The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the terminal cancer patient who stumped Hillary Clinton on death with dignity at CNN’s town hall

Compared with buttoned-up debates — podiums, moderators, talking points — town halls give candidates a chance to come off as regular folk. They sit on stools. They take off their jackets. Taking questions from normal people instead of media personalities, those seeking the White House can approach the madding crowd. And, after Iowa’s near-dead heat, CNN’s Democratic Town Hall Wednesday night in New Hampshire gave Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) yet another opportunity to relate to the masses — or appear to be able to.

But amid the grandstanding, there came a moment beyond politics. A red-cheeked 81-year-old man named Jim Kinhan stood up. Host Anderson Cooper introduced Kinhan to Clinton simply as “a Democrat who says he is supporting you.”

Then Kinhan boldly asked a question that got to the heart of human experience: Where was Clinton at on death with dignity?

“This may come a little bit from right field, this may seem, but it’s very personal to me and resonates probably with many other people who are elderly dealing with health issues,” he said. “The question is coming to me as a person who is walking with colon cancer. And I’m walking with colon cancer with the word terminal very much in my vocabulary, comfortably and spiritually.”

Clinton looked a bit nervous. This wasn’t going to be easy.

“I wonder what leadership you could offer within an executive role that might help advance the respectful conversation that is needed around this personal choice that people may make, as we age and deal with health issues or be the caregivers of those people, to help enhance and — their end of life with dignity,” Kinhan said.

Clinton plunged in.

“I really appreciate your asking the question,” she said. “And I have to tell you, this is the first time I’ve been asked that question.”

“I — I figured that,” Kinhan said.

“Yes. I — I really — I really … “

“Maybe any candidate.”

“And I thank you for it, because we need to have a conversation in our country.”

Clinton then offered what some thought was a circuitous answer — one not helped by an unexpected close-up. Some states would offer “the opportunity without criminal liability for people to make this decision,” she said; but should doctors be involved in making it, or just counselors? The candidate didn’t know. But she knew that it was a “crucial issue that people deserve to understand from their own ethical, religious, faith-based perspective.”

After awhile, Clinton only seemed sure that she wasn’t sure what to say — and said so.

“I don’t have any easy or glib answer for you,” she said. “… I thank you so much for raising this really important absolutely critical question that we’re all going to have to do some thinking about.”

Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton answered questions from N.H. voters at CNN's democratic forum in Derry, N.H., on Feb. 3. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Though Clinton, predictably, was criticized by some on social media for her vague reply, one man was very satisfied with it — Jim Kinhan.

“I was pleased with her response, because she said right off from the beginning, wow, she never had a question like that before,” Kinhan told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “… It probably caught her. I was pleased she was being open and frank … I respected that.”

Indeed, his support for Clinton was never in doubt. One of his four granddaughters is a longtime Clinton volunteer.

“I was behind her eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy Obama won, but I was supporting her then, and I’m supporting her this time around,” Kinhan, with whom Clinton met briefly after the town hall to ask more about his health, said. He added: “If she doesn’t win, I’ll happily vote for [Sanders] … They are both solid, inspirational people and agree so much on overall goals.”

Kinhan is no stranger to inspiration. A Massachusetts native, he’s a retired clinical social worker who’s labored at mental health clinics in New York, Colorado and New Hampshire. He’s also worked at a homeless shelter, and has volunteered in a fourth grade classroom for 20 years, teaching math.

“If you stay around children, you stay young,” he said.

However, Kinhan doesn’t neglect the elderly. He said he visits “old folks” — that is, “90, 100-year-old folks” — through a church group. Just days ago, a 103-year-old with whom Kinhan had spent a lot of time passed away, making his question to Clinton all the more pointed.

“It needs to be something that’s talked about,” Kinhan said. “All I wanted her to be able to recognize is that it needs to have a very respectful conversation.”

Unfortunately, Kinhan himself is part of that conversation as well. He was diagnosed with colon cancer three years ago; doctors who initially thought surgery would help were wrong. So he’s been on a three-week cycle of palliative chemotherapy for three years — one he said is “not going to result in remission, but maintain some quality of life.”

“I’m handling it well, doing well,” he said. “My goal is I hope I can reach 85 and continue to shoot my age every year in golf.”

But Kinhan isn’t just active on the links. An avid walker, he met his partner, another avid walker named Ginny Mierins, in 1998 when her hairdresser set up a blind date.

“I was telling her that I didn’t have anyone to walk with because I walk too fast, so I would just walk alone,” Mierins told the Concord Monitor last year. “And she said, ‘ You know what, I know someone who walks a lot, and I think you’d make a good couple.'”

Though they are known for their neighborhood strolls, the couple took their hobby to another level, walking 100 miles across England in 2014 to follow the path of Hadrian’s Wall. This was, of course, after Kinhan’s diagnosis.

“The doctors were fine with it,” Kinhan, who had a chemotherapy treatment 10 days before the trip, told the Concord Insider at the time. “I’m not living with cancer, I’m walking with cancer.”

That’s a theme to which Kinhan has continually returned in op-eds for the Concord Monitor and as an advocate for a New Hampshire state law that would establish a commission to study end-of-life choices. After watching his father die slowly almost 20 years ago, and now facing the end of his own life, Kinhan wants an open, conversation about how we die — and he doesn’t want to hear talk about “suicide.”

“Suicide is a dark and secretive behavior, and as a retired mental health professional, I know firsthand the pain and angst of survivors, with the unending question of ‘what if’ and overwhelming self guilt,” he wrote in the Monitor last month. “Death with dignity, or end-of-life choice, is a courageous act of personal spirituality. In my view, attempts to cloak choice as immoral is testimony to others who come from a different perspective and set of values. Personally, it rings loudly and joyfully of my readiness for what lies ahead and for thankfulness for what life has gifted me.”

This is something that New Hampshire deserves, he said. Sure, he has adult children living Vermont and Washington — two states with established “death with dignity” laws. But slinking away for the end of everything isn’t really his style.

“If worse came to worse, I can always move,” he said. “But I don’t wanna move to some other f—king state. I wanna do it here in my home. I wanna die laughing.” He added: “I want to go out smiling, blessing my children and grandchildren, and go to whatever comes after.”

Jenny Starrs contributed to this report.