Make Them Go Away



From Chapter One: Clint Eastwood and Christopher Reeve.

In the spring of 2000, actor Clint Eastwood took on the 10-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act. His Mission Ranch hotel in Carmel, California, had been sued for access violations under the law, and he'd been slapped with a lawsuit he'd never seen coming, he said.

"Dirty Harry wants revenge, Washington style," said The Wall Street Journal.

This time, it is a gang of trial lawyers staring down Clint Eastwood, asking themselves about taking him on: "Do I feel lucky?" These "sleazebag lawyers," the veteran actor says, his voice constricting, messed with the wrong guy when they "frivolously" sued him and hundreds of other small-business owners for failing to comply quickly enough with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mr. Eastwood . . . is striking back with a Washington lobbying campaign for new legislation to modify the law. "I figure I won't back down because of all these people . . . who can't defend themselves."

Florida Republican Congressman Mark Foley's proposed ADA Notification Act would ease the pain for businessmen like Eastwood charged with access violations. The Act would require that a disabled person who wished to file suit under the ADA give 90 days' notice first.

With Eastwood noisily involved and the media looking on, Foley's proposal moved onto the fast track. Rep. Charles Canady, chair of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, extracted it from the legislative mire where so many bills languish and scheduled it for a hearing in just a few weeks.....

"What happens is these lawyers, they come along and they end up driving off in a big Mercedes," Eastwood told reporters, "and the disabled person ends up driving off in a wheelchair." In the days leading up to the hearing, Eastwood appeared on the talk shows Hardball and Crossfire; he was covered in a Fox News Special. The National Journal quoted him. Columnists covered his comments. Newsweek used the "Mercedes" quote on its "Perspectives" page. The seasoned Hollywood actor had his script and he stuck to it: He wasn't against disabled people. He wanted to help disabled people, who were being preyed on by moneygrubbing lawyers. The law was the problem; had been all along. The law needed to be fixed.

"Did you really keep disabled people out of your hotel?" Crossfire's Robert Novak asked Eastwood. "No chance," Eastwood replied. "The first thing I did was put in handicapped bathrooms, even before the ADA."

The day before, on CNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews had said, "Well, everybody I think watching this show of Hardball right now can understand this situation. A lot of places have been changed radically in the last 20 years. You can actually take a wheelchair up a ramp. You get into a bathroom, you see one of the stalls has good arm rests. You can get through doors with a wheelchair. Those are all good things, right?"

Things were getting better for the handicapped. And yet still, it seemed, it wasn't enough; still they whined for more things to be done and more changes to be made. ...

Eastwood was a celebrity sniper in a shouting war against the ADA that had been going on for a long time. In the spring of 2000 the media had Eastwood; a few months earlier they'd had ABC's John Stossel, as relentless a critic of disability rights as you'd be likely to find. Stossel could himself be considered disabled. He stutters. But he did not see himself as disabled. He did not see himself as anyone who would use a law and claim "victim status," as he put it, just because of a physical condition he had.

On his March 3 "Give Me A Break!" feature on ABC's 20/20, he'd paraded the story of "well-paid lawyers suing small businesses who violate parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act." It was no coincidence that Stossel's theme would become Eastwood's. It was a tune that had been being sung for years by the critics of disability rights: that lawsuits under the ADA -- an "endless string of lawsuits," Stossel claimed -- had overwhelmed society.....

On June 5, 1995, Christopher Reeve lay in a recovery room in the ultra-modern University of Virginia Medical Center. The 42-year-old actor and amateur equestrian had arrived at the hospital by helicopter on May 27, just hours after he had been thrown from his mount at a Culpeper, Va., horse show. He had fractured the first two vertebrae in his neck.

Reeve was known as something of an activist for progressive causes. He had helped found the Creative Coalition, whose members included Susan Sarandon and Glenn Close and whose concerns ran from homelessness to the environment. He had helped Vice President Al Gore clean up a New Jersey beach two years earlier. In 1987, he had traveled to Chile on behalf of writers jailed for their political beliefs. Just a few months before his accident, he had come to Washington to testify before a Senate committee, arguing against a Republican proposal to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Reeve had never attained the Hollywood status of Clint Eastwood. Yet he had been Superman. To see Reeve's "larger-than-life form diminished, to see a man of prodigious strength reduced to a helpless person" rattled our own sense of safety, as novelist Merrill Joan Gerber wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle. If the Man of Steel could be felled in seconds by an earthbound accident, then where did that leave the rest of us mere mortals? Indianapolis Star movie critic Bonnie Britton wondered. We were all "pretty damn vulnerable."

In the days since Reeve's arrival, the area around the University of Virginia Medical Center had taken on the trappings of a full-blown media circus. More than 145 news organizations from around the globe had contacted the hospital's news office about Reeve. Reporters from as far away as South Africa and Australia had arrived. CNN had broadcast a bilingual Reeve special from Charlottesville to all of South America. There were so many reporters and cameras that the hospital had to have guards keep them out of the lobby.

Reporters and cameramen loitered on the sidewalk outside the UVA Medical Center that hot day in June as Reeve lay on the operating table. Hospital receptionist Wendy Ingalls was standing on the sidewalk as well, silently staring at the building, when caught by a reporter. "I'm hoping somehow, some way, he recovers," Ingalls told him, her voice almost breaking. "I'm really sad about this. It's a terrible thing to be paralyzed." | BOOK ORDERING INFO |

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