Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Habeas Kirk

It used to be that when Mark Kirk didn't want to meet with his constituents he would have his aides make up stories about why he wasn't available. They would say he was in Washington, serving as a military reservist, or otherwise engaged. Some of the excuses might have been valid. Some of them turned out later to be misleading or totally false.

Kirk once spent an entire summer avoiding constituents who wanted to explain their views on a timely issue. They called his office repeatedly asking for an appointment and they visited his office five times. His aides kept refusing to let them meet with their representative. Another group ended up camping out in his office until they were arrested in the wee hours of the morning after the press had gone home. Kirk never met with them, either. He did, though, install a buzzer-activated lock on his office so that no constituent could ever again get into the waiting room of the office they were paying for with their tax dollars unless his staff buzzed them in.

It was infuriating to have an elected government official show such disdain for democracy. But at least everyone knew that it was Kirk himself who was responsible for the way his staff was treating the voters. Now, sadly, we don't know if Kirk is in charge or if his staff has simply usurped his office.

Since Kirk suffered a massive stroke which initially left him unable to walk, use his left arm, or speak, the people he was elected to represent have patiently waited to see if he would recover enough mental function to be able to return to his duties as a senator. He released a couple of highly-edited videos that showed him apparently making progress learning to talk again, but it has been impossible to tell from the videos whether Kirk understands the words he is saying or is simply parroting a phrase here and a sentence there as the camera is turned on and off.

Kirk's office refuses to let the press or his constituents meet with Kirk so that they could form an opinion on his mental abilities. They are making a great effort, however, to convince everyone that not only is Kirk still breathing, he is actually thinking. Maybe so. Maybe not.

Kirk's staff wants everyone to imagine that, although in the videos Kirk's expression never changes, he still exhibits a full range of human emotion, and that his emotions are appropriate to the situation he is dealing with. Maybe so. Maybe not. Strokes leave people with a wide range of permanent disabilities.

Today, Kirk's staff released another video of the Senator. For a full minute, Kirk doesn't appear on camera and is not heard from. All we get is a campaign-commercial style montage of newspaper headlines, pans across a flag, and out-of-context video clips of TV reporters, all sewn together with special effects and music. Finally, Kirk appears and speaks for less than thirty seconds, in three separate clips.

In the video, Kirk appears to refer to Illinois' debt being downgraded three weeks ago. It is not possible to know when the video was made. Before his stroke, Kirk was quick to talk with reporters in person or on the phone whenever something newsworthy happened. If Kirk was ready to go back to work, we would have seen this video weeks ago. The fact that it took this long to edit together something that makes him look competent doesn't tell us anything at all about what his real-time abilities are. It usually only takes a day or two for videos of talking oranges or babies to appear on You-Tube.

Most of the people who elected Kirk and those who voted against him probably hope that Kirk has as complete a recovery as possible. But we deserve better than to have his staff manipulate his image to make it appear that he is mentally capable. The fact that Kirk's staff receives their paychecks and exercise the powers of Kirk's office while Kirk remains away from his office gives everyone reason to be uneasy. The same people who used to hide Kirk from his constituents at his bidding are the same ones who are now hiding him, but we don't know if they are acting on his orders or on their own.

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