Oct 14, 2022

Maybe we should forgive Herschel Walker's past

Former NFL star and Senate candidate Herschel Walker / Photo by Michael Kaplan
Former NFL star and Senate candidate Herschel Walker / Photo by Michael Kaplan

The Georgia Senate candidate has a troubling history. What should we make of it?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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A few months ago, a devastating political ad ran against Republican Herschel Walker.

"Do you think you know Herschel Walker?" the ad's narrator asks, over clips of the now Senate candidate playing football in college."Well, think again. Listen to what his ex-wife had to say about him."

The images on the screen then move to a woman, Walker's ex-wife Cindy Grossman, describing his actions.

"His eyes would become very evil," Grossman says over increasingly frightening sounding music. "The guns and knives. I got into a few choking things with him... the first time he held the gun to my head, he held the gun to my temple, and said he was going to blow my brains out."

The ad was created by the Republican Accountability PAC, and is one of a few similar ads that have been aired about Walker since he began running for the Senate in Georgia.

The other, pushed by the political group Georgia Honor, featured the same clips. In these, though, Walker is also featured on-screen admitting to domestic violence.

At first glance, the ads seem to be the kind of thing that can — and maybe should — end someone's political career. A person running for one of the highest offices in the United States should be held to an extremely high standard of conduct, and there are plenty of candidates to choose from who haven’t held their spouse at gunpoint before.

But there's something more interesting about both of these ads that is seldom discussed: The clips, which have now been seen by millions of Americans, driven news stories, and increased awareness about Walker's past, are actually misleading. In all of them, just out of frame, is either Walker or his ex-wife. What’s missing from these advertisements is that the two divulged these details together in a series of TV interviews in 2008, where they shared the story of how they reconciled, and Walker talked openly about his mental illness.

It's not hard to view the ads as, at least in part, dishonest. With sinister music and simple editing, it appears it's Walker's ex-wife divulging his secret, violent past to a television interviewer as a warning to the country. In reality, it was anything but. They are 14-year-old clips from when Grossman and Walker sat for the interviews to discuss their history together, how and why she forgave him, and how they learned that Walker suffered from dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

In fact, Walker has spent much of the last decade advocating against stigmatizing the illness. He wrote an entire book titled Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, offering excruciating detail about his personal battles and the violence he perpetrated on his family. He toured military bases around the world to encourage soldiers and veterans to seek out help for post-traumatic stress disorder, and he's offered his time to youth groups and mental health organizations.

Yet it’s Walker's violent past, not his more redemptive present, that has been emphasized in the press.

From my vantage point, this is the wrong way to frame his story.

For starters, it's worth being clear about what dissociative identity disorder is.