Rolling With the Punches
Ted Kennedy Is Well Trained for the Fight of His Life

By Vince Bzdek
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ted Kennedy has had to handle bad news from doctors before.

In 1964, he broke his back and nearly died when he was thrown from a crashing plane on the way to accept his renomination for the U.S. Senate at the Massachusetts Democratic convention. He campaigned from his hospital bed while recovering -- and won.

When his son Ted Jr. was 12 years old and losing a battle with cancer, his father made the difficult decision to have the boy's leg amputated. The son is now a strapping 46-year-old advocate for disabled rights.

Five years ago, Kennedy's daughter, Kara, was told she had inoperable lung cancer and only a year to live. Kennedy refused to believe the prognosis, and found a different doctor who operated on her -- successfully.

And now, after years of cheating death repeatedly, Ted Kennedy is facing a deadly brain tumor the same way he has faced every misfortune that has befallen the Kennedy family: with both barrels blazing.

"The man never quits," said a longtime friend, retired senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). "He's indefatigable. He's a fighter. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, 'Al, life is a bowl full of cherries.' "

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), another close friend from across the aisle, said Kennedy told him: "I've been given a bad hand. But I'm not going to let it get me down. I'm going to fight back, and do everything I possibly can."

Kennedy, 76, has spent much of the summer in hospitals. The cancer, which was discovered in May, required brain surgery in June and daily chemotherapy and radiation treatments for six weeks after that. But the veteran senator has still found time and energy in the past three months to:

· Record an emotional video for the first day of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, recapping inspiring moments throughout his life.

· Fly to Washington in the midst of treatments to cast a decisive vote in favor of legislation that would prevent a sharp cut in Medicare payments to doctors. Several Republicans, moved by his grit, switched their earlier votes on the bill, giving it a veto-proof majority.

· Orchestrate bipartisan talks on a universal health insurance bill he hopes to have ready for Congress to consider by the time a new president is inaugurated.

· Craft a Peace Corpsesque youth service bill he hopes to introduce next year to round out his legacy.

· Form a nonprofit group with friends to raise money and build an institute in Boston, next door to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, that will be dedicated to research and education about the U.S. Senate.

And if his condition permits, he might make a surprise appearance at the convention in Denver.

"He's making calls, staying in touch with his office staff and colleagues and still pushing all the issues he cares about," his wife, Vicki, wrote in a recent e-mail to friends and family. He's been exercising each morning at Hyannis Port before heading to Boston for chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the first round of which are now complete. By afternoon, he's usually out on Nantucket Sound, guiding his German-built, wood-hulled schooner, Mya, through the chop.

"I have drawn the line at sailing in thunderstorms, but other than that, he's out on the water just about every day," Vicki wrote.

Dogged perseverance has become something of Ted Kennedy's signature after 46 years in the Senate and 40 years as patriarch of his star-crossed family. "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die," he famously put it at the Democratic National Convention in 1980 after another low moment: the loss of the presidential nomination to Jimmy Carter.

"Most legislators burn out," said former vice president Walter Mondale, another Kennedy contemporary. "And he, for some reason, has not. He has been able to use his expanding congressional advantages -- seniority, the right committees, relationships, huge staffs and connections with groups all over the country and the world. He's maintained that kind of internal excitement and drive for, now, nearly 50 years."

He is the second-longest-serving senator in Congress right now, bested only by 90-year-old Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who's served for 49 years. And Kennedy has every intention of finishing the last four years of his present term if he's well enough.

Most scholars of the Senate now consider Kennedy to be one of that body's ablest legislators. Political commentator David Shribman put it this way: "His brothers' words are in large letters on the sides of buildings and in the hearts and memory of a nation. But the youngest brother is the fine-print Kennedy. His words are in the fine print of the nation's laws."

Vicki writes that Ted is employing the same "grit and determination he's shown in his career" to fight the tumor. "He remained strong and was able to stay on schedule throughout this shock-and-awe phase of the treatment and his doctors -- and we -- are enormously pleased with his progress," she said in her most recent e-mailed update. (Vicki is not doing press interviews currently, a Kennedy spokesperson said.)

Lately Ted Kennedy has been researching experimental treatments, which would be a logical next step if the cancer returns.

"I think if he can get that immune system up to where he can tolerate being around a lot of people, his intention is to come back [to the Senate] after this recess," said Hatch.

Kennedy had a malignant glioma diagnosed in the upper left portion of his brain, after suffering a seizure at his home on Cape Cod. Surgery on June 2 to remove the tumor was called a success, and apparently made chemotherapy and radiation treatments easier for Kennedy to handle.

About 10,000 cases of malignant glioma are diagnosed each year in the United States, and only about half of those patients survive one year. After two years, perhaps 25 percent are still alive. However, new drugs are extending survival in some cases, researchers say, and some patients survive longer than four years.

The grimness of his prognosis has not escaped Kennedy, and he's concentrating on burnishing his political accomplishments, friends in the Senate say.

"We are working on a number of things that he is very excited about as part of his legacy," said Hatch. "One of them is a young persons' volunteer bill. We're finding today that lot of young people do not serve. They don't serve in the military, they don't give service to the government, to communities, to charitable organizations. So we're trying to come up with a bill that will encourage young people to give two years of service."

As for the health insurance initiative, Kennedy has said his interest in the issue began in childhood, sparked by his sister Rosemary, who suffered from what may have been mental retardation or an undiagnosed form of severe depression. She was the inspiration behind Eunice Shriver's founding of the Special Olympics for disabled athletes.

Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming has been working closely with Kennedy as the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Kennedy chairs.

"He wants to be ready," said Enzi, "and I want to be ready to go with something right after the first of the year that will make sure that every American can be insured, and lowers the cost and increases the access. And that's possible."

Now that the most difficult phase of his treatment appears to be over, Kennedy has had more free time to bask in the company of family, friends and supporters from across the country. Those close to him say Kennedy has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of goodwill he's experienced since his seizure.

Hatch, who has gold and platinum records hanging on his office wall for a Christian pop tune he co-wrote called "Unspoken," has written a song for Kennedy. Democratic leaders are talking about playing the tribute at the convention.

It's a ballad called "Headed Home."

Through the darkness we can find a pathway

That will take us halfway to the stars.

Through the rainfall, we can find a clear day,

Shoo the shadows and doubts away

And touch the legacy that is ours.

(It's actually the second song Hatch has written for his longtime friend. The first was a love song, "Souls Along the Way," penned to celebrate Ted and Vicki's fifth anniversary, in 1997. If you listen hard, you can hear the tune in "Ocean's Thirteen" -- it's the background music during the wedding banquet.)

On the day Kennedy's condition was first announced, hundreds of phone calls, 19 bouquets and more than 2,500 e-mails reached his office.

"I send him terrible cards," said Simpson, particularly pleased with one involving proctological humor, and another warning Kennedy that yeast infections sometimes result from visiting bakeries. "He called me and said, 'Al, these cards you send are scurrilous.' I said, 'I know, but I can't send them to anybody else.' "

"Even in the midst of this very serious business, we've shared a lot of laughter," Vicki wrote to friends and family. "But that's not surprising to those of us who love and know Teddy -- there's always laughter when he's around."

"He has a wonderful sense of humor," Simpson added. "His laugh will just carry. I can hear it at this instant. He'll throw his big leonine head back, and . . . what a laugher."

Vicki echoes Simpson's imagery. In one of her e-mails, she confessed that the cancer has been a bear for Kennedy, but "my guy's a lion."

And, she wrote, "I'm betting on the lion."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company