Politics Unusual

I went to a meeting recently, although in DC it might be called something else. It involved some sitting people and some talking people. To me that’s a meeting.

Russell Bld

Russell Senate Office Building

It was organized by Patrick Kennedy, who is fighting for people with mental disorders, not least depression and addiction. It turns out, insurance companies are inclined to deny coverage for anything that doesn’t show up in a scan or biochemical assay. So people with chronic depression, manic disorders, addictive tendencies, and so on, are dismissed–at some point–because there’s no medical justification for treatment.

We shouldn’t be too quick to criticize the insurance companies. After all, they’ve been denying coverage for everything they can, without bias, from the start. But mental illness is a nebulous thing, and its diagnosis is always a matter of opinion. Never mind that the opinion comes from someone who has spent a career studying and treating mental illness. There are no plasma levels, no lumps, no scans. Who’s to say what’s right? Well, the insurance companies, of course.

But Patrick Kennedy is a force to be reckoned with. He is soft-spoken and gentle; he’s considerate, modest–altogether not what I thought a politician would be. Technically he’s a former politician, a member of the House. But he’s lost nothing in the way of political skill.

For our meeting, he brought in the big dogs–Pelosi, McCain, Joseph Kennedy, several surgeons general, NIH top dogs, and quite a few more heavies. Everyone gave a speech. I saw everything. I swear.

One. I’ve spent time with Patrick for different reasons, the principal one being I’m a neuroscientist and I’m easy to push around. So there I was.

Whether it’s the fault of the media, or I’m just cynical, I entered that conference with a pretty negative attitude about politicians. But the speakers were about half politicians, half other things, and it seemed to me that the politicians were genuinely more passionate than the other half. Of course they’re trained to seem passionate, and certainly it’s their job to be passionate. I’m not completely naive.

But you had to be there, especially when the Kennedys spoke. Patrick’s speech had an augmenting energy, ending with high-volume, passionate words. I didn’t check every one, but I’m pretty sure all my hair stood up. This was powerful stuff.

Then came Joseph, and this speech was a thing to behold. It was the content, the heartfelt nature of it; the air of experience, even though he is young. I thought perhaps he had an excellent speechwriter, but whether or not this is true, the way he delivered it stood by itself: not slow but medium-paced, accentuating the right points at the right times, sweeping his gaze across the audience just often enough; not fixating a few people like most speakers do. When he made his key point–that even the mental health care reforms they were hoping to pass would not be comprehensive enough–he said it regular, not loud, but it rang in your ears. I don’t know how he did it, but I can’t forget the feeling of that moment, as I realized this wasn’t just a great speaker but a great man.

It wasn’t automatic. When I first saw him sitting a few feet from me, I thought “Here we have another Kennedy, a Congressman because of his name.” But after the speech, I wondered how a family could carry greatness through the generations like that. Which part is inherited, and which part is taught? If we knew that, we might consider teaching the teachable part in our schools, instead of having kids memorize state capitals and the quadratic equation.

Two. Politicians, who I was assuming to be not especially bright, are very bright indeed–at least this pool of ten or so. Pelosi’s speech was expert and polished. The Kennedy’s gave two of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. When it was McCain’s turn, there was some tension in the room. Here was a Republican talking before 100 or so liberals. There was even a comment about his safety.

He came in, dressed upper-casual, hair slicked back, smiling–always smiling–and he did not make the mistake of trying to give a momentous speech before this audience. It was already clear that everyone in the room already agreed on every god damn thing; there was no point in trying to contribute some new insight. So John McCain went to the podium and told two stories about him and Ted Kennedy. They were funny stories. Then he made a simple point: Mental health care isn’t fair. We have to fix it.

And he left. The jokes before set a contrasting background for this one simple statement, which hit like a thud.

Every other Congressman who stood at the podium did an expert job of saying the necessary without dragging it out. As someone whose career has involved a great deal of public speaking, I left the meeting thinking, You shouldn’t have judged. You were way off.

Three. I sense that politics is mostly talk. This isn’t to say talk use useless. If the 10 or 15 politicians I saw were to present before a bunch of people who were sitting on the fence, or even people from the insurance industry, there’s a good chance they would have brought many or most over to their side. These politicians were convincing in a powerful way.

But they were talking to 100 or so people who already shared their opinion. I understand that events like this generate press. But, with the exception of two normal people who told hardship stories, everyone who got up to talk had to thank and flatter half a dozen other politicians. I can only surmise that they never see their colleagues except when standing in front of a crowd, so they take the opportunity to show their gratitude–despite the crowd–with bright shiny stories of indebtedness and role models and “If it weren’t for you….”

So if it’s mostly talk, why talk about each other, instead of the topic at hand?

Conclusion. Cynicism aside, these political leaders came to what must have been a minor event for them. They were professional and well-prepared; skilled and sincere. Maybe, from now on, I’ll think more of them and less of the media.