Morris: Thoughts on a Mayor’s DWI Arrest
by Leo Morris
Here’s how it happens.
You have a drink with your meal at a favorite restaurant, then drive home with no problem.
Then, sometime later, you’re at another restaurant, and you think, well, one drink was no problem. What can be wrong with two drinks?
And if you can drive safely with two drinks, you reason another time at another restaurant, why can’t you handle three?
So it goes, on and on, until one rainy Friday night when you hit a tree on the way home from the Rib Room and get arrested for driving drunk – an offense that many still call a DUI (driving under the influence), though in Indiana it’s officially called an OWI (operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated).
And the clearest thing you remember from the emergency room, where they are working on your dislocated hip, is a police officer leaning over you and saying quietly, “Don’t worry, sir, it’s just a misdemeanor.”
That’s the way it happened to me, at least.
I have no idea if that’s even close to how it happened for Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who was booked into the Allen County Jail for OWI early this morning following an accident. But I’m willing to bet he’s feeling many of the same things I was more than 20 years ago.
The first is a selfish burst of righteous indignation that simply because of who he is he is all over the news for something that wouldn’t even rate a mention for the average person. I was a newspaper editor at the time of my citation, and my bosses did not want to be accused of covering anything up, so my charges were front-page news. For at least a couple of days, I was the hottest news story in town, and how many people can say that? I wouldn’t be surprised if the mayor goes to bed every night for a week roundly cursing the media.
Underneath that is a sense of embarrassment bordering on shame about how one’s good name might be tarnished by the lapse in judgment, and a little trepidation about how it might affect the future. In my case, I feared that I’d be fired, and I’m forever grateful I wasn’t. In Mayor Henry’s case, he will worry about how his re-election chances will be affected. Not much, I suspect, but he can’t help but wonder.
There is, at some point, even a sense of relief that it wasn’t worse. After my publicity, I lost count of how many people tried to cheer me up with some version of, “There but for the grace of God . . .” In other words, they had done the same thing but had never been caught. But I said my own version of that to myself, “Thank God I wasn’t crippled and didn’t kill anyone.”
But the strongest emotion of all is simply shock that such a thing could have happened. How do respectable, responsible people get themselves in such a pickle?
By lying to themselves
You tell yourself you don’t have a problem even if you drink every night, because, after all, you always get up the next morning and go to work. You tell yourself you don’t drink too much even when there are nights you can’t totally remember. You tell yourself you aren’t a drunk driver, no matter how many drinks you have how many times before you get behind the wheel.
According to FBI statistics, the average person who gets a first OWI has committed the offense 80 times before being cited. The first time I read that, I scoffed, but now I believe it. One drink here one night, two drinks there the next. It adds up.
If you don’t get caught, you will probably keep doing it as long as there are no consequences, until there are consequences, of one kind or another. If you do get caught, you have a choice, to own it or not, to learn from it or not.
I took it as a wake-up call, but not immediately, I regret to say. I stubbornly thought I could keep drinking, but only in moderation. But every time, one drink became two, which became three, the same pattern repeated over and over. Moderation is difficult when you take that first drink and like it so much you don’t want to stop. I finally realized that the only solution for me was to not drink at all.
I’m not here to lecture the mayor, to presume I know whether he has a drinking problem or not or what he should do about it. He has publicly apologized for his actions, praised Fort Wayne police for their professionalism and said he will accept whatever punishment is deemed appropriate. It sounds like he’s owning the experience and willing to learn from it. It was, in a word, classy.
And I’m not preaching “don’t drink” to anyone. It’s your life, you lead it.
But I will say – to the mayor and to anyone else who might pay the slightest bit of attention – don’t ever have another drink for the rest of your life unless you are where you need to be for the night and don’t have to get behind the wheel. There might not be “for the grace of God” for you or someone else.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at email@example.com.