Robert Reich: The Freeze – OpEd


I can’t presume to know why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suddenly froze midway through his opening remarks at a news conference.

He began the GOP’s weekly leadership briefing by saying lawmakers were on a path to finishing a major defense budget bill this week. “We’ve had good bipartisan cooperation and a string of —.”

And then he stopped mid-sentence and remained silent for about 20 seconds — which in the media world of Washington feels like an eternity. He just stared straight ahead. When other members of GOP leadership finally asked whether he was okay, McConnell did not immediately respond. 

Several minutes later, after the news conference was over, McConnell returned. Reporters asked him what happened. “I’m fine,” he said simply.

Thirty-five years ago I was giving a luncheon speech about the economy to members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. 

In the middle of my speech, the person who had introduced me asked if I was okay and offered me a glass of water. I was puzzled by his question, which seemed to come from out of nowhere. I declined the water and continued with my speech. 

That night, I received a phone call from someone who said he had attended my speech. He explained that he was a physician, and asked if I knew that I had had a petite mal seizure in the middle of the speech. 

“You froze for about 30 seconds,” he said. “Your eyes fluttered. You were offered a glass of water. Do you remember?”

I was flabbergasted. “No,” I said. I told him that I recalled being offered the water, but had no memory of any interruption in my speech.

“That’s what I thought. That’s why I called you. You may want to have it checked out.”

I thanked him and got off the phone, deeply shaken.

The very idea that my brain had skidded — that I had frozen for thirty seconds and not been aware of it, let alone that it had occurred in front of several hundred people — shocked me to the core. 

The fear of losing control of your brain — of being literally out of your mind, even temporarily — has to be one of the worst terrors imaginable. Our identity — our entire sense of self, our capacity to be — depends on our mind.

I had no idea why my brain had it had skipped thirty seconds, which scared me almost as much. 

The neurologist I saw some days later explained that epilepsy affects over 1 percent of the population, and a larger percent experience one or two seizures during their lifetimes. The cause? He shrugged. “We know as much about the brain as we do the dark side of the moon.” (I assume some progress has been made over the last thirty-five years, but most of it remains a mystery.)

Again, I can’t presume to say what caused McConnell to freeze. He is 81 years old. Yesterday’s incident took place about four months after he fell and suffered a concussion and a broken rib at a private dinner at a Washington. 

But I commiserate with what McConnell may be going through. For someone in public life whose every movement and utterance is consequential, it must be terrifying. 

I find much of what Mitch McConnell has done as leader of the Senate Republicans repugnant. 

Yet on another level, he and I — and all of you reading this — share the same terrifying fragilities of being human. I wish him well.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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