By Michelle Hackman
Cyrus Habib is a regular politician. Even if you’re a political junkie, you’d be forgiven for not knowing his name. He’s a first-term state senator in Washington State, albeit one who’s already made his way into his party’s leadership. He’s also a declared candidate in the race for Lieutenant Governor — but for all intents and purposes that is a local office, afforded none of the national stature of the governorship.
If you have heard of Cyrus, though, chances are you know him as the whip-smart, Yale-educated, Rhodes Scholarship-winning politician who – and this was probably the subject of the story you read – is also blind. Most stories about him see his accomplishments overshadowed by vague or nonsensical headlines such as “Blind Lawmaker Reflects Biography in Policy” or, in more than one publication: “From Braille to Yale.” Never mind that he is also the first Iranian-American to hold state senatorial office – and far from the first blind person in politics. For years, Cyrus Habib has seen his name in print, always chased by the word “blind.”
I have heard of Cyrus. Maybe because I’m a political journalist who’s also blind, which means he sits right at the nexus of everything I care about. Or perhaps that’s just what the five or so people who have emailed me articles about him recently must have figured. One such confidant, whose casual musings have more than once inspired the direction of my stories, suggested off-hand that I try to write something about Cyrus.
But what about? “I’d love to write about him,” I told my friend, “but I want to stay away from the ‘blind guy becomes politician’ narrative, and I don’t know him well enough to pick out a different storyline.” I got into this field to write about the high-stakes, messy minefield that is national politics, and couldn’t bear to think that anything I might write would join the slow march of glowing triumph-over-adversity headlines parading across the screen whenever I searched for Cyrus Habib’s name.
Still, I’m guilty: I read those articles. At least six of them. While none stood out as egregious, something about the articles’ tone gnawed at me. There was an eerie quality to them, all containing the same anecdotes relayed in unnervingly similar diction. It seemed obvious that Cyrus had developed a cheery politician’s vocabulary around his disability. Rather than portray annoyance, the most un-politician-like of dispositions, he seemed eager to sell his story in patient, canned detail to journalists who questioned him about it.
Underneath it all, I thought I detected bullshit. How could a Yale Law-educated legislator enjoy molding his own public identity so explicitly around blindness? Did he not want, even if privately, to focus attention on the record-shattering money he was raising or the polls he was topping? Did he not feel somehow minimized? With a mix of curiosity and distaste, I performed one more search: for his phone number.