Friday, December 15, 2006

sudden impact (delayed bombshell)

As I write this morning, I would say I feel guardedly optimistic that Senator Tim Johnson will recover from his AVM brain bleed and emergency surgery and be able to return to the Senate sometime before the end of this coming session of the 110th Congress. Why do I feel optimistic? I have some familiarity with arteriovenous malformations because of a relative, and I have read reports that the Senator is responding to touch and voice, but mostly, I’ll admit, I’m thinking with my heart.

And, I will also admit to feeling a bit queasy both listening to and participating in the political speculation about what would happen should Johnson die or remain incapacitated. The constant use of the word “sudden” is, for some reason, particularly annoying, maybe because reports use the same adjective for health and politics, as in, “Senator Johnson’s sudden illness could cause a sudden change in Democrats’ political fortunes” —I’m paraphrasing—implying that all Democrats can think of is the larger political situation and not the precarious health of a husband and father.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about—not quite. What really caught my ear was a report on Thursday’s Morning Edition featuring Nina Totenberg and Renée Montagne. The report focused on the politics surrounding Tim Johnson’s illness, and Montagne asked Totenberg about previous instances of Senators in less than perfect health hanging on to their seats.

Totenberg worked her way to the case of Strom Thurmond, who served in a closely divided Senate in 2001 and 2002.

Senator Thurmond was desperately needed [by Republicans] for that reason, and he was physically walking around, but, basically, not there. . . . He had an escort everywhere he went. It was very clear he didn’t recognize people. . . .

Thurmond did serve until just months before his death in 2003, but I think that Nina Totenberg makes it clear he shouldn’t have. But here’s what really gets me—I feel like we all kind of “knew” that the 98, 99, 100 year-old Thurmond wasn’t all there, but we didn’t “know.” Where was Nina in 2001 or 2002? Why was there no exposé on how the Republicans were propping up Thurmond to hold on to his seat? Why was there no report on the fact that a guy who was non compos mentis was actually casting votes on important legislation?

I don’t think it would have been untoward to report on Thurmond’s lack of mental acuity. It certainly was as germane to a discussion of national politics and the fate of the Senate—if not more so—than the now constant speculation about the future wellbeing of Senator Tim Johnson.


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