Stuart Kindrick doesn't look like much of a match for the president of the United States. A rail-thin man who suffered brain damage and partial paralysis after an industrial accident, Kindrick wears a steel brace on his left leg which he extends awkwardly while seated on the frayed brown plaid sofa, one of the few pieces of furniture in the living room of his modest town house.
This is the man Ronald Reagan singled out last week as a cheat, a man the president said lost his Social Security disability benefits because he had been holding a full-time job for three years while improperly drawing disability payments, a charge Kindrick vehemently denies.
In fact, the president's allegation does not reflect the record of Kindrick's case. The White House has since back-pedaled from Reagan's statement. Spokesman David Gergen said he doesn't know whether Reagan's statement is accurate but that "making sure we have every single fact straight" is less important than "whether the larger points are right."
Stuart Franklin Kindrick Jr., 36, who never finished elementary school, does not care about the broader issues of accuracy, news coverage and economic policies that Reagan was addressing when he referred to Kindrick's case. All Kindrick says he cares about is his reputation, and he wants the president to apologize to his family for calling him a fraud.
"My own self, I can take it," he said. "But my wife and kids should get a personal apology."
"If I'm working I'd like to know where so I can go and pick up my check," said Kindrick, who insists he has not worked since 1975. Two years before, while he was employed as a sheet metal worker on a Northern Virginia construction site, Kindrick stood up and smacked his head on a low-hanging steel beam. Medical reports show he suffered a head injury that resulted in brain damage, a blood clot in his brain, the paralysis of his left side and seizures.
What Kindrick says he can't understand is why the president "picked me out of all those millions of people to talk about." Much of the confusion apparently stems from a Nov. 5 article about Kindrick's loss of disability benefits in a weekly Northern Virginia newspaper, The Reston Times. That story quoted Kindrick saying he tried to build a new business as a "one-armed welder" but, according to the story, "Four years ago his dream . . . shattered" after his tools were stolen.
White House spokesman Gergen said today that Reagan's statement was based on "capsulized information" the president received from Social Security officials. "We haven't tried to unearth every detail . . . It certainly was not the president's intention to insult him."
"We don't feel we started this," said Gergen. "The administration was wrongly accused of taking away this man's benefits."
Social Security officials said today that the story, which implied Kindrick was working in 1977, is the only proof they have that Kindrick worked and drew benefits at the same time. Kindrick and his attorneys say the welding business folded in 1975, a year before he received disability payments.
On March 12, just days before the president said Kindrick had been dropped from the disability rolls because he was working and fraudulently drawing payments, Social Security officials reversed a 1981 decision that Kindrick was no longer disabled, decided he was too crippled to work and sent him a check for $2,324.24 to cover the months he had been dropped. Furthermore, Social Security officials in Washington and Baltimore said today that they have no proof that Kindrick ever worked and drew payments simultaneously.
"I feel like I've been kicked around like a political yo-yo," said Kindrick.
Kindrick's wife, Winona, 32, is angry, too. "It seemed like the president was looking down on us. My husband was in the same boat as James Brady," she said, referring to Reagan's press secretary who suffered a serious head wound last year in an assassination attempt and is partially disabled as a result.
"All he does all day is he sits here, smokes cigarettes, drinks coffee and watches TV," said Winona Kindrick, who worked as a beautician before her three young children were born.
The Kindricks' brush with fame began last year when on Aug. 17 they received a letter from the Virginia Disability Determination Office, which makes recommendations to the Social Security Administration about cases like Kindrick's.
"Based on all information and evidence in your case, it appears that you have been able to work since June 1981," the letter said. "You do have a seizure disorder for which you take medication, but these spells do not occur at the frequency required by the Social Security Regulations."
The letter said that Kindrick, who walks hunched over with a pronounced limp, would be able to stand and walk up to eight hours a day and could work as a porter, watchman or sales clerk.
On Oct. 6, 1981, eight years to the day after his injury, Kindrick received a notice from Social Security notifying him that his benefits had been terminated.
Kindrick's attorney, Michael Heaviside, said he appealed the termination decision. Kindrick was examined by two physicians, among them a Washington neurologist Dr. Joseph Liberman, who said Kindrick's condition had deteriorated. Liberman's report said Kindrick is "permanently disabled . . . There is essentially no hope of any further improvement."
Paul B. Simmons, deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration, said today that Kindrick was reinstated on the basis of additional medical evidence. "Between the time he was first taken off the rolls and late last year there was further deterioration," Simmons said.
Meanwhile, in late November, after Kindrick had lost his disability payments and the family was being evicted from their Reston home, Winona Kindrick called Washington newspapers and TV stations, including WRC-TV.
"You see things like this on TV all the time and I wanted to get some help, so I called everyone and Channel 4 was interested . . . ," she said. "I wanted the public to see, with the Reagan budget cuts, this is the way it is."
On Nov. 15, WRC-TV broadcast a story about the Kindricks, who say they lived briefly in a truck after their eviction. The next day, said WRC news director David Nuell, when the story was rewritten for "The Today Show" an editor incorrectly said that Kindrick was a victim of "Reagan budget cuts." In fact, Kindrick temporarily lost his benefits under a policy adopted in 1980 during the Carter administration and accelerated by the Reagan administration. Nuell said that on Nov. 27 WRC corrected the misinformation.
Last week during an interview critical of network news coverage Reagan, without referring to Kindrick or the TV station by name, told the Daily Oklahoman he had seen the television report. "I went storming into the office in the morning. I said, 'Look, this guy is disabled. What are we doing?' We hadn't taken him off. He had been taken off in 1980 because it was found then that he was holding a job for three years while he was drawing disability payments."
That statement was wrong on several counts, according to documents and interviews with Kindrick, his attorneys and Social Security officials.
"The White House called up and said, 'Hey, what's happening with this guy?' and we looked at his file real quick and said he is not disabled and he is being taken off the rolls," said Simmons, who added that after that call he had no further contact with the White House about Kindrick.
Simmons said he believes Reagan confused the 1980 date of the passage of the Carter administration policy with the date Kindrick was removed from Social Security rolls. At the time the White House called Simmons in late November, Simmons said, Kindrick had in fact been removed from the disability rolls strictly on medical grounds.
"Where the three years came from I just don't know," said Simmons, who said he also told the White House official about the Reston Times article. "It was certainly my impression and the Commissioner's Social Security Commisioner John A. Svahn impression that the man was able to work and wanted to work."
"We haven't done any independent investigation," said Simmons.
In 1974, said Kindrick attorney Heaviside, the couple's joint tax return shows they earned $1,900 from the welding business. He said they told him they haven't filed tax returns for the past five years.
"The business folded in large part because physically he just couldn't do the work," said Heaviside. "He wants to work but he just can't. This was just an attempt on his part to try and get back into the work force and do just what Reagan advocates: help himself."