A Star Says He Finds Validation In Public Interest on Stem Cells

Michael J. Fox campaigned for Senate hopefuls Benjamin L. Cardin, right, in Chevy Chase and James Webb in Arlington.
Michael J. Fox campaigned for Senate hopefuls Benjamin L. Cardin, right, in Chevy Chase and James Webb in Arlington. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006

He has been called a faker by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, and he withstands the gazes of hundreds of people as his lips tremble, a hand shakes or a foot jerks in a wild spasm.

But when Michael J. Fox recently discovered that "stem cells" is one of the most frequently searched terms on the Internet, he said he knew entering the political fray was worth it.

"My immediate goal in this time when there's a lot of garbage flying around is to actually have a real conversation about embryonic stem cells," the actor said yesterday during a 10-minute interview before a political rally at a Holiday Inn in Chevy Chase. "To turn on my computer in the morning and see on AOL that 'stem cells' is the second-most-popular search, it's just -- wow -- that's all I could have hoped for."

Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, lent his star power yesterday to two Democratic candidates in hotly contested U.S. Senate races who support embryonic stem cell research: U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in Maryland and James Webb in Virginia. Fox said that he has registered as a Democrat in New York so he can vote in the primaries but that he would otherwise be an independent.

Some in the crowds in Chevy Chase and Clarendon came in wheelchairs and with canes, saying they were attending their first political rally in the hope that bolstering embryonic stem cell research might someday cure them.

"A lot of people need this right now," said Marybeth Norman, 48, of Ellicott City, who listened in her wheelchair to Fox in Chevy Chase.

Fox, who starred in the television series "Family Ties" and the "Back to the Future" movies, captured national attention last week when Limbaugh criticized a television ad that Fox taped for a U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri. The ad was similar to a commercial Fox made for Cardin. Limbaugh said Fox, who was shaking in the ad, was either off his medication or acting. Limbaugh later apologized. Fox said his symptoms were more pronounced because he was too medicated.

The movements that Limbaugh criticized in the commercials were mild compared with how the actor appeared in person yesterday. Fox has clearly learned to make his movements less noticeable. If his foot suddenly jolts upward, he reaches down to pull up his sock in an almost seamless move. His handshake is firm, but even when he is shaking mildly, he looks like a young man trapped in an old man's body. Without the medication that causes the involuntary movements, a spokesman said, Fox's face would be so rigid he wouldn't be able to speak.

As for why he hasn't spoken out more about Limbaugh's criticism, Fox said: "What's the point really? When you grow up my size, you learn how to deal with bullies. You don't engage them. You're not going to change their mind." Fox is about 5 feet 4 inches tall.

But Fox, 45, had gentler words for another critic: the sister of Cardin's Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. Monica Turner, a Bethesda doctor who has multiple sclerosis, appeared in a television ad for the lieutenant governor, calling Cardin's ad featuring Fox "tasteless" and designed to "frighten people." Fox said he had not seen the commercial but had read the transcript.

"I'm not going to get into an argument with a fellow patient," he said. "She has a right to believe what she believes in and certainly has the right to express it.''

But Fox said he took umbrage at one of Steele's spokesmen calling the Fox ad for Cardin "in extremely poor taste."

"It smacks of 'Go away, we don't want to see it,' " Fox said. People with debilitating illnesses "have a right to speak and a right to be seen no matter how difficult that may be for people to see us or hear us."

Steele has said he favors stem cell research but only if it does not entail destroying an embryo. Webb's Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. George Allen, has defended his vote this year to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, saying he can't support a procedure that destroys a human embryo.

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