MORTON KONDRACKE IS A REPORTER in Washington, D.C., and a name to conjure with: a writer for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, a star on the political television program The Beltway Boys, an original member of The McLaughlin Group, a man who has followed the ins and outs of American politics for more than thirty years. But his wife is dying-and dying hard, suffering through all the shuddering pain and indignity of advanced Parkinson's disease. What answer is there to that?
MORTON KONDRACKE IS A REPORTER in Washington, D.C., and a name to conjure with: a writer for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, a star on the political television program The Beltway Boys, an original member of The McLaughlin Group, a man who has followed the ins and outs of American politics for more than thirty years. But his wife is dying-and dying hard, suffering through all the shuddering pain and indignity of advanced Parkinson's disease. What answer is there to that? None of his television fame, writing success, or political intelligence can abate her suffering or buy her the least gain of life. Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson's Disease is Kondracke's tale of his marriage, his career, and his sorrow. It makes almost unbearable reading. The book is in part a plea for increased funding for research into the disease, and it is in part a cry lifted up to God-a cry of anger and a cry of submission that recognizes our duty to the ill: to feed them, and bathe them, and comfort them, when they cannot feed or bathe or comfort themselves. Mostly, though, Saving Milly is a story of the eternal pity of the human condition. Milly Kondracke's life has been spared so far, but not the pain. As Saving Milly describes her, Milly Kondracke was a lively, fun, hard-headed woman: a fireball and a live wire; half-Mexican, half-Jewish, and entirely herself. Born Millicent Martinez, she was the red-diaper daughter of Chicago radicals. (Her father, a Mexican national, was deported from the United States for Communist activities when she was ten.) Kondracke met her when he was starting out as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times-but it wasn't love at first sight. Or perhaps one should say that it was love at first sight, but Kondracke didn't want to believe it. He had plans. He wanted to be a "big-shot journalist." He carried a picture of the New York Times's James Reston in his wallet, and Reston had told him that marriage was important-important for one's career, which is the only kind of important that matters. If you can't marry a rich girl from Vassar, why marry at all? Love has a way of getting around such questions, and a year later, in 1967, Kondracke, almost despite himself, married the impoverished but "irresistible" Milly. (Twenty years later, Milly would still remember: There was only one school to which her daughters could not apply for college, and that was Vassar.) A fairy tale, as G.K. Chesterton once pointed out, always ends "and they lived happily ever after"-which is not necessarily the same thing as living peacefully ever after. The fairy tale's bride and groom can still be happy, even if, from time to time, they throw the furniture at each other. The Kondrackes had one of those happy, furniture-throwing marriages. They had a pair of daughters, Milly trained as a psychotherapist, and Morton became a success: the Sun-Times's White House correspondent, a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, a writer for the New Republic, and bureau chief for Newsweek. Along the way, particularly during the "huge mistake" of working at Newsweek, Morton Kondracke began to drink hard. He had always suffered, he writes, from a debilitating "combination of snobbery and a lack of self-confidence." That is, of course, the disease nearly every writer has, the self-destructive mix of arrogance and jealousy, and Kondracke tried to cure it with alcohol, as so many other writers have. After a series of terrifying incidents and raging arguments that rocked their house, Milly convinced him to begin attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was there he quit drinking-and there as well he experienced the first spiritual feelings that would lead, eventually, to his Christian conversion. It barely came in time. In 1987, Milly began to complain that her signature was changing. She had always had beautiful, ornate handwriting, and suddenly she couldn't form the letter K in "Kondracke" the way she used to. Although they didn't know it at the time, that was the first moment "the shadow of Parkinson's disease cast itself upon our lives." From there, it has been a long, painful slide-the inevitable pattern of debilitating disease: one power lost after another; one new treatment after another, each bringing a small hope, each hope betrayed. "Parkinson's has kidnapped my wife," Kondracke begins his book. "She cannot walk, and now she can barely speak. She is being carried into an abyss, and I am helpless to rescue her." Saving Milly is a small but powerful memoir of Morton Kondracke's joys and sorrows, and a moving memorial to his wonderful but dying wife. It also, however, has a political agenda-making a demand, from the foreword by the actor Michael J. Fox to the book's conclusion, that the government do everything in its power to increase funding for research into a cure. The arguments are often convincing. Political activism stands behind much of American medical research: The National Institutes of Health spend only around $53 a year in research for each Parkinson's victim, as opposed to $1,800 for each victim of AIDS, and one reason for the difference is the political clout of those touched by the disease. So why shouldn't Morton Kondracke become an activist, joining Parkinson's sufferers Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali on the front lines of the political battle? An increase in funding would be money well spent. "Without God's intervention, a cure for Parkinson's will arrive too late to save Milly," Kondracke writes. "Brain scientists say that enough is known that this disease could be cured in five to ten years-if adequate resources are devoted to the task." But the arguments are not always convincing. On the necessity for research with embryonic stem cells, for instance, Kondracke may well be wrong, his book betraying the fact that it was finished before the disastrous first tests of embryonic stem cell treatment and the discovery of the availability of stem cells gleaned from adults. Nonetheless, as he no doubt hoped would be the case, Saving Milly has already been used in the fight over stem cells. In a Washington Post column with the horribly inverted title "Embryos of Hope," Richard Cohen demanded last month that President Bush read the book to learn why federal funding is needed for embryonic stem cell research. All that raises the question of just how far a journalist may go in political activism and still remain a journalist. Morton Kondracke was always more willing than others to use his journalistic clout-or, at least, Milly was always more willing. In the 1970s, an Eastern European poet whom Milly had befriended was having trouble getting an American visa, and she persuaded Kondracke to threaten the White House with an article on his plight unless he was admitted into the United States. More recently-and, again, because of Milly-his work as a lobbyist on Parkinson's disease has come near to costing him his congressional press pass. There is an answer to this question of journalistic activism, but it is a hard one-too hard to give a man flailing in rage and grief against the disease that is claiming his dynamic, vibrant wife of thirty-four years. If Saving Milly succeeds, as it ought, in increasing funding for Parkinson's research, then Morton Kondracke will have done well. At making us remember Milly, he has already succeeded. J. Bottum is Books and Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.
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