Serious effort here on my part. Really. I shall approach the story of our local mentally ill district attorney from a more positive perspective than in the past.
Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk has returned to Dallas from yet another institutional sojourn associated with mental illness – I have lost count of the sojourns – but she also already has announced through her people that she is not yet up to returning to work.
Here is how I plan to attack this issue. Let’s not talk so much about the myriad possible defects in Hawk’s approach to the job of district attorney. Please allow me to talk instead about all of the really great public servants whom it has been my privilege to observe in my long career as an observer of public servants.
Yes, that’s right. I admire them. I won’t blame anyone who assumed otherwise, who judging by the way I write about them most of the time thought I must hate their guts. No. And let’s not detour into a big conversation about me. I’m a journalist. I have a job to do. In fact I do admire most of them, especially those who are really good at it.
Being really good at it, by the way, has nothing at all to do with agreeing with Jim Schutze about anything at all. One of the best practitioners of the art of public service I ever observed — and it is an art — was Roy Lee Orr, who died three months ago at age 83. Orr was a Dallas County commissioner for 10 years while I was a daily newspaper columnist in Dallas.
In terms of our personal political inclinations, Orr and I were not merely at opposite poles, we were on different planets. I wrote many columns critical of him and of programs and ideas he championed. That was one thing. But the other thing was that he was both politically gifted and enormously strong and courageous. People who are good at public service have to bring all of those qualities to work with them every morning.
They have to be really good at listening to people, scoping them out, figuring out what they really want, identifying that one element that can provide a basis for compromise and consensus so that some real solution can be wrought. It’s exhausting work — teeth-pulling, teasing, cajoling, bullying, encouraging, hand-holding. Only a certain kind of person can do it well.
Then think about the other part. It takes a certain courage. Here’s this jerk newspaper columnist sitting in the outer office, and you know he’s going to come in here and ask a bunch of impertinent questions and try to pull you offside, but he’s also the channel by which tens of thousands of your constituents will learn what you’re doing, so you better call him in here and just do the duel.
Orr was consummately good at all of it, and people who are really good at it tend to get into it fairly early in life. Orr was elected to the school board in the small town of DeSoto, now a thriving Dallas suburb, when he was in either his late 20s or early 30s, went on to become the mayor and then was elected to the county commissioners court.
I also think of former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt. The first time she ran for the council, she walked my neighborhood one very hot Saturday afternoon. I was in my backyard doing some kind of brutal hod-carrying for my wife in the garden. In walks this kid in her twenties, and my first thought was, “Listen, Sweetheart, I am not in the mood to pay to send you on a mission trip to some gorgeous beach in Guatemala.”
Next thing I know she’s on the City Council and my hero.
They come to it young, because they find out they’re good at it young. It’s satisfying for them to be good at something.
Politics really is a gift. Like drawing or math, it’s a unique gift, not the same as gifts for making music or making money. Young people are excited to discover it in themselves. They run for office for the same reason they fall in love, to try out their equipment.
Then they’re in it, and the bricks start flying. That’s when you really see the wheat separated from the chaff. Many are called. Few have the stomach.
Sometimes people think a person in my job has to be tough. Hah. We shoot at the politicians from cover. They have to get shot at and stay standing. That’s tough.
Those qualities, the political skill, the thick hide and a preternatural ability to duck, really are entirely independent of political persuasion. The skills and the toughness get a candidate into the coliseum in the first place. Then they decide which team of gladiators to join.
I hear a lot of disgust lately with so-called “professional politicians,” which I can’t help thinking is at least partially misplaced. Of course a person can take personal political gifts and harness them to a cynical self-serving agenda that betrays the trust invested in him by the public. We all have a right, maybe a duty to be disgusted with a public servant who is cynical, self-serving and betrays the public trust.
But don’t confuse cynicism with professionalism. There really is a profession of politics in our society — how could there not be? — and some people really are much better at it than others.
Of course they recognize and admire qualities of professional accomplishment in each other, and of course they share some modicum of respect based on those qualities, and, yes, that respect can either transcend or at last stand apart from partisan disagreement and animosity.
They’re a little different from the rest of us. So are bassoonists. That’s not a conspiracy. It’s human nature. We’re all a little different from the rest of us. But their difference, their skills, strengths and mutual respect are the basic foundation on which all social progress must be brokered and taken into action for the benefit of the rest of us.
Of course, that’s when everything is working right. If voters go out and elect a bunch of amateurs who have no political experience, who don’t even get politics and don’t share that modicum of mutual respect, then, yeah, the result is a stupid stalemate and something that looks less like a legislative body than a high school food fight. But that’s on voters for picking amateurs.
All of this is by way of staying positive and trying to approach the Susan Hawk question from a perspective that won’t seem merely mean-spirited. Obviously I am aware of this meme out there to the effect that it’s brave of Hawk to seek treatment. I think bravery might cover one sojourn. Ah, but there I go again.
What I mean to say instead is that Hawk lacks at least one of the all-important qualities that an officeholder must possess in order to do right by the office — the toughness. The job of district attorney in a populous urban county in America in the 21st century requires a level of toughness and resilience that she manifestly does not possess.
I know people have said that her critics would speak differently if she were suffering from a physical disease, let’s say breast cancer, instead of mental illness. But not really. I don’t think so. If she were suffering from a kind of cancer that made it impossible for her to get downtown every day and carry out the will of the voters who sent her there, then at some point the voters would expect her to have the good grace to step down.
We are at that point. It’s not a moral issue. It’s not a political issue. It is simply a question of her ability to carry out the very important duties of her office.
She doesn’t have that ability. We have to wonder, in fact, whether her mental illness issues may even ensue from a native inability to meet the challenges of public office. And then again I’m not sure what difference that makes. We know and she knows, now based on multiple attempts, that for whatever reason she just can’t do the job.
It’s really our duty as voters and citizens to ask her to step aside. We owe it to our community to make sure someone is in that chair who can handle the duties.
And, of course, when voters think about this local example of a person who probably had some basic stability problems to begin with, who was put into office without a track record, untested and without proven ability, and then they think about the consequences the country is facing, up pops another question: What might have happened if Susan Hawk had been elected president of the United States?
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