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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with children who lived at a Warm Springs GA foundation he funded for disabled kids

One meaning of A.D.A.

    Thursday, January 18, 2018 -- (Long Beach, CA) -- A man who now spends each day in a wheelchair gave true definition of what just two letters can mean in challenged times.

    After Democrats and Republicans came together for passage of a major federal law, final action fell to President George Herbert Walker Bush, who signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, now known simply as the ADA.

    When Congress builds a massive law, there is always something wrong about the final legislation. The signature of America’s 41st president changed life for millions, but it still took follow-up legislation to fix problems with the ADA.

    So called “fix-it” legislation is why big laws need support across the aisle, because when a huge act passes, the government gives life to a monster, sort of like Doctor Frankenstein did when a novel and films showed a character rise from the dead. Who could see Frankenstein’s beast as anything but a monster, if there is a bolt slammed into its head?

    The Americans with Disabilities Act carried in the Congress due to nearly universal support, because while the law was massive in aspiration, its determination was to give true abilities for ordinary Americans to pursue -- as close as they could -- ordinary lives.

    Tweaks in the law were met by continued bipartisan action, and the ADA may be the last time in which both sides came together for anything in durable agreement. The ADA wasn’t the first huge law, and it wasn’t the biggest, but it has been in place for 25 years.

    Mr. Bush himself is now each day in a wheelchair, as was Franklin Roosevelt while he served as President. One’s true meaning is not best when defined by what you cannot do, but instead what you never give up pursuing. “Aspiration” and “Determination” meet with “Ability” as one possible meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    Because no soul is perfect, neither is a nation. This imperfect Union often fell onto our collective knees/ Thankfully, the aspiration of the American people to aspire to true greatness lifted us from our self-imposed sorrow.

    Shall we wage a “War on Cancer,” as Richard Nixon declared in 1973? Certainly, the man known as a crook and the only president to resign was absolutely imperfect, yet none the less accurate when he said that, “If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.” His failings were immense, but for more than 40 years, our government has shown determination and poured all ability within its reach into the aspiration of helping ordinary Americans battle life’s greatest medical challenge.

    If challenging cancer and creating the Environmental Protection Agency, and passage of the Clean Air and Clear Water acts are worthy of bipartisan agreement, then perhaps we can acknowledge that even a deeply failed soul nonetheless stood for something.

    More difficult would be times when great leaders may have turned their back, or, worse, shaken hands with the Devil simply to gain power.

    Shall we overcome deep division of racial tension, asked Americans with feet tired by marching, but souls lifted when equality arrived?

    Perhaps the current president is turning his back, but this nation can thank another broken soul -- Lyndon Johnson, of south Texas -- for loving the American people... all of them.

    In our nation’s first century, open racial tension tore us apart, until a rebellion sliced our Union in two. Following a bloody victory, the newly-born Grand Old Party itself maintained division, by “reconstruction” of our imperfect Union by again swinging of a heavy hand. The one soul ready to reunite us lay slain by hatred.

    The only things that delivered agreement and moved our nation to true greatness were economic, like building roads and laying track and the emergence of public utilities and communication. Even when we won wars, divided quickly returned, and liberty and justice were not for all.

    After decades of division, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to office, in 1933, by reshaping politics as we knew it. We faced not only a collapsed economy, but ongoing division over race. In order to repair the economy and give certainty to ordinary Americans, massive programs such as Social Security passed in massive support within Congress.

    But to redraw the political map, Mr. Roosevelt shook hands with the Devil. He expanded the Democratic party, drawing Black voters away from Mr. Lincoln’s Grand Old Party. Yet the lack of meaningful liberty allowed conservatives to also back Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” FDR’s agreement meant he turned his back on racism, to gain conservative support for Social Security and jobs and granting rights to unions.

    The New Deal saveed ordinary Americans of all color from an economic collapsed in a Great Depression. And even though his wheelchair was in an elegant office, the disabled president had still shaken hands with the Devil to hold power. That discomfort sent Mr. Roosevelt into a hidden effort to once again reshape American politics.

    Mr. Roosevelt -- a rich man from New York -- had abandoned the super-rich in 1933, so as to instead back ordinary Americans through massive government legislation, taxes and spending. Passage of such massive changes sent a wheelchair across a narrow tightrope. To change who would hold power, Mr. Roosevelt wanted to ditch southern conservatives and instead reach a deal with old-family rich. The Devil’s shackles of hatred would be traded.

    Franklin Roosevelt held talks with Wendel Wilkie, a rich Republican who ran against Roosevelt in 1940. Come on board with the Democrats, said FDR, and the old-family rich can get richer. The aspiration to reshape American politics through dogged determination simply lacked the ability to take the rich away from the Republican party. To stay in power, he watched the Devil smile.

    It was not because Mr. Roosevelt sat in a wheelchair that he could not bring over a new base of support for the Democratic party. The inability to unchain America from the Devil’s shackles meant that either he would give up major legislation, or let go of true equality.

    One generation later, as Blacks marched with non-violence in the true greatness of American heroism, guns and clubs hammered them down.

    Would a young President from Massachusetts -- John Kennedy -- do something... anything... to deliver liberty for all?

    Sadly, Americans again lost a gracious soul to the bullets of hate, when Mr. Kennedy -- like Mr. Lincoln -- lay slain.

    Like all souls, the young president was imperfect, and while he spoke passionately of fairness, his did little to push justice forward. Major civil rights legislation was sent to Congress, but southern conservative Democrats stalled the new president by choking bills in committee.

    The aspiration for dogged determination to end racial segregation fell to a white southern Democrat, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, of Texas, who took the Oval Office only when bullets killed Mr. Kennedy. No one thought that Lyndon Johnson would push any meaningful act to confront our deepest division.

    Yet the new president stepped forward with massive legislation to reshape America with an expansion of the “New Deal” that aimed to help the poor, regardless of color, for what he called, the “Great Society.” The Devil’s shackles, however, again stalled much of his aspirations.

    Bringing liberty and justice to all came into being when a kind gentleman who loved the marigold, and served as the Minority Leader of the Senate -- Everett Dirksen, of Illinois -- deliver enough Republican support that Mr. Johnson successfully passed the “Civil Rights Act,” of 1964. Because the massive changes felt like Frankenstein’s monster to many, the only way to pull a bolt from the beast would be “fix-it” legislation to tweak the law.

    No one expected the man from Texas with a thick southern drawl would have the ability to break the chains that held down even Franklin Roosevelt, but Mr. Johnson was dogged and in his absolute determination, he tell the nation, “We shall overcome.”

    That following year, in 1965, marchers again sought sweeping change, this time over who would be able to vote. Marchers were violently beaten by police on horseback while crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge, outside of Selma, Alabama. Television coverage shocked ordinary Americans, as blood dripped due to raw hatred.

    As Lyndon Johnson kept his eyes on the prize, he shared determination with Mr. Dirkson, who kept his promise to give needed votes across the aisle for the “Voting Rights Act,” of 1965, sweeping legislation that changed American politics forever.

    Because each soul is imperfect, as is our imperfect Union, hatred is not a crime. Indeed, the Republican president who sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to walk kids into school, told the American people that, “We cannot legislate the human heart.”

    But the Devil is in the details, as when Mr. Nixon leverage a “southern strategy” to capture social conservatives by spitting hate while carefully navigating race in 1968. While people of deep faith are not owned by the Devil’s chains of hate, the details are put aside.

    Even party can mean little to souls of deep faith, as a man named Jimmy Carter won religious votes, because his dogged determination to show fidelity to God was unquestionable.

    So while Mr. Nixon waged war against cancer and Mr. Reagan called on our foe to tear down a wall, it was the “Americans with Disabilities Act,” of 1991, that showed what Americans can do by working together. Certainly, it is not the largest law signed by a President, but the ADA is perhaps the last time that we marched through doggedly bipartisan determination to deliver a major law.

    The election of a Black man as presidency -- an amazing act unto itself -- also was shackled, not by shaking hands with the Devil, but seeking to push forward massive changes without a single vote cast from the other side. With no aspiration by both parties to work together, there was no ability to pull the bolt off of Frankenstein’s monster.


    After getting the heart and brain sliced open, the letters of “ADA” carry different definition for a soul reborn.

    A = “Aspiration,” to survive.
    D = “Determination,” to never give up.
    A = “Ability,” measured by ongoing self-assessment.

    Everyone faces hard times, but shackles literally held this patient onto a hospital bed, when doctors needed to stop a troubled soul pulling the needles away from the wrist.

    While hobbling in the stroke ward, the first words of any meaning were an instruction, to, “Let go of selfishness and arrogance.” Just before leaving the hospital came, “humble messenger.”

    I must be humble.

    But “aspiration,” “determination” and “ability” are three simple words that came today, when riding a bicycle on a beautiful warm winter’s day.

    So by an act of self-assessment, this humble messenger thanks President George Herbert Walker Bush for dogged determination to liberate ordinary Americans who otherwise would be shackled in an invisible prison.

-- Billy Orton

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Billy Orton is a novelist and historian living in Long Beach, California.