WASHINGTON Six-year-old Gregory Hoppe climbs up on the bench installed for him in his father's office and peers out on the nation's capital.
But this isn't just any office. It's for the chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, perhaps the USA's most powerful Republican.
And Gregory isn't just any child. The framed Senate roll-call vote that hangs over his bench attests to that. Still two weeks shy of his 7th birthday, Gregory already has played a quiet but crucial role in overhauling the law that guides special-education policy for 5.6 million disabled children in America's public schools.
His father, David Hoppe, was the one who worked out the final agreement between Congress and the Clinton administration last month. But Gregory, born with Down syndrome, was the new law's guiding light.
Call it Gregory's Law.
"You had somebody who brought a deep life experience to the whole process," says Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. "It's a piece of legislation with a lot of heart in it"
The roles played by David and Gregory Hoppe demonstrate their powerful influence of private lives in public policy. Their impact on the nation's special-education law is emblematic of how elected and even, non-elected officials work behind the scenes here, using personal experiences to set the legislative agenda and guide the political process.
And David Hoppe's role was significant for another reason: at a time of public dismay over how Washington works - or doesn't - in the glare of partisan politics and harsh publicity, he became the rare individual to emerge heralded by all sides.
"This was a fair, decent, caring soul who was not going to sell anybody down the river," says Robert Silverstein, the Senate's top Democratic expert on disability issues.
But without Gregory's disability and his dad's doggedness, President Clinton and Congress still might be embroiled in emotional debate over the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed into law earlier this month.
For two years, the bill had been caught between two seemingly immovable forces: Leaders of the Republican revolution, who wanted to help schools cut costs and curtail classroom disruptions caused by disabled students, and advocates for the disabled, who wanted expanded educational opportunities.
It took a deeply religious, conservative Republican and a highly motivated advocate for the disabled to bring the two sides together. David Hoppe was both of those. And Gregory was his inspiration.
"Every night when I came home and every morning when I got up, I saw who it could help," Hoppe says of his son. "I know his horizons are not unlimited, but I want them to be as great as they can be."
Says Paul Marchand, director of The Arc, which represents the mentally retarded: "He might have been thinking, 'Everything that I do here may someday affect my child, and if not my child, hundreds of thousands like him."
A strong family that weathers crisis
David and Karen Hoppe met in a car pool 21 years ago as conservative idealists. He worked for the House Republican Study Committee, she for the Heritage Foundation think tank. They were engaged three weeks after their first date and married Dec. 30, 1976. He would go on to work for a future vice presidential nominee, Jack Kemp; she would go on to work for a future vice president, Dan Quayle.
David rose through the Capitol Hill ranks, but Karen quit when their first child, Katie, was born in 1981. Geoffrey arrived two years later. The Hoppes - David is 45, Karen 44 - are devoted parents to both "big kids," as they call them now. But it was Gregory's arrival in 1990 that gave the suburban Burke, Va., couple a whole new outlook on life.
The night before Gregory's birth, the Hoppes happened to pick up a copy of a Sesame Street parents guide featuring a story on Down syndrome. "I remember sitting on the edge of the bed and saying, "I hope we don't have to deal with anything like this," Karen Hoppe says. They had foregone pre-natal testing that could have determined Gregory's disability, caused by an extra chromosome, because they do not believe in abortion.
The next night, the Sesame Street story came to life. "He was four minutes old," she recalls. "They came and told me right away that they thought he had Down syndrome."
Those first few minutes in Fairfax Hospital are etched in the Hoppes' minds. With doctors buzzing around Gregory, the couple made hasty plans to baptize him, in case he died. But Gregory was tough; he overcame many of the complications that accompany Down syndrome births.
Karen reacted emotionally, but her husband was then what he has been ever since -- a rock. "I got one tear out of David," she says, "and that was it."
Sen. Coats, Hoppe's boss at the time, recalls getting the call from the hospital concerning Gregory's obvious disability. "I think the birth of Gregory was one of those defining life-changing experiences that open people's eyes to a whole other world," he says. "I don't think unless you experience that, you can fully identify with that world."
Today, the pain of that first realization is overwhelmed by two other emotions common to families of disabled children -- exhaustion and achievement. The physical and mental challenges can seem never-ending, Gregory didn't walk until age 21/2 , didn't run until last summer, and only now is learning to jump. Typical of children with Down syndrome, his cognitive and language skills are significantly delayed.
But just as distinctive is his unconditional love for his family. While his father helps run the country, Gregory rules the roost at home. He's a ham, singing and dancing to his favorite videos. Ask a question, and he taps his temple as if deep in thought. He speaks in two- and three-word bursts packed with meaning; "Throw the ball!", "Thank-you, Mommy."
Says Karen, "I wouldn't have missed this for the world."
Personal lives, professional lives
For David Hoppe, plunging into the middle of a two-year-old battle over the IDEA law a was a deeply personal crusade that made use of his education, experience, philosophy, Catholic faith, and fatherhood.
The law was first enacted in 1975 to guarantee disabled students equal access to public schools, no matter how profound their afflictions.
Over the past 20 years, the number of students classified as disabled has soared to 12.4% of the public school population of 44.7 million, including those with behavioral and emotional problems. About 70% of them are taught in regular classrooms, alongside non-disabled kids.
The costs are high: more than $32 billion, only $4 billion of which comes from the federal government.
Since taking control of Congress in 1995, Republicans had tried to change the law, motivated partly by anecdotes about students with disabilities causing harm to others. One teacher in West Virginia wound up in an emergency room; another in North Carolina broke an arm.
But during the 104th Congress, a deal proved elusive. Not even Bob Dole, a disability-rights advocate and master deal-maker, could do it. On his final day as Senate GOP leader before resigning to run for president last June, Dole implored his colleagues to pass an IDEA bill.
"Some issues transcend politics, foster a bipartisan spirit and result in legislation that make s a real and lasting difference," Dole said on the Senate floor. "Disability has always been one of those issues." But not in 1996.
Enter David Hoppe. Already one of the busiest staffers on Capitol Hill as Lott's top deputy, he saw the chance to break the logjam over a law that will guide his son's education into the next century and "give kids born 20 years from now even more opportunities than Greg has."
Hoppe came with a rare advantage: knowledge of how to write laws, drawn from 21 years on Capitol Hill, and knowledge of how to help the disabled, drawn from nearly seven years as Gregory's dad.
"I was uniquely placed. I was a conservative, and I had a child with a disability," he says. "I looked at everything. . . through a parent's eye: 'Let's put Greg in this situation.'
That was easy. In many cases, Gregory already had been there.
"I was at the meeting where Gregory was given his label," Hoppe recalls, with a rare, small show of emotion. That was in 1995, when Gregory was 4 and aging out of preschool. He was labeled, "MR", for mild retardation. His father, who knew it was coming, still took the official designation hard. "This is a landmark," he says, "and I knew it was."
Hoppes' familiarity with the world of the disabled helped turn theoretical debates into practical ones.
"He made people think about the long-term and child-specific implications of the policies," says Katherine Beh Neas, senior government relations specialist at the National Easter Seals Society.
Occasionally during the closed-door negotiations, and open town meetings he organized, Hoppe would mention the bureaucratic hoops he and Karen had to jump through to get services for their son. Several times, he interrupted meetings to take calls from his family -- at least once from Gregory, who wondered when Dad was coming home.
"The perspective of a parent (with a disabled child) would have been completely missing," without Hoppe, says Rep. Matthew Martinez, D-Calif.
Adds Bruce Hunter, director of public affairs for the American Association of School Administrators: "Nobody could say to him the way they could say to other Republicans, ' Oh you guys just don't care."
Understanding differing perspectives
What Hoppe found as he waded into the legislative thicket were school administrators who feared soaring costs, educators who feared for their safety and advocates for the disabled who feared losing hard-won rights. "It was fairly obvious how emotionally charge the issue was," he says. "You're dealing with vulnerable people."
The flash point was discipline. Teachers, principals and school administrators wanted more flexibility to punish disabled students in much the same way they did others, even if it meant segregating them or stopping their education. Advocates for the disabled refuse to go along.
Hoppe did not play the Gregory card to sway the negotiations.
"I'm sure that everybody in that room knew that David had a disabled kid," says Judith Heumann, the Education Department's assistant secretary of special education and rehabilitative services. "But he didn't wear it on his sleeve."
Where he wears it was on his computer. When other parents of disabled children first came to Lott's office last fall to voice their concerns, they had no idea of his personal interest. Then they noticed the image of Gregory on his computer screen.
"I look over and saw on the screen his little one," recounts Madeleine Will, mother of a 25-year-old son with Down syndrome and a disability activist. She figured she was imagining things. "I thought, I'm overtired here and distraught, but . . . I'm seeing the face of a child with Down syndrome on that computer."
Despite his advocacy on behalf of Gregory's interests, Hoppe never forgot the interests of his other children. Katie, 16, and Geoff, 13, attend public schools in Virginia and know well the other side of the disability coin, when students with behavioral problems disrupt classes or won't leave them alone. They think disabled students should be disciplined - but not blamed for all that goes wrong.
"I just don't see the point of people complaining that all disabilities ruin class," says Geoff. Adds Katie: "the more we integrate these kids, the more accepting and understanding people will become with them.
Out of this stew of colliding interests emerges David Hoppe's philosophy: "I believe in limited government," he says. "But I think government is there to protect rights and opportunities."
The IDEA law attempts to do that. The overhaul makes it easier for schools to discipline disabled students, but doesn't let states cut off their education. The law also upgrades teacher training, gives parents a greater role and improves planning and mediation.
Everyone had to compromise.
"We kind of held our noses and supported it," says Sally McConnell of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, which wanted the measure to go farther. But she adds, "Emotions run high on this issue and I think he did a good job."
Ironically, Gregory won't use all his rights. Despite the law's goal of educating disabled children in the least restrictive setting, the Hoppes aren't seeking full inclusion just yet.
Beginning this fall, Gregory will be in a self-contained first-grade class for academic subjects with other mildly retarded kids. He will be mainstreamed a half-hour each morning and also for art, music and gym. Demanding inclusion when it might not be best for their child isn't what the law intends, they says.
Their hopes for Gregory are high. "I want him to be able to live by himself, to have a job that he likes to be able to go to that job by himself, to sit and have conversations with people who work where he works. . . to have him involved with his church," Hoppe says, "My big dreams for him are things that seem very normal."
But his value won't be defined by his achievements. Says Karen Hoppe: "Greg is a worthwhile individual right now, just the way he is."
Celebrating a success story
Gregory Hoppe was heard about but not seen until the Senate voted 98-1 on May 14 to send the bill to President Clinton. Then it was time for his coming-out party.
From his vantage point in the vice president's office off the Senate floor while the votes were being cast, Thomas Hehir, director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs, looked outside and saw a child with Down syndrome walking into the Capitol with his mother.
Only after the vote, when Hehir joined a celebration in Hoppe's office featuring chocolate-chip cookies made by Karen and Gregory, did he figure out who that special child was.
"To me, it was kind of symbolic," Hehir recalls thinking at the time.
Three weeks later, the Hoppe family was in the audience on the White House's South Lawn to watch President Clinton sign the bill into law.
At Secretary of Education Richard Riley's suggestion, Clinton invited Hoppe up to the front; he brought Gregory. Photographs show the two of them just behind Clinton, amid the usual assortment of politicians. "Staffers never get in those kinds of photographs," marvels Erik Smulson, an aide to Sen. James Jeffords, R-VT., who worked on the new law.
In this case, however, even the lawmakers say it was justified. "He was the hero of the ultimate passage of the bill," says Sen. William Frist, R-Tenn. "He was uniquely placed, uniquely committed.
Hoppe sums it up as a dad. "I think I did something good for Greg."