I lost faith in politicians in the late 1980’s.
I was a cub reporter and my editors decided to send me to Tallahassee to cover the legislative session. I looked a little different then. Actually, I looked a lot different: thin, long blonde hair and great legs. I was shocked at how the lawmakers looked at me and invited me out for cocktails.
It felt like a bunch of middle-aged white guys had been dropped off at summer camp and had morphed into horny, junior high nimwits. They would get what they wanted by bullying, belittling and extorting whoever and whatever was in their way. I remember thinking, “Wow, these are the people running the state of Florida. ”
I was reminded of my spring at the capitol yesterday when a friend sent me a link to the Mother Jones story about Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and his aides discussing ways to undermine McConnell’s potential opponents, including actor Ashley Judd. According to the article:
The aide who led the meeting began his presentation with a touch of glee: “I refer to [Judd] as sort of the oppo research situation where there’s a haystack of needles, just because truly, there’s such a wealth of material.” He ran through the obvious: Judd was a prominent supporter of President Barack Obama, Obamacare, abortion rights, gay marriage, and climate change action. He pointed out that she is “anti-coal.”
But the McConnell gang explored going far beyond Judd’s politics and policy preferences. This included her mental health. The meeting leader noted:
She’s clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced. I mean it’s been documented. Jesse can go in chapter and verse from her autobiography about, you know, she’s suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the ’90s.
In her 2011 memoirs, All That Is Bitter & Sweet, Judd discusses her depression, her thoughts of suicide as a sixth grader and her stay in a rehab center for depression. There is a lot of laughing by the aides, who go on to poke fun at her thoughts on religion, gay marriage and abortion rights. I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. I learned my lesson back in the 80’s. I know both Republicans and Democrats do this. (I am not affiliated with any party.)
Still, as a woman who has had bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts (and attempts) and a stint in rehab for depression – it hurts. Even though it has been years since my last major depression and I have worked very hard to manage my mental health (I take my medication without fail, participated in years of therapy and have been sober for nearly 15 years) I realize there are some things I will not be able to do without having my mental health thrown in my face as proof that I am not fit for many of society’s positions.
Forget about the marathons and triathlons I have run, the journalism awards I have won, the hurricanes I have survived, the boo-boos I have kissed and my 195 lbs. deadlift – in certain circumstances my mental health would trump them all. To Sen. Mitch McConnell and his aides I would be a divorced, mentally ill, alcoholic single mother who must take medications to maintain her mental health.
Stigma. Ugly stigma.
But my favorite part of this story is McConnell’s response to the secret tape. Three times at a press conference yesterday, McConnell was asked about the comments made by his staffers about Judd’s mental health. Three times McConnell denied answering the question.
Instead, he offered a response that sounds like it came straight from the mouth of his spin doctors: “As you know, my wife’s ethnicity was attacked by a left-wing group in Kentucky and apparently they also bugged my headquarters. (McConnell’s wife is former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.) So, I think that pretty well sums up the way the political left is operating in Kentucky.”
What does that have to do with questioning Judd’s mental health? Nothing. Of course McConnell failed to mention that Judd responded to Progress Kentucky’s tweet about Chao by tweeting back: “Whatever the intention, whatever the venue, whomever the person, attacks or comments on anyone’s ethnicity are wrong & patently unacceptable.”
I don’t know the status of Judd’s mental health. It’s moot now because Judd has decided not to run. I also don’t know whether McConnell is morally fit to hold office when he allows his staff to entertain the idea of using someone’s mental health against them. Instead of stepping up to the plate and making a benign statement, such as depression is a horrible and potentially debilitating illness and how we, as a society, need to do something about it, McConnell’s re-election campaign has asked the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate how Mother Jones obtained the recording of the strategy session.
McConnell’s behavior reminds me of a second-grader trying to explain to the teacher why he said something nasty on the playground about a classmate. “Oh yeah? Well, you should have hear what those guys said about my mom last week!”
None of this is going to get us any closer to eliminating the stigma surrounding depression or formulating a comprehensive national policy on how we are going to deal with depression – the #1 one workplace disability in the U.S.
Unfortunately, we – the people – cannot respond by making McConnell and his staffers write on the board 100 times: “I will not make fun of mental illness.” It’s too bad because with the way they are behaving, it might be the only thing that works.
Politician photo available from Shutterstock