I have to confess I was not expecting much from the autism hearings in the House of Representatives last month. For one thing, I used to be Washington editor of United Press international, and our Congressional correspondent, whose opinion I valued highly, once told me I needed to understand one main thing about Congress: "Congress sucks."
For another, I've learned not to get my expectations too high when it comes to anything about autism. I predicted to Jake Crosby that John Walker-Smith's appeal in Britain would fail, basically on the premise that everything always fails. He enjoys reminding me that Walker-Smith was triumphantly vindicated. (There is a similar joke among foreign correspondents: if you need to write a story about the Middle East and you don't have anything to say, it's always safe to begin by writing: "the situation in the Middle East worsened last week." Someday, that story will be wrong.)
Even so, the prospect of a late-in-the-session, lame-duck hearing to give Rep. Dan Burton a proper swansong for his pet theory did not seem like a good venue for anything important. What I did not count on, aside from the excellent preparation by many members of our community, was what I will call the legacy effect. Rep. Bill Posey, Republican of Florida, began his legendary grilling of the CDC's Coleen Boyle by noting that he had replaced Dave Weldon in his district, and that Weldon had explained to him the fact that mercury is a likely culprit in autism.
And Rep. Darrell Issa, now chairman of the reform and committee, struck me as a smart and morally serious person, even if I suspect I might disagree with many of his views; his statement that no possible cause would be off the table was quite a moment. It was clear to me that he was not doing this to be nice to Dan Burton, he was doing it because his own judgment of what Burton had been saying was now taking effect.
In a way, this shouldn't have been so surprising. In our community, many of us are keenly aware of the legacy of a number of individuals, most significantly Bernie Rimland. I know personally that doing justice to Bernie's great integrity and perseverance is a factor that motivates me every day, and my connection with him in the years before he died has given me a tremendous sense of commitment. We all have people like that, and I am heartened to realize that history is not lost in the House of Representatives, either.
I hope Dan Burton and Dave Weldon are proud of their legacies. They should be.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.