Usually a guy’s crowning achievement comes at the end of his career. But with Geraldo Rivera, one might argue it came at its beginning. To thousands of developmentally disabled children….now adults….Geraldo looms as the singular most influential person for good in their lives. Alas, mentally disabled as they are, they’re not aware of it. But those who advocate for them are, and owe Mr. Rivera a debt of gratitude. In fact, most of those advocates only exist because of Mr. Rivera.
From film reviewer Dave Kehr:
'IN THE '50S, YOU DIDN'T KEEP them at home. You sent them away. Your family told you to. The priest told you to."
They were the developmentally disabled, and as one woman interviewed in Jack Fisher's documentary "Unforgotten: Twenty-five Years After Willowbrook" recalls, they weren't allowed to be seen or heard.
Instead, they were shipped off to institutions such as the one operated by the State of New York on Staten Island.
As if that policy weren't destructive enough, funding was drained from these institutions in the '60s, leading to severe reductions of staff and appalling conditions.
Robert Kennedy is seen describing Willowbrook as "a situation that borders on a snake pit" following a 1965 tour. Things had not improved six years later, when Geraldo Rivera entered Willowbrook with a stolen key and filmed residents writhing on the floor, starving, covered with filth and howling in pain.
Geraldo’s reporting provoked nationwide soul-searching. Consciences prodded. Laws passed. Policy redefined. The current policy of integrating the developmentally disabled into general society to the extent possible and placing them in small residential group homes is largely traceable to Mr. Rivera’s work. The movement began in New York, but has long since spread to other states and even countries.
Most people know Geraldo as a flamboyant news and showperson….alas, even having somewhat seedy overtones…..after all, one of his raucous talk show guests broke his nose with a thrown chair…..but I like to think of him as a Janis Joplin type: a talented & charismatic character launched by the big business people into the stratosphere, for which he was initially ill-equipped and so he careened wildly both professionally and personally. But he’s repented of the really outlandish stuff, no longer hosting shows with themes like "Wanted: Elvis! Dead or Alive," "Drag Queens on Parade," "Exploring Satan's Black Market," "Sexual Secrets … To Tell or Not to Tell," and "Teen Lesbians and Their Moms."
From Atlantic magazine(June, 2005):
"I was sick of it," Rivera said recently of his decision in 1997 to leave the daytime talk-show format. "Maury Povich was my neighbor [in New Jersey], and he and his wife, Connie Chung, are two of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. I saw his show just a couple of days ago, and it was all paternity tests and lie-detector tests, all stuff that I pioneered, and I look at that stuff now, and I know how smart Maury is, how sensitive he is, and for him to still be doing that—humiliating all those poor trailer-trash and mostly black people, Hispanic people—I don't know how you do that, how you bear that. I could not do that no matter how much you pay me.
[They paid him a lot]
He’s signed on with Fox Network these days, a liberal balancing their prevailing conservatives. And he’s a war correspondent whenever he gets the chance, a sort of daredevil one:
"That's why I said [the CNN anchor] Aaron Brown would [ahem] shit in his pants if he had been in some of the places I was. That's true. That's absolutely true. It's the same way about all of them—every one of those Geraldo detractors. How many times have you been shot? How many times has your car been blown up? How many times have you ever been winged? How many times have you gone into it, taken a gulp, and stepped out of the airport?"
That almost reminds you of Paul, doesn’t it? Note how Paul responds to the pompous pansies of his day who wanted his title but not his work:
Are they ministers of Christ? I reply like a madman, I am more outstandingly one: in labors more plentifully, in prisons more plentifully, in blows to an excess, in near-deaths often. By Jews I five times received forty strokes less one, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I experienced shipwreck, a night and a day I have spent in the deep;
and so forth. 2 Cor 11:23-25
The showmanship remains: When Fox took him aboard, he pledged to personally kill Osama bin Laden and bring his head back to the United States to be bronzed. Sheesh!
"That's the story,” he tells Atlantic. “I can't tell you how many caves we crawled into looking for that sucker."
Um….there is that cartoon showing Jehovah’s Witnesses having located bin Laden through their door to door ministry. Ought there to be some teamwork?
Actually, that Atlantic magazine offers a good synopsis of his career. I admit he is much more larger than life than I had thought….I don’t really keep up. Would it really be a good idea to invite him to Christopher’s party? Dunno. Frankly, I can’t quite picture him sharing ranch dressing and milk cocktails with Carolyn, or flipping through all the channels roulette fashion with Doug, but perhaps I am selling him short. At any rate, we’re all grateful to him. Few persons have positively impacted a population as Geraldo has benefited the country’s developmentally disabled. He sparked a culture shift toward compassionate treatment. Were it not for him, perhaps they would yet be in dungeons like Willowbrook.
Read about life in a group home 35 years later here.
And perhaps even here.