sort of what they do, you know. All of them. And it’s why we love them. They’re just so leaderish, and it probably started back around the playground in third grade for most of them. How they are.
The point for me Monday night was that it’s how Hawk is now, again. In spades. Of course I don’t believe a single thing she says. But I do admire the way she says it. She’s in the game.
How long? Look, I don’t know. A piano can fall on any of their heads. But from what I saw Monday she’s as solid as any of them, and there is something very cool about that.