Morton Kondracke is known as a no-nonsense, independent-thinking journalist who, in addition to writing, appears on shows like The McLaughlin Group and Fox's The Beltway Boys. But through his wife his life has been touched by Parkinson's, a disease that affects over a million Americans. Kondracke's book on the subject, Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson's Disease, is published by Ballantine and is now available in paperback.
You start your book at a point where you're totally focused on yourself.
I had dreams of glory. I thought maybe I should marry a Supreme Court Justice's granddaughter or something like that, and that this would be my companion up the ladder. I met this woman, Millicent Martinez, who is beautiful, olive skinned, self-assured, smart, and streetwise. But poor, working her way through college. I was smitten, but I thought, "This woman doesn't fit into my life's plan." We went skiing one time at a bunny slope near Chicago, and she crashed into me. I thought, I want a woman who is at home at Aspen. I don't want somebody who can't even negotiate a bunny slope. So I contrived a breakup with her.
We didn't see each other for four months, but one day, in late May, 1967, I went to the beach, and there I saw Milly with some boyfriend of hers. I sort of skulked around so she wouldn't see me. The next thing you know I was agreeing to take her to the movies. Then we're leaving her apartment and it's raining. We're under an umbrella and we're kissing under a street lamp. And I said, okay, God, I give up. This could never have happened but by God's design. This was meant to be.
This is a story of Milly's journey, but it's also a story of your journey.
You say, "Of all Milly's many projects, her anti-alcohol campaign is one of those about which I am most grateful. It may have saved my life and my marriage."
I wasn't a falling-down drunk, but I was a regular drunk. I mean, I drank a bottle of wine every weekday and basically just passed out. I was just in a zone most of the time. And on weekends I got pretty drunk, and I would drive dangerously.
How she put up with it I don't know, but she didn't put up with it ultimately. She said, "Listen, you're an alcoholic." And it was true. She started pouring all the booze down the sink. And I'd say, "Go ahead I'll buy some more." She said, "I don't care. Buy some more, and I'll pour that down the drain, too."
She just hounded me, and she finally convinced me. Finally, one day I had a dinner party, and I couldn't remember what had happened. The Sunday after Christmas 1986 was the last drink I had. I went to AA that night and haven't had a drink since.
A year and one month from the day you quit drinking, the first signs of Milly's Parkinson's disease appeared.
She had beautiful handwriting, and she was writing a check and couldn't form the letter k right. I didn't appreciate that there was any difference. It looked fine to me. But she insisted that, no, there was something wrong.
Later she had a tremor in the little finger of her right hand, and then her foot would sort of wobble on the brakes when she was driving.
She had been a counselor at the neurology center in Bethesda, Maryland, helping families with patients with chronic neurological diseases. She was given Symmetrel—which is a Parkinson's medicine—by this doctor, and he didn't tell her what it was. But she called me up at work one day, totally distraught and hysterical in a way that I'd never heard Milly before. She said, you have to come home right away. Something terrible has happened. And I thought that one of the kids had been in an auto accident or something, so I raced home.
There she was standing in the bedroom with this bottle in her hand. She said, "This is a Parkinson's medicine. It can't be Parkinson's. I've seen Parkinson's. It's a horrible disease. I won't be able to talk. I won't be able to walk. I won't be able to swallow. I won't be able to eat. You'll have to take me to the bathroom. I'll be totally dependent. You won't love me anymore. You'll leave me.
What did it mean for you to be Milly's support?
The first, obvious thing it meant, was to get the best medical attention that we possibly could.
The second thing was to convince her that I was not going to bug out. Apparently 50 percent of men whose wives have chronic illnesses split. Women tend to stick and men don't half the time. She couldn't be sure that I wasn't one of the wrong 50 percent in the beginning, but after a certain point she realized that I was there for the duration.
And the third thing was activism.
Early on in the story, you make it clear that as a journalist you always drew a line at exploiting your relationships for your causes or purposes.
I was really more worried about getting slammed for it than actually thinking that it was deeply immoral. But what happened was, for about the first seven years that Milly had Parkinson's I somehow naively believed that politics didn't apply when it came to funding disease research, though it applies to absolutely everything else that goes on in Washington.
Then the head of the Parkinson's Action Network, Joan Samuelson, produced this disparity chart which showed that AIDS was getting about $1,700 per victim per year in federal research funding. Cancer was getting $400. Breast cancer $250. MS was doing rather well at $150. Heart disease, $100. Parkinson's, $25. And diabetes even worse at $20. The numbers have changed, but the disparity is roughly the same.
So I felt that if I didn't get involved somehow to change this on behalf of Parkinson's, that I wasn't living up to my commitment to help Milly.
What is the status of the research right now?
The National Institutes of Health has done a study saying that with $1 billion over a five-year period they think they can do it. And in the process they will discover things that will help cure Alzheimer's Disease and ALS and Huntington's and perhaps other diseases.
What is the controversial piece of this?
Embryonic stem cells. If you believe that life begins at the moment of conception, then to destroy an embryo, to harvest its stem cells, is immoral.
Now, there's a lot of science that needs to be done, and maybe non-embryonic stem cells are the answer. What I conclude is that we ought to try both. And I realize that we are destroying potential life. There's no question about it. I'm not going to sugarcoat this and pretend that it's not what it is. But it seems to me that you can do this without sliding down a slippery slope to a brave new world.
Besides your political activism, there's something spiritually happening during this time, too. You describe yourself as somebody who had always believed in God, but around the time of the alcoholism you wanted to get more active in understanding who God was. You describe God as essential to your ability to who you are now.
I've developed a theology which I call Christian stoicism: you play the hand you're dealt as well as you possibly can, and then you just ask God's help everyday, multiple times a day. I couldn't do this without God's help. I pray for help and strength and Milly's deliverance, all the time.
And I simply could not do this without feeling that I was doing God's work in a small way. I've asked God innumerable times, you know, so what is my purpose here on Earth, hoping that he will add a new and grandiose dimension to this, which he never does. The message always comes back the same: Your job here is to take care of Milly.
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