Governor's childhood filled with obstacles to overcome
GREENWICH -- If the squarest jaws are lantern jaws, Big Dan Rybacki's is a lighthouse. He is among the tallest of the troopers on the governor's security detail. In a suit cut wide enough to hide a gun, a radio and other sundries on his hips, he looks to be constructed entirely of rectangles, from torso to chin to the perpetual flattop of a once-and-always Marine.
Like most of the other troopers on the new governor's security detail, Rybacki is quiet most of the spring. The radio is off as he guides the black Lincoln north out of Manhattan, away from Rockefeller Center and Dan Malloy's latest appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." The sedan jerks to a stop in mid-morning traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway, but soon it is whirring through the glades north of the Parkway, among the mansions of backcountry Greenwich one morning in late March.
They stop here on the way back from 30 Rock, at the Eagle Hill School of Greenwich, a boarding and day school for children with learning disabilities. The governor is the main attraction at the morning's assembly. As the car pulls to a stop, Malloy crows, for his fellow passengers' benefit, "The poster child for successful dyslexia is here!"
Inside the school building, friends are waiting. Malloy greets Samantha, a student here and daughter of Mary Schaffer and Charles Morgan, his friends from Stamford. Administrators chat politely about the school's history as Malloy poses for pictures in the lobby, and the 251 students stream past, headed for a small auditorium. A papier-mache eagle sits atop the Pepsi machine.
The room is quiet save the occasional creak of wooden seats. Boys in unruly, rumpled shirts and khakis fidget, their arms in the constant motion of schoolboys in an auditorium anywhere. The girls, in general, are more still. Both camps fix their eyes steadily on the man in the black suit.
"I'm the governor of the state of Connecticut," Malloy says, "and I can't write anything very well. It would be a long and laborious process to even write a sentence.
"I want you to understand that I've been there, and that this, too, shall pass, and that you find a way to work through it," he says. --¦ Somebody they never, ever thought would succeed turned out to be governor."
Malloy takes questions. How did he get into college? How did he deal with school? Was he ever embarrassed? Did anyone call him dumb?
He answers them, carefully, patiently. No, he was never going to win an essay contest. His dyslexia meant oral exams and textbooks on tape, his "spastic" movements meant years of physical therapy, eking out in humbling scrapes what everyone else seemed to acquire all of a sudden, one day, and never think about again.
About school, he says simply: "It was terrible. I was embarrassed most of the time."
He tells them about his mother, the indomitable Agnes, who taught him to refuse to accept the unacceptable verdict. And his teachers, his therapists. They found the ways he could compete -- the voice, the force of argument, the building power of persuasion -- and they taught him to love winning.
His weakness, he says, and now the headmistress is shaking her head very slowly, enrapt and appreciative, "made me learn things that other people never had to learn."
When they get back in the car, he's the governor again. "Well, whad'ya think? Pretty good, uh?" The question is directed first to the back seat, to aide Arielle Reich. Satisfied, rolling along again, he taps Rybacki's arm, lightly. "Whad'ya think?"
"My oldest boy is dyslexic," Rybacki says, soft but deliberate.
"So ... You got something out of that."
"It was," and he pauses, his voice thicker, choosing his word, "inspirational. I wish my wife had heard it."
"Next time we'll let you know ahead of time," Malloy says. They drive in silence for a while.
PUT DOWN THE VIOLIN
The disability is part of the package. Of those early days, before the unsuccessful 2006 campaign, aides remember a still untested candidate, one who needed work and seasoning to augment the record of a successful mayor. But he already had "the story." And they deployed it frequently. Onstage at a debate in New London with John DeStefano, Malloy reeled off the broader outlines. When he got to the point where "the doctors told my parents I was mentally retarded," he punched the last word a bit forcefully, and in the ensuing pause little snickers rose in the darkness of the Garde Arts Center, in the DeStefano supporters' section.
Malloy talked more about his mayoralty in 2010, about the track record of balancing budgets and cutting crime. But the story was there, deployed regularly, when needed or not, enough that the Hartford Courant's Colin McEnroe eventually teased him early in the spring. "Lay that ... violin down for a while," McEnroe urged in a column. (This burr lodged exactly where intended; the governor quoted it, unprompted, weeks later in a quiet conversation about disabilities in his office in the Capitol.)
Getting elected soon drove the past below ground. The story of Dan Malloy became one of an aggressive brand of confidence, about the glee with which he seemed to seize executive authority that had gone unappreciated during the caretaker years of his predecessor.
The infirmities did not go unnoticed. Sometimes, especially when he was winging it in front of TV cameras, giving his storm briefings or answering long sets of questions about the budget debates, his sentences derailed in a jangled string of "ums" and "uhs." Most let it go. A few snide tweets from Republican staffers tweaked Malloy for it. A radio host recut a trailer from the film about the stutter of King George VI -- "The Governor's Speech" -- and supporters from the most anonymous to his closest, his wife, Cathy, worried that Dan didn't sound as good as they knew he could. But they had a budget to pass, unions to bring to heel, businesses to be courted. There was just no time, even if they'd wanted it, for that violin.
THEY MADE HIM CRAWL
The boy was in the fourth grade and the therapy -- one of the therapies -- went like this: He knelt on the floor and moved, when instructed, his right leg, then his left. His left hand, his right. Slowly, trying to keep the limbs organized in his mind, trying to process the commands of language into motion in his lanky frame, the boy, Dan Malloy, crawled across the floor.
There were other drills. He remembers the swinging orb and the tetherball pole and being handed a stick divided into differently colored painted sections. As the ball swung around, they told him to hit it with the green section, now with the red. This was intended to treat the confounding un-coordination plaguing his eyes. The eyes were clear, but he'd just as soon lock some moving object into focus when one eye or another would lose track of it. He'd get all tangled, not be able to follow.
This is what they were talking about, not just the way dyslexia scrambled his letters, when the teachers told Agnes Malloy that her eighth and final child was "retarded." Dan Malloy couldn't seem to learn to tie his shoes, struggled with basic movement, failed to translate letters into speech.
The therapy started late, not until the final years of grammar school, in fourth and fifth and sixth grade. The hard doctrinal condemnation of his early diagnosis -- one Agnes Malloy never paid any heed -- gave way as the decade slid on to the concession that maybe the boy could defeat his maladies, through humbling, repetitive work. So they worked, the therapists and Dan Malloy, on the floor, crawling forward one leg at a time.
THERE IS NO CURE
He talks about the pressure of disability one afternoon in Groton, in the airy, wood-accented hall of Pfizer's massive laboratory complex, to a collection of learning- and physically disabled students from Mitchell College, UConn and local community colleges.
Every day, the embarrassment lingers. He tells them what he says they already know: Other people think these problems we have can be cured. Not that he was ever cured. Not by oral examinations or Cathy taking dictation to write his college term papers. Not by tape-recording machines or textbooks on tape from the library for the blind.
It's always there.
He is always embarrassed, all the time, he tells the kids in Groton. But he compartmentalizes, he segments. That core of insecurity stays walled off; what flows freely, what looks effortless, this he flaunts, displays for anyone who will see it. It's the attitude of the boy who, after weeks of torment by "the a--hole nun" at St. Bridget's, the one who hung his flunked spelling quizzes on the corkboard next to the A's, finally went home and told his mother. That was the last time that sister pulled that stunt; Agnes made sure of it.
"I think my mother would have taken her out if she did it again," he says.
So he hones what works: the cocky cheer, the winning retort, the hastily memorized string of facts, carefully lined up into a sleek argument.
Malloy builds himself into a trial lawyer, an arguer and persuader. He notices and memorizes. He shuffles and reshuffles his pattern of facts, until they have formed in his mind the best kind of argument, the one that wins.
College, law school, then the courtroom. No writing appellate memos; his skill will be to argue, to press. And by then he can see mayor, off in the distance, which is how the kid who grows up taking crawling lessons arrives at Boston College, a freshman, and runs for president. And when he loses in that first voting round, he and some others go recruit a dark horse, a write-in, and they campaign for two weeks and they win.
This same determination grates now, some people say. Some worked on the campaign, and returned gratefully to the comfortable rhythms of legislative session life, only to discover that the Malloy machine has not switched itself off. When the real estate agent makes a friendly joke about their opposition to his conveyance tax, the governor points a finger at his chest and grins like someone who knows he's holding more bullets: Maybe to save the cost to homebuyers, we'll take the difference out of your fees. A Democratic state representative hectors him for leaving out aid for minority workers in the jobs bill, and he hectors right back, the hand and voice rising in unison: Are you telling me no minorities work at the UConn hospital? When was the last time you were there?
Every moment is to be pushed, to be argued until it is settled in his favor. So when you ask if his reputation for running over opponents comes from the brutal endurance of more than the child should have had to bear, he nods, laughs, and says, with that grin sliding onto his face, "Why do you think I'm such a p--ck?"
Tomorrow: Mark Ojakian, the most perpetually cheerful of Malloy's top aides, has had enough. He finally stands up to the Democratic representative working the hardest to scuttle one of the governor's biggest plans -- and she is reduced to tears.