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When Donna Shalala fended off two would-be muggers last weekend, she not only saved her wallet—she salvaged her reputation. For years, supporters had watched the Health and Human Services secretary preside over cave-in after cave-in. Early in her tenure, she helped the first lady blow an opportunity to introduce universal health care. A couple of years later, she sat still for the most Draconian welfare reform ever enacted. Last spring, she put on a happy face and touted the administration’s support for defunding needle-exchange programs. But after years of cowardice, a Georgetown run-in ended the search for Donna Shalala’s spine.

Shalala made a national hero of herself when, approached by alleged attackers early Sunday morning at a Wisconsin Avenue ATM, she dropped to the pavement, curled into the fetal position, and started screaming. Fox News used her as a role model for a segment on self-defense. The Washington Post called her “spunky.” And Diane Rehm was nearly in tears expressing her admiration.

Let that be a lesson to all of us. For fear of endangering her spot in the loop, Shalala didn’t dare stand up when President Clinton co-opted the Republican agenda. Even after a string of fellow scholars resigned from her agency in protest over cuts in the safety net that they believed were unconscionable, the secretary stood by her man. But go for her own hard-earned lucre, and another Shalala emerges.

So the next time you’re confronted with an outrageous act of injustice, pull a Shalala. Say you try to sign up for assistance for your family but get rebuffed by a quota-driven caseworker. Try falling down in a ball and screaming. Yes, right there on the welfare office’s worn brown rug: You’re not going to take it anymore, goddammit! No more mean-spirited disrespect for right and wrong! No more dissing the genuine needs of children for political chit points! And when the caseworker runs off in shame, be sure to copy down his name.

When it’s all over, don’t play the victim, either. No holing up in some squalid apartment and recovering from the trauma for you. Take a cue from Donna: After beating down the bad guys in a noble battle of wills, carry on with your plans. Nothing clears the mind like a rousing game of tennis. —Amanda Ripley