One doesn’t expect a featured speaker at one of Washington’s most glamorous media events to riff on breast cancer in a ballroom packed with politicians, diplomats, journalists, lobbyists and other bigwigs, many of them male.
But then, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) — she of the kinky blonde curls and biting one-liners — is not your average lawmaker.
So at the end of a joke-filled speech larded with requisite jibes at Democrats and Republicans alike, she made light of her long, no-longer private, battle with the disease at Saturday’s annual Gridiron Dinner. That’s the white-tie extravaganza where the Washington press lampoons itself and those we cover in song, dance and absurd costumes. (Full disclosure: I've been a member since 1990).
Gridiron night always features three hopefully-funny speeches in addition to onstage antics: One by the president or his proxy (Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, went heavy on Italian-American jokes); one from the GOP (Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s dismal primary showing gave him endless fodder) and the Honorable DWS for the Dems, who got unexpectedly personal at the end.
“As some of you know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and went through seven surgeries including a double mastectomy. Rick, since you only speak Republican, that means I had them repealed and replaced.
“The entire experience reminded me that life is short, and we need to all focus on what matters – the people we love, the country we love, the legacy we leave….And I hope that if all of us in public life can find more commonality – and see each other’s humanity – then we really can make progress.”
The detour into stand-up comity was brief and she soon went back to comedy.
“By the way, my health battle wasn’t all bad. I got these,” she said, gazing at the bodice of her long red gown. “I like to call them my ‘silver linings.’ Some people who know my story ask: “Debbie, are they fake?”
“I say, hell, yes, they’re fake. The real ones tried to kill me, although the fake ones feel very real. At least that’s what the TSA agents tell me.”
That crack brought down the house.
a Capitol Hill press conference in March 2009, a tearful Wasserman Schultz spoke from the heart about what she’d been through since December 2007, when she found a lump while doing a self-exam. A wife and the mother of three young children, she was just 40 at the start of her ordeal. She told almost no one in Congress except a handful of staffers and close colleagues as she endured seven surgeries, including the removal of her ovaries. She kept it secret, she said, because she didn’t want cancer to “define” her while running her own House race and campaigning across the country, first for Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama.
By March, 2009, when doctors determined she was cancer free, she and her husband, Florida banker Steve Schultz, told the kids. “I wanted to be able to say, ‘Mommy was sick but now she’s fine," Wasserman Schultz explained to me several years ago.
At that press conference, she wanted to ensure that doctors and their younger patients understood that breast cancer can strike women in their 20s and 30s as well as middle age and beyond, so she announced her sponsorship of the EARLY (Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young) Act. Its aim was to “encourage young women to be their own voice -- to speak up for themselves and know when they need to go to their doctor." The bill would also direct the Department of Health and Human Services to begin educational campaigns in high schools and universities, focusing on ethnic minorities such as young African Americans and descendants of Eastern European Jews, who are at higher genetic risk.
The ongoing campaign by Wasserman Schultz to educate Americans about breast cancer was the latest act of candor to build on the brave public statements made in 1974 by first lady Betty Ford.
The wife of former Michigan congressman and accidental president Gerald Ford, who took over after Richard Nixon resigned in Watergate disgrace, Betty Ford spoke openly about the once-taboo subject.
In 1974, at age 56, she had a mastectomy the day after a doctor found a lump in her right breast during a physical.
Then she began talking up early detection, inspiring tens of thousands of women to have mammograms. That included Happy Rockefeller, the wife of Ford’s vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, who also discovered she had breast cancer.
Wasserman Schultz, who as Democratic National Committee chair often appears on TV doing her partisan best to blast Republicans, is not “obsessive” about discussing her own battle with the disease, an aide told me after the Gridiron dinner.
But in a room filled with some of Washington’s most influential men and women, she made her points, so to speak,with a big dollop of humor.
Silver linings, indeed.