BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Mort Kondracke, author of "Saving Milly," what's your book about?
Mr. MORTON KONDRACKE (Author, "Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson's Disease"): It's a love story. It's a--it's a history of
the Parkinson's movement, the effort to get more money spent by the
federal government on research on Parkinson's, which is a disease that
neurologists say could be cured. It's a story--it's a kind of a
personal transformation story of somebody who looked--was basically a
journalistic careerist, who--somebody who decided that the best thing
he could do with his life was to help Milly; help my wife. My wife is
a truly remarkable person. I mean, everybody--all the friends that I
talk to say, everybody became a better person because of Milly. She
was a dynamic, therapist--psychotherapist, mother, wife, strong
person, and she's been, you know, basically kidnapped by Parkinson's
disease which is in the process of killing her. And I wanted to write
about this whole experience.
LAMB: When did you decide to do the book?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Two years ago--two and a half years ago, something
like that. I had been living this experience--I mean, it's the
combination of watching her suffer with it and fight it through
surgeries and all kinds of stuff and--and fight--and trying to fight
it by trying to get more money raised for Parkinson's research.
And--and--we--we--Milly and I both have this therapist friend of ours,
Dori Lynd who said, you know, you've--you've got to write about this.
And--and I'd never written a book before, and I--so I started and one
thing led to another and here the book is finally out.
LAMB: A--as I read it, I kept saying to myself, why does Morton
Kondracke want us to know all this? Meaning all the "little things"
that we can talk about.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Because this is a--a horrible, nasty, lousy, rotten,
fiendish disease which the best neurologists in the county say can be
cured in five to 10 years if adequate resources are devoted to the
task. I mean--and--and that in the process of licking Parkinson's
disease, you would find things which would cure Huntington's disease
and Alzheimer's and ALS, all kinds of neurodegenerative diseases. So,
I--the best way to--to--to get people to say, `Yeah, let's fund
neuro-degenerative research,' was to tell it all; just--as bad as it
is. And, let them know what--what really happens, also let them know
that there's hope.
LAMB: OK. Give me an example. I've known you probably 30 years. I
had no idea you were an alcoholic.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Hmm.
LAMB: Why do you want us to know that?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, that--that's part of what Milly did. I mean,
Milly--Milly was the kind of person--I was an alcoholic and I was, you
know, I was--I wasn't stumbling down drunk all--all day long. I
didn't drink till after hours, but it clearly--like George W. Bush
got in my way a lot. And--and Milly was such a powerhouse that she
made me quit. I mean, she said, `You are an alcoholic.' I fought
that. She convinced me that I was an alcoholic and she basically--she
dumped the booze out--out in--down the drain and stuff like that, and
just badgered me until the point--intervened, as they say, and got me
to--to quit. And, it's part of her old power and it's part--it's one
of the wonderful stories that I have to tell about--about what kind of
a person she was.
LAMB: But you say you didn't start drinking till--much till you got
to this town.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Yeah, that's true.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well--well, I think I have the--I have a gene
and--and some--it does run in the family, and my father was an
alcoholic, and his father was an alcoholic and his brother was an
alcoholic. And it became a habit and--and I was anesthetizing myself,
I'm sure. I--I was, sort of neurotic about, you know, climbing the
greasy pole as a journalist and--and you know, I made it to a certain
level, but I, you know, looked up and there were lots of people above
me and I'm sure that I was--you know, that it--that it was a
combination of things. It as partly hereditary, partly--partly to
avoid, you know, the--the pain of what I wasn't succeeding at and all
this kind of stuff, so, I can't blame it on Washington. I probably
would have been al--an--an alcoholic no matter where I lived.
LAMB: When did you quit?
Mr. KONDRACKE: 1986, right--right after Thanksgiving 1986.
LAMB: You also go into some detail in here about the early days of
Mr. KONDRACKE: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And at one point you say, `I gave up being a liberal Democrat
because of foreign policy.'
Mr. KONDRACKE: I was--I was never very partisan. I mean, I sort of
leaned Democrat because I was--I--I had a liberal view of the world
as, I think 80 percent of journalists do, probably. I was pro-civil
rights, I was, you know--and I just took--I--I just took the liberal
view of practically everything that--that anybody who wasn't for
expanding government--I remember arguing with--you remember Charlie
Goodell, was a senator from--from New York and once upon a time, he
was a representative from New York and was, sort of, the chief
Republican critic of the war on poverty. And if he was--anything that
he criticized on the management on the war on poverty meant that he
was against the war on poverty, therefore he was against poor people,
right? And that's just the way I thought.
What--what happened was, I was covering the White House in
19--the--the Ford White House, and I'll never forget, 1974, the--the
South Vietnamese are fighting for their lives, right? Right at the
very end, the North Vietnamese are descending on them and Ford
proposed $600 million dollars in emergency aid for the South
Vietnamese to keep them going and Congress refused. And I thought
what--what do Democrats do but spend money, you know? I mean, to
bolster an ally and save them from what amounted to slavery, you know,
Congress wouldn't vote this money, and I just thought, you know,
there--there--this is wrong. And--and I--I just thought
that--that--on occasion after occasion after that, I just thought that
the Democrats--if it were up to the Democrats, we--we wouldn't fight
Communism the way it needed to be fought. That it was--that it really
was an evil empire and that it needed to be resisted and the liberals
weren't doing it. They didn't do it in Central America and so on.
And, I just fell out with them.
There were other things as well. I mean, I--I'm a prude. I confess
it. I'm--I'm a, you know, and--and I think that our society has
become grotesquely coarsened and I think liberals have been
ba--basically cheering it the whole way, you know; anything goes,
kiddies--you know, teen-agers are going to have sex so give the little
diaries condoms and stuff like that. And it's just sort of
encouraged, the coarsening of s--so--but I'm not a conservative. I
mean, I may sound like a conservative right now, but I'm not really a
conservative 'cause I have my problems with them too. So, I find
my--a happy home in moderation, which is where I--I am.
LAMB: You say Milly is quite liberal?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Milly--she's not that liberal. She's a dot--she is a
dot in the world Democrat and, you know, Democrats as a body can do
very little wrong and Republican's by her can do very little right.
And it's almost a joke with us, although she--I mean, she's not--she
hasn't lost her judgment completely. I mean she was disappointed in
Bill Clinton, but she--but she also apologized for him, you know.
LAMB: Bill Clinton...
Mr. KONDRACKE: Lied.
LAMB: ...you say lied to you, and Hillary Clinton lied to you.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Yeah, substantially. Bill Clinton didn't precisely
lie. What--this is a story that I tell in the book about--we went to
a Christmas--White House Christmas party hoping that we could get them
to do something to advance Parkinson's research, because we--it's
deeply underfunded By comparison to other diseases, and--and as I say,
it's believed to be curable. So we practiced and practiced the
speeches, we're going in line--in the--the line to the--to see the
president and I blew the speech completely and she did too. But we
got out enough to say, you know, please help brain research. And
Hillary Clinton said, well just wait till we pass health care reform,
we're going to do a lot for medical research.
Well, one, there was nothing in the health reform plan for Parkinson's
research, neurological research or much of any kind of research. And
secondly, both of them made claims about their--the incur--about
incr--increasing medical research that they never really delivered on.
I mean, what--what kept happening is that certain
Republicans--basically Connie Mack of Florida, John Porter of--of
Illinois, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and also some Democrats, Tom
Harkin of Iowa, kept increasing the medical research budget in
Congress and Clinton would sign the bill, and then pretend that he had
advocated it all along, but whenever his budgets came in, they were
always lowball; 2 percent increases, 3 percent increases, sometimes
negative--I mean sometimes net cuts after inflation, stuff like that.
So, he certainly--he didn't stand in the way of medical research
advances, but he certainly did not promote them, with the exception of
certain politically favored projects like AIDS research and breast
cancer, and to his credit, the Human Genome Project. That he did--he
LAMB: What's Parkinson's?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Parkinson's is a disease that's caused--it's a brain
disease that's caused by the--the dying of a little clump of cells
deep in your brain called substantia nigra which produce dopamine.
Dopamine is the substance that makes motion fluid. And it's--the
first symptoms are--usually are a slight tremor in your--in a finger.
And it goes on to rigidity; people get frozen in a chair, some--some
people have a--develop a mask. They have no--they can't express
any--anything in their faces. And eventually--eventually you become
immobile. You know, you can be--you basically--you become a prisoner
in your own body.
It's treatable for about five years--I mean, you can see it in Janet
Reno. Janet Reno has a--a severe tremor--I guess it's in her left
hand. A--a--a medicine called L-dopa--Sinemet is the brand name--will
calm that symptom down for about five years, and then it stops
working. And then people get frozen or they get something called
dyskinesia. Anybody who ever saw the movie, "Awakening," you know,
they get wild shakes of--of the body--or dyskinesia that--that are
caused by the medicine itself, actually.
And, you know, in "Awakening" people would rather go to sleep
than--and be in a coma than have these wild dyskinesias. So, it's
a--it's a retched disease. And, eventually and--and in--in Milly's
case, what's happening is that she's losing her--she can't walk. She
lost her balance a long time ago and she fell repeatedly and had to go
to the emergency room a lot and so on. Now she's confined to a
wheelchair, and she's basically losing her--has lost her ability to
speak. And the--the horrible thing is that she's losing her ability
to swallow, and that will--we're going to be faced with the decision
at some point about a feeding tube. I mean, they--that's--that's what
LAMB: What age does it affect you?
Mr. KONDRACKE: It used to be an old people's disease. It's
now--Michael J. Fox got it when he was 30, and you know there
are--people get it when they're 20. And nobody knows why. The--the
age of onset is descending--average age of onset is descending.
People think its environmental, chemicals, nobody knows for sure why.
LAMB: Some time ago, I think, in '96 you did an article about Mo
Mr. KONDRACKE: I did.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, actually the Washingtonian magazine asked me to
write an article about Janet Reno when she was diagnosed, and she
refused to cooperate because she wanted to be known as--as Attorney
General not as a Parkinson's victim. So--and Billy Graham was thought
to have Parkinson's and didn't--didn't--he didn't. As it turned out
he had something else, but he didn't want to cooperate. The pope was
too far away, so I wrote about Milly and about Mo Udall and M--Mo
Udall, this wonderful, funny presidential candidate that everybody
loves and still quotes these hilarious jokes from, got it in 1996 when
he was running for president, kept it a secret.
LAMB: Not 1996, you mean...
Mr. KONDRACKE: '76.
LAMB: '76, yeah.
Mr. KONDRACKE: 1976 when he was running for president, kept it a
secret, but eventually it caught up with him and--and in 1991, he fell
and he got a brain concussion, he broke ribs, clavicle, collarbone,
all kind of--shoulder blade, every--you know, just--and never--never
was able to speak again and was confined to a--to--to the Veteran's
Administration hospital, not far from the Capitol.
And his story was the worst case of Parkinson's that I knew of,
certainly involving a famous person, and I went to see him and--and he
was a prisoner in his--in his body, and his wife didn't know whether
when she talked to him if he understood anything. And, this was a
kind of a foretaste I--I feared, and the reality is coming true,
that--of what Milly faces.
I mean, that was 1996. This is five years later, and Milly is no--is
not--is not as bad as Mo Udall was then, but unless there's a miracle
of some sort, is headed in that direction, I fear.
LAMB: When you went there, you found a guest book that had been
Mr. KONDRACKE: Oh, by first ladies Barbara Bush, Hillary Rodham
Clinton, most of all--most of--the most frequent visitor was John
McCain who had been adopted sort of by Mo Udall when he was a freshman
congressman. He was a Republican. They're both from Arizona,
obviously. McCain was a freshman Republican, most junior member of
the Interior Committee, but--and Mo was the chairman. And Mo Udall
adopted him basically; took him under his wing and helped him a lot
and--and John McCain returned the favor by being the most loyal
visitor to Mo Udall. Whether--that--he couldn't communicate, but
McCain was great about visiting him.
LAMB: When you went to see him, what did you see?
Mr. KONDRACKE: He was asleep. His wife, Norma, woke him up. He
sort of sat up, I--I gue--I'm trying to remember whether he sat up by
himself or she helped him up, but anyway, he sat up--and he sa--he
only had one eye anyway, and he sort--there was sort of a look of mild
recognition. I've, you know, seen him and interviewed various times
over the years, but you got--you--you got the look of--of a
politician, you know, thinking that he may recognize this person or
constituent that he ought to know--who's name he ought to know, but
you couldn't tell. So, I just sort of told him stories about what was
happening politically and it--and couldn't really tell whether he
understood or not, and after a few minutes he went--fell back to
LAMB: How long was he in that state, in the hospital?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, from 1991 and he died in 1998, so he was there
for--he was that way for seven years.
LAMB: What did his wife tell you about the disease, and the impact on
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, she had--she married him after he had been
diagnosed, and--I mean, she said that he had hallucinations; that's
another thing that the medicine can cause. They were--they
weren't--they--I mean, she--he thought there was a little dog, that
they didn't have, was running around the house. That--that happens
with L-dopa. It does affect your brain circuits; the medicine itself.
What else? That--that he couldn't--that he had to be--that he had to
have his food chopped up for him and--and he had to be fed and
increasingly he couldn't eat solid foods, and that's happened with
Milly too. And--and his--his internal clock got turned around. He
had a mask. He--he--he ha--he was virtually expressionless for a long
time. And--and had slurred speech, which Milly also has had.
She--she took the burden pretty well I thought, you know. She was--I
mean, I said John McCain was his most frequent visitor; obviously she
was because she was--she was incredibly loyal and attentive and
present for him.
LAMB: Right now, what is a day like you--for you? Start at the very
Mr. KONDRACKE: OK. Milly wakes up ahead of me.
LAMB: Sleep in the same bed?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Sleep in the same bed, sure. I--I get up in the
morning, I look over and there she is wide-eyed waiting for me to wake
up, and we--and she's--you know and I give her a kiss, and I say,
`Have I told you lately that I love you.' And she says, `No.' And I
say--and so we laugh and we say, OK. I love you, you know. And then
I get up and I get her her med--her first med--medicine of the day is
three halves of a Sinemet tablet plus a medicine called Mirapex. And
I give it to her with a piece of chocolate. Usually, she--oh, then
the TV goes on, "Good Morning America" or the "Today" show. Then, I
go read the paper, or bring--give--give her some of the paper and she
generally just stays in bed and then we have--we have two ladies who
come--one--alternate, and they basically take care of her during the
day, and I leave and go to work, and--and I know she's in safe hands.
They are perfectly wonderful. I mean, I could not--I could not work
without them. I couldn't do anything without them.
And, so I--then I don't usually see Milly until again about 7:30 when
I get--get home from work, and she--you know, do Fox News and all that
stuff, and so Milly's usually had dinner and is sitting in her
favorite green chair and what I--then I go get my dinner and I sit
next to her and I eat my dinner while the TV's on and she's--if--she's
watching--often been watching Fox News and she will allow as--how--I
have not been--I was not protective enough of, you know, Bill Clinton
when he was president or something, she--now the way--she--sometimes
she can talk, and sometimes you can actually understand what she's
saying. We have computers rigged up all over the house; little
computers, laptop computers with a--will a full thing, and she will
tap out what she basically has to say to me.
And we watch TV together. We--sometimes I--two days a week I have to
write my column at night, so I usually leave her watching TV and
reading and I go into--by the computer which is in another room and I
check with her from time to time and I, you know, make sure that she's
got her Godiva candy supply and stuff, and you know, and we--she'll
tap out what she's done for the day and what I ought to be doing and
what I haven't done. I mean, it's not--she--she's not--she is
wonderful. She's not--not a nag. She doesn't--she--she's basically a
jewel, right, but--but she reminds me of things that I have to do and
stuff like that.
And, then we, you know, go to bed about 11 or so and--oh, she always
wants to call the kids, my daughters, make--you know, make sure how
they are and she listens in on the phone line and she tries to talk to
them and then I--I grab the phone and translate for her with them.
And--or we call--her mother's been sick--her foster mother's been sick
in Chicago, so we've been calling a lot out to Chicago.
I--I have more to do on weekends when, especially on Sundays, the
ladies take off, and basically I'm her caregiver, so I help her eat.
You know, I cook, I--she's got to have her food chopped up or mashed
up and stuff like that and I feed her. So...
LAMB: How many times have you given her the Heimlich maneuver?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Four, I think. Four times.
LAMB: What brings it about?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, she's over ambitious about--about things--she's
getting less so, but--but she thinks she can eat mussels for example,
or--or spareribs. And she wants to try and you can't, you
know--sometimes she can a--she can eat it. She can eat that stuff, so
you don't want to say no. But, food gets caught in her throat and
she--and on four occasions, she's--she was going to choke to death
unless you do the Heimlich maneuver, you know, like that. And on each
occasion the food came out and she was gasping for air and stuff like
that. It's scary. It's terrifying, but so far only four times which
is--and it hasn't happened for--since--I believe since last
Thanksgiving, I think.
LAMB: You mentioned your daughters, Andrea and Alex.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Where are they?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Andrea just graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical
School and is going to do a residency in Baltimore for one year and
then may become a psychiatrist. And my other daughter, Alex, is a
filmmaker in New York. She got a--an award at the Sundance Film
Festival year before last and is trying to be Martin Scorsese or Spike
Lee or somebody like that.
LAMB: You--you point out at--at--at a moment in the life of you, your
wife and your daughters where the question to whether or not Milly
would die, what would happen to the family.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Yeah. I mean, there have been two, sort of,
life-changing moments. I mean, one was when Milly got diagnosed, and
I sort of said to my--we can get into this--I sort of said to myself,
OK, whatever else I'm doing here on earth, this is the most important
thing to do, is to take care of Milly. I'd say the second great
life-changing experience was, Milly was--was--Milly's had two deep
brain surgeries. One is a pallidotomy; the other was--is the--is a
implant of an inner brain, like what amounts to a pacemaker for your
The first operation was in 1995, I think--1995 I think it was, and it
was at Emory University Hospital in--in Atlanta and we were--we--we
were all naturally terrified about whether the operation would succeed
and whether she would be OK and so on, and so--and Alex is taking
mo--was doing movies of the whole thing--not--she didn't get into the
operation, but she was taking movies of ev--of everybody and recording
everybody's thoughts and stuff like that.
And sh--so she got me in a room and she said, `What do you think would
happen if Mom died?' And I said, `Well, I don't know I--whether I
would--I would certainly be bereft, but I don't know whether I would
just go on living or I would start drinking again, or what--you know,
I don't know what I would do. It's impossible.'
And I said to her, `Wh--what would happen to you?' And she said,
`Well, Andrea and I talked about that last night.' And I said, `Well,
turn the camera around and let's record what you have to say.' And she
said, `Andrea said that our family would fall apart; that we would
never see each other again; that you--you'--meaning me--`would not
want to have us around.' And it was like--and--and--and she
s--and--and--and I said, `W--why do you think that?' And she said that
M--Mom's the glue that holds this family together and if she was gone,
we'd all fall apart.
And the two of them agreed to that. And I was devastated by this.
And obviously I realized that I had to be both--I had to start trying
to be the glue and--and I've tried, and I've really, you know, I've
bonded with my kids like I've never did before and try--and I--and
there's no question of that anymore. I mean, my kids and I are
totally bonded now.
But it was--it was--it was a--it was a horrible shock. I mean the--it
was the ultimate sort of condemnation of my--the way I've been as a
father. I mean, I was--I was--I was being a good husband, but I was
not being as good a father as I should be and I resolved that I would
LAMB: What were you doing wrong?
Mr. KONDRACKE: I--you know, I've always been--I was always eager for
their professional success and nagged them to get good grades and
stuff like that, but--I mean, Milly--Milly was this incredible magnet
for information for everybody, you know. And she was just totally
welded with the kids, and the kids talked to her about--the girls
talked to her about everything. And after all, they are women, right?
So they had that in common and they talked about women things.
And I was--I was career-minded and I would talk to them about their
careers and I didn't talk to them about their feelings and their, you
know, I guess their ambitions and hopes and fears and what they cried
about and stuff like that. And--and I--and it--it--it's a matter of
attention, I guess. It's just that--and I sort of--and I did sort of
leave that stuff to Milly because she was so good at it, you know.
And I went off and did my thing and provi--you know, provided the
money and stuff like that, but I didn't provide the attention.
So--but I do my best now.
LAMB: As--anybody who's known you over the years would not call you a
great emoter. I mean, that's just not been your image. But there's
more emotion on one page in this book than, I think, I've seen in all
these years. Is this the true Mort Kondracke?
Mr. KONDRACKE: This is it, boy. Naked. Yeah. No, I--I put it all
in there. I, you know, I--I feel it and I just--and you know--and
writing, I guess, it--it wasn't easy and I wrote it all over and over
and over again, and every time I would go through it, I would say, `It
needs more. What--what did you think? What did you feel at the
time?' And so I just put it in and it's as--it's about as honest as I
LAMB: Has Milly read this?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Yeah. Yeah. And she likes everything except the
last chapter, which, of course, is the chapter that talks about--it's
called, Losing Milly, and--you know, and it's--it's a horrible chapter
for me. It--there is no end to it cause it got--and--and,
fortunately--I mean, the--the way--I think the way the chapter
ends--no, I guess I changed it. There was one point at which Milly
said--well, let me back up. There was one point at which I thought,
based on what Milly was telling me, that she wanted me to go find the
stuff that she was going to use to kill herself, you know, and--which
meant that I would have to mix the potion, right? The final exit--you
know, the book, final exit potion, Seconal, Nembutal something like
that and I was terrified. And a friend of ours said, you know, don't
do that. And Milly is really de--and Mil--Milly was determined that
she was going to kill herself, that she was not going to go--have a
feeding tube. And, a--this friend of ours said, you know, `Have you
talked to a hospice? Do you know anything about hospice care?'
And--and so I went to see--the Washington home, and they said, you
know, basically if she's determined that she's not going to get a
feeding tube, basically she can starve herself to death, you know, and
just not take any food and not take any water and that--that'll be it.
So, we had a will drawn up and all this kind of stuff that she could
do that if that's what she wanted to do, but the--the latest--the good
news is, is that the latest time, I've had--we've had a conversation
about it, she said that she would take a feeding tube, so--she said,
`As long as I can take it out when I want to take it out.' So,
nonetheless, the last chapter is about all of this, and about, you
know, what's going to happen and about, you know, dying is what it's
about. And--and obviously, it's a depressing chapter for her. I
mean, it is for me too, but...
LAMB: You say that she cries a lot, and you don't cry very much.
Mr. KONDRACKE: She doesn't cry as much as she used to. When
she--an--and I think her antidepressant is the reason. She--she
doesn't really cry very much at all. She's on an antidepressant
called Effexor, which puts--basically puts a pan under her emotions.
And--and when she was first diagnosed, she was--she was shattered.
She--she--she had been--she and Irene Pollin--Abe Pollin, the wife of
Abe Pollin, the sports entrepreneur--had a practice together at the
Neurology Center up in Bethesda, Maryland and she had treated
Parkinson's patients and their families as a--as a s--psychiatric
social worker and knew what--how devastating Parkinson's was. So when
she got the diagnosis, she was shattered. And she assumed the worst
and she wept constantly. And eventually, I mean, Prozac didn't work,
Zoloft didn't work, Xanax didn't work but Effexor has. So
she--she's--she cries a lot less. I--I--I cry sometimes but I--it--I
don't know. I--I don't, I just don't. I mean, I guess I'm--because
I'm a guy. I don't know.
LAMB: Did you have any trouble writing the book from that standpoint,
Mr. KONDRACKE: No, I don't think so. I had--no. There was
no--there was nothing that was--I--I can't remember ever thinking,
`This is too hard to write.' I mean, I think I kept saying to myself,
`I've got to write this and I've got to write it better and I've got
to write it truer and I've got to write it deeper.' But, I mean there
was--I mean, there was one--there was one moment which was not writing
that it was--I cry more at happy moments than I do at terribly sad
moments. One of the--we--we went to this wedding, which--in Chicago,
which was the daughter of one of Milly's old high school pals. And
simultaneous with--the wedding party's off here and Milly's having
this reunion with all of her high school friends and one after another
they start telling Milly stories, about the great things she'd done in
the working-class neighborhoods in--in Chicago back in the '50s. And,
you know, just story after story after story after story about how
she--you know, people wouldn't have gotten married had it not been for
Milly. Milly stood up, you know, in gang fights--quote, unquote,
You know, she was a skinny little kid but she was the one who didn't
run away and stuff like that. And just story after story after story
after story and just these stories made me cry just because--because
of what won--what a wonderful person she was and is, you know. And
that--that's the kind of thing that makes me cry. It's--tributes make
LAMB: Where'd you meet her?
Mr. KONDRACKE: In Chicago.
LAMB: What year?
Mr. KONDRACKE: 1966, I believe. We got married in 1967, that I
know. We had this friend who was the spokeswoman for the--for the
civil rights movement in Chicago and was a pal of Milly's at Roosevelt
University and they were sort of anti-war activists together. And
Joan--her name was Joan Kehoe then, it's Joan Smith now, she's at the
University of Vermont, she's the dean at the University of Vermont
now. And--so she fixed us up for a dinner date. It was not love at
first sight on either side but--but Milly was pretty and she was sort
of olive-skinned and slow-eyed and--and prematurely gray and she was
really cute and she was interesting.
And so we started dating and, you know, it was--as I confess in the
book, I was a Dartmouth graduate. I thought the guy that I wanted to
be, as a big shot Washington journalist, should be married to somebody
who went to Vassar, whose grandfather maybe was a Supreme Court
justice. And I sort of held it against Milly, stupidly, that she was
a--kind of a wrong-side-of-the-tracks, Mexican--half-Mexican,
half-Jewish kid who used bad grammar sometimes. And--and eventually
she just overwhelmed all that, you know, and I've been happily married
LAMB: What were you doing then?
Mr. KONDRACKE: I was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times in
Chicago, first in--yeah, first in Chicago and then Springfield.
LAMB: How long did you do that?
Mr. KONDRACKE: I was between Chicago and Springfield, and then
covering national politics out of Chicago five years, from '63 to '68,
and came to Washington in '68.
LAMB: Why did you think you wanted to be a big-shot Washington
Mr. KONDRACKE: Because I was a journalist, you know, and I wanted to
be--I wanted to come to Washington and I wanted to be a big shot, you
know. I--I always wanted to be sort of--I mean, I thought--my hero
was James Reston. I carried his picture around in my wallet. He was
the Washington bureau chief of The Washington Times. And, you know,
I--I had big ambitions, you know, and it took a long time to l--you
know, to say there are other things in life that are also important.
LAMB: What did you do after the Sun-Times?
Mr. KONDRACKE: I--I was--I came to Washington for the Sun-Times and
worked there till 1977, was a White House correspondent, did a lot of
traveling overseas, and then went to The New Republic, where I was
for--from '77 to '85--'85, right, and then went to Newsweek as
Washington bureau chief for 18 miserable months and then went back to
The New Republic and then went to Roll Call, where I am happily now.
LAMB: In--in the middle of Newsweek example you use in the book, you
tell a story about going to Mrs. Katherine Graham's house. You liked
it and Milly didn't?
Mr. KONDRACKE: I--yeah, Milly--Milly thought that--Milly--Milly did
not think I should go to Newsweek in the beginning. She liked The New
Republic, she liked what I wrote at The New Republic. I wrote long
pieces, I--you know, it--I was--it was thoughtful and all that kind of
stuff. And she knew better than I knew that I'm not a manager and I'm
not a politician and I'm not a ego saver and I--you know, that--not--so
she wanted me to stay at The New Republic. She was against the
Newsweek thing from the beginning. But I was ambitious and I thought,
you know, that I could be editor of Newsweek someday. And, I mean,
part of the job was to show up at Mrs. Graham's dinner parties, you
know. And--and it's an honor--Mrs. Graham is a very nice lady. The
dinner parties are terrific. They're--you know, you meet interesting
people. The most important people in the world can pass through Mrs.
Graham's living room.
Milly, one, had a social work practice that she was doing at night.
Two, she had teen-age daughters. And three, she didn't like it,
didn't like this, you know, be on--being at beck and call of
the--of--of Mrs. Graham. So she didn't--she just didn't show up very
often. And I--you know, I yelled at her about it, and she just said,
`Look, I have--I have other things I have to do.' So that--that's the
kind of person Milly was. Milly did what Milly wanted to do.
LAMB: When is the first moment you knew that something was wrong and
that she had something that led to Parkinson's?
Mr. KONDRACKE: We used to go to Vermont every--at Christmastime with
a gaggle of relatives and friends. And we were filling out a college
application for one of our daughters, and Milly was actually writing
the--or filling lots of applications out, Andrea. And Milly said,
`There's something wrong with the l--when I write the letter K,
there's something wrong with it.' And I looked at it and I didn't see
anything wrong with it. And she said, `Eh, something's wrong with
it.' She wrote her name several times and she said, `I can't make a K
right.' That was the first sign.
LAMB: What year?
Mr. KONDRACKE: It was 1987, Christmas 1987, right. And then she
developed a tremor in her little finger in her right hand. And she
went to the Neurology Center, where she worked, and they, at--at
first, diagnosed ulnar neuropathy, which is a pinched nerve,
basically. And she did exercises and stuff, that didn't work, and
her--the tremor kept getting worse, and finally they gave her a
Parkinson's medicine without telling her that it was a Parkinson's
medicine. And she took it and I don't know whether--I can't remember
whether it did any good or not but eventually--I guess it didn't--oh,
no. The--oh, the--what happened then was that she looked it
up--that's right, she looked it up in her pill book and--pill catalog
and she--and she called me up one day and she said, `You've got to
come home. Something terrible has happened,' and she was weeping a
so--sobbing, and she said, `The medicine that they gave me is for
Parkinson's disease. I know what Parkinson's disease is. It's
horrible. I won't be able to eat, I won't be able to talk, I'll choke
to death. You won't love me anymore. You'll leave me,' you know.
She was hysterical.
And--and, you know, I did my best to calm her down. She said, `You
don't know what Parkinson's is.' And, indeed, I didn't know what
Parkinson's is. That was sometime in 1988. And we shopped around for
diagnoses and finally we went to the Mayo Clinic twice, actually, and
they diagnosed Parkinson's disease. That's--that's--but, you know,
she did her best to avoid the diagnosis and--and the poor doctor
who--who had been her boss, Dr. Korengold, very nice guy at the
Neurology Center--she said, `I hate him. I'll never see him again,'
and, indeed, she hasn't seen him again. She, I mean, blamed him for
LAMB: How many hospitals has she been in?
Mr. KONDRACKE: She's been at NIH. She's been in Emory twice,
obviously. She's been at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. I
mean, emergency rooms, countless, you know. She would--one--I mean,
the worst symptom that she had was she just--her balance just
disappeared, her sense of balance, and she would fall--fall on her
face, fall on her side, fa--and she was banged up, she had surgery--I
mean, she had stitches in her lip, stitches--stitches in her nose,
stitches in her cheek, stitches in her eyebrows and stuff like that.
Suburban Hospital in Maryland, Cibly, Georgetown, every time we'd go
on vacation, she'd be in an emergency room. And, you know, you'd have
these experiences where the nurse would sort of ask me to leave to
question her about spousal abuse, you know. After a while they, you
know, got used to us, so they knew that it obviously wasn't. But--so
a lot of hospitals.
LAMB: At some point in all of this you got a call from Howard
Mr. KONDRACKE: Yeah.
LAMB: ...of The Washington Post, the media writer.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Right.
LAMB: What was it about?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, I had--I--in order to double--to try to
increase the Parkinson's budget--NIH spends about--it--it's a disputed
figure, but let's say roughly now about $50 per victim per year on
Parkinson's disease research. They spend, like, a thousand dollars
per victim on an HIV victim, 400 on a cancer victim. I mean, there's
great disparity. So there--what I--what I did was--I mean, there are
two ways to go. One is to--is to go directly and try to increase the
Parkinson's budget, which I tried to do--to do, and did some lo--some
lobbying at a crucial point. And then I helped found an organization
called NIH2, and it was an organization that also did some lobbying on
behalf of doubling the NIH budget over a five-year period.
And a pre--and I was the host at a press conference, where Connie
Mack, Tom Harkin and Fred Upton, Henry Waxman and John Porter and a
bunch of other people were complaining about the latest Clinton
budget. And somebody sent the announcement of the press release off
to Howie Kurtz. Howie Kurtz is the--the media critic of The
Washington Post. And Howie Kurtz called me up and said, you know,
`You're a journalist. What are you doing working with a lobbying
organization?' And I said, `Look, I believe in this cause and I don't
care who complains.' Well, he printed that in the paper and the next
thing you know, the superintendent at the Press Gallery, the Senate
Press Gallery, calls up and says, `Look, lobbying is not--you're--it's
against the rules.' And it is ag--it--it--it is against the rules, and
it should be against the rules.
And he said, `You've got to either give it up or you're going to lose
your press card, your press credentials.' And so I gave it up, and my
lobbying career has fundamentally come to an end.
LAMB: But it brings up the issue of--you know, since you've gotten
involved in these, you've gone directly to politicians and asked for
money from the government for this problem. That brings up the George
Bush story in the middle of the campaign. What did you do?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, with George Bush--George Bush--I--I don't know
that you could call it--exactly call it lobbying. And it--and it
w--and it was just about as ham-handed an--an effort as I'd been with
Clinton at the Christmas party. But basically we were--it was in
the--it was at WMUR in Manchester, New Hampshire, right before the New
Hampshire primary in 2000. And he was taking off his makeup in a
makeup room after a Fox News interview and I said, `Can I write you a
letter about my favorite cause?' And he said, `What's that?' And I
said, `Doubling the NIH budget.' And he said, `I'm for it.'
And then I said, `Well, think about brain research.' And he said,
`Brain cancer?' And I said, `No.' And then I--then I made a total
botch of this. What I was trying to do was to get him to think about
increasing the budget for all kinds of brain research. I was not
making a specific pitch for Parkinson's, I was not lobbying for a
specific bill. I was saying, you know `This is an exciting area.' I
meant to say this is a truly exciting frontier area of knowledge that
deserves to get more help, and I wasn't going to come in for any
specific numbers or anything like that. And basically, I didn't
deliver a good speech. The--the--it was a--it was a 30-second
conversation in which he reaffirmed that he was in favor of the NIH
LAMB: Did he get it?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, he's almost done it. I mean, he said he would
do it and he--his budget calls for a 13.3 percent increase in NIH,
which is healthy, but it's not a ramp to double. It would take 16.5
percent. Now his OMB director says that he will make it up next year,
but clearly the tax cut has limited his NIH request as well as--as--as
LAMB: What are the ethics of using your platform to lobby in the
public arena for more money for this research?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Look, I--I--this is my wife's life, you know.
The--there was a felt need, I mean, a clear injustice. This was
something that--that ought to be done, that needed to be done. What I
elt--ultimately did was I wrote columns about it and I disclosed what
I--that my wife had Parkinson's disease and why I was doing this and
stuff. I think that intervening on behalf of specific legislation at
specific times is something I should not have done by the rules. It
is using my--it was using my special access as a journalist to--on
behalf of a cause. If it could be used for that cause, it could be
used for any cause, you know, good or bad, and it--and I--and it
shouldn't be done. You know, people shouldn't do it. And once called
on it, I stopped doing it.
LAMB: You show us behind the scenes a little bit on Capitol Hill when
they bring in stars like Michael J. Fox, what happens, and also the
egos of the committee members. Tell an Arlen Specter story.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Yeah. I mean, Arlen Specter has been expo--exposed
by other people for--for doing this. I mean, some people just, you
know, are--like to have start--and it--and look, if you're a chairman
of a committee, you want to attract publicity for whatever
it--whatever hearing you ha--are holding and getting a star there to
talk gets the cameras. And Senator Specter go--does it more
than--than most and more successfully than most. I mean, he's had
Michael J. Fox there and Christopher Reeve there and Mary Tyler Moore
and--I can't think of them all. But--but other people--other people
do it, too. They've gotten ar--you know, General Schwarzkopf to talk
about prostate cancer and they get Jessica Lange to talk about farms
and stuff like stuff like th--you know, it's--it's a common--it's a
common practice on Capitol Hill and, you know, Senator Specter
shouldn't be particularly singled out for it, although, you know, he's
more adept at it than--than most people.
Th--there's one thing I--in this book that I--that I want--that I want
to correct, if I could. I said in the book that John McCain, during
the South Carolina primary, apologized for his having changed his
position on fetal tissue research. And I--I remembered an appearance
of his on "This Week With Sam Donaldson," an interview with Sam
Donaldson, in which he sort of made an apologetic remark about it and
I forgot the rest of it and I've gone back to look at the transcript,
John McCain's office having called me about all this. And indeed, in
context, in the whole context, he--he didn't apologize for what he'd
done. So as far as I'm concerned--I mean, I--John McCain did chicken
out on--on stem cell research, which is a currently pending issue.
But on fetal tissue research, which was a former fight, he didn't.
LAMB: Back to the Arlen Specter story for a moment...
Mr. KONDRACKE: Yeah.
LAMB: ...what I was really getting at was the story about him
stomping out of the room because...
Mr. KONDRACKE: Oh, yes.
LAMB: ...Ted Kennedy wanted to go ahead of the rest of them and what
was that all about?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well, this was a previous press conference to the--to
the--to--to the one involving Howie Kurtz. We had Christopher
Reeve--this was before Michael J. Fox disclosed that he had
Parkinson's--Christopher Reeve and Mary Tyler Moore came for a press
conference on NIH funding. And I--again, I was the host of that.
And--and Connie Mack and--and--and Tom Harkin spoke first. And the
question was who was going to speak next and Sen--Senator Kennedy
grabbed my sleeve and said, `Can I talk? I gotta get out of here.'
And so I said yes, and so I interview--intro--introduced Senator
Kennedy next, and all of a sudden Senator Specter disappeared from the
room. There was a hubbub and Senator Specter stalked out. And
one--and his health aide grabbed one of the other people who was
involved in NIH, too, and sort of throttled her--not seriously, I
mean, didn't strangle her but, you know, got mad at her and said,
`Senator Kennedy, is he the chairman?'
And--and I delivered a deeply apologetic, obsequious letter to Senator
Specter apologizing for the slight--but in future--on future--in
future cases, Senator Specter was fine with it.
LAMB: Story of Congressman Bill Young and Michael J. Fox and the
Mr. KONDRACKE: Mike, who by the way, is just as great a human being
in person as he appears to be on television, he is the neat--the
neatest guy. Anyway, he came to testify before Senator Specter and
then made the rounds around the Hill. And practically every office
that he went into, you know, everybody had to have a photograph with
him and Senator Lott wanted a photograph, Sen--all of the visitors in
Senator Lott's office wanted photographs with him and all--so on. And
then he went over to Chairman Young's office. Bill Young is the
chairman of the Senate--of the House Appropriations Committee. And
Mrs. Young had, I think, a whole bunch of children and their friends
and stuff like that, and they all had to have pictures, too. I mean,
it's--if you're Michael J. Fox, people want to have your
picture--have pictures taken with him, and Congressman Young's family
is no different.
LAMB: You reveal in the book about your own reaction to being in a
public place with your wife and realizing that people would look at
you and say, `Mort Kondracke's a great guy because look at him out
there on the dance floor with his wife. He's dealing with all this
very well.' Why did you tell us that?
Mr. KONDRACKE: Well...
LAMB: And did you want people to say, `Isn't he a great guy?'
Mr. KONDRACKE: Yeah, we--yeah. There was a point--I mean,
I--I--my--I've changed on this. There was a point at which I wanted
people--I wanted to get the credit for being the loyal, attentive
husband that I was being. You know, I wanted people to notice for ego
purposes, I guess, and, you know--and people used to say, you know,
`Mort, you're a saint. And I used to sort of exult in that. And
I--and I--and I said, `Good, I'm getting credit for it.' I've
dispensed with that. I mean, not to say that I--I don't want people
to appreciate that I'm doing the best I can, but real life is more
important than what people think about stuff like that, so I--I mean,
we--we still dance at weddings. I mean, Milly loves to dance,
but--and I know that people are looking and I know that people are
saying, `Gee, isn't that great,' but it's the doing it that's the most
fulfilling thing, not what--not what people think. I mean, it's just
part of growing up, I guess.
LAMB: What are they going to say to you about this book, do you
Mr. KONDRACKE: I hope they'll be very moved by it. I hope they will
help us, you know, double, triple the Parkinson's budget and beat this
disease--and help us beat this disease.
LAMB: How long does Milly have?
Mr. KONDRACKE: I think a feeding tube decision wh--when she's not
going to be able to swallow is a year, I think, and...
LAMB: She's how old?
Mr. KONDRACKE: She's 61. And then if she takes--if she--if she
takes the feeding tube, it'll be--I--I--it's indefinite. But the--the
problem is, is that I don't know what kind of life she's going to
have. I mean, whether the Mo Udall thing is--I mean, part of Mo
Udall's problem was, us that he had this brain concussion and he
couldn't--couldn't talk. I mean, she is all there. You know, she
is--she has a far better memory than I do and she knows what's going
on. Now for her to be trapped inside her body is--is horrendous, you
know, and that's the future that I fear the most for her. But I--but
I don't know. I--I don't know--I--I don't know how long--how long it
is. I mean, Mo Udall was in that position for seven years. I don't
know how long she's going to want to be in that position. I don't
know whether she's going to want to be in that position. I don't know
how this story ends.
LAMB: This is the book, "Saving Milly." Our guest has been Mort
Kondracke. Thank you very much.
Mr. KONDRACKE: Thank you, Brian.
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