Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tom Barrett's Recovery

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett held his first news conference since being beaten after attempting to get emergency help for a woman and baby near the Wisconsin State Fair over the weekend. I blogged a few days ago about this incident, and about the complicated nature of psychological healing after a traumatic incident in which you are being hailed as the hero. I neglected, however, to talk about the added complexity of things when you are a politician, and everything you say or do is already incredibly complex.

Barrett does some interesting things in this news conference. After he introduces the various members of his family who are there and thanks his wife for being by his side, he introduces his niece, Molly, again and points out how terrific she was in the emergency. Then he goes on to explain why his security detail was not with him. Next, he characterizes the situation as one which any citizen of his city would have responded to in the same way, and then he starts to describe what happened, again pointing out that his niece did just what he did.

I think there are a number of things going on here. One is that this is a politician, and politicians always need to worry about how they come across. He can't be the only hero in Milwaukee -- this has to be something anyone would do -- because that makes citizens feel good about themselves and they associate that food feeling with him and vote for him. Imagine how obnoxious he would seem if he came out and said, "I know I was really brave and heroic, and few would do what I did." That would be the end of his career right then and there.

Another thing you see is Barrett explaining away some criticism -- that he didn't have his security detail -- up front. Part of this, too, is simply that he is a public figure. But part, also, may represent him thinking through what could have happened differently. Just about anyone who has ever been assaulted has questioned if they could have prevented it. I'm sure he has, too.

You also see Barrett talking repeatedly about his niece. This is, in part, because he is a nice person and a good uncle and he wants her to get some credit for what she did, as well she should. Realizing that she acted just as he did also helps all of us, and Barrett himself, focus again on the fact that this was random and that he wasn't doing anything wrong. Again, he has thought through whether he could have or should have prevented what happened. If Molly called 911, and if any citizen would have called 911, then calling 911 was not the wrong thing to do. And yes, I have heard criticism in the last few days suggesting he shouldn't have.

During the Q&A, someone asked what he was thinking during the attack. He replies, "This is really bad, this is really bad." Then a reporter mentions that her viewers are calling Barrett their hero, and asks for a reaction. He says that Molly's his hero. At this point, I have to say I don't think this is posturing or politics at all. This is a man who knows he could have been killed and knows who he has to thank for that not happening. A pure politician would have stuck with "I did what anyone would have done" and maybe claimed that during the attack he was concerned for the safety of his family or the baby and grandmother. This is an honest person who has experienced trauma speaking. It rings true.

But perhaps the part of the press conference that touched me the most was at the very end. In talking about the support he has received from others -- including a phone call from President Obama -- he said it meant a great deal to him because, "This is tough." I don't think he only meant physically.

Below is a link to the full video of the news conference, although you will have to go to Youtube to watch it.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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