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Archive for Monday, July 31, 2006

House colleagues find common bond

July 31, 2006

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As national anniversaries go, the 25th anniversary being celebrated tomorrow is not one to shake the rafters. It is in no almanacs, it spawns no parades, it prompts the wearing of no national costumes. But the 25th anniversary of the last time Jim Ramstad had a drink still is worth noting.

Now unless you're a faithful reader of the Congressional Record or a resident of the southern suburbs of Minnesota's Twin Cities, you may never have heard of Jim Ramstad. No matter. The important thing is that Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island had heard of Mr. Ramstad, and therein begins our story.

Kennedy, of course, is the son of the Massachusetts Democratic senator. He's serving his sixth term in the House of Representatives. His name pops up every once in a while, most recently this spring in an episode involving his addiction to pain pills. Kennedy acknowledged his problem in public but he also did one thing more. He reached out to Ramstad in private.

Rep. Ramstad is a member of the House, too. He and Kennedy have very little in common. Ramstad is a reliable vote for tax cuts, Kennedy a reliable opponent. Ramstad supports a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Kennedy opposes it. You can even measure their differences by the numbers. Ramstad votes the AFL-CIO line very rarely, usually less than 20 percent of the time. Kennedy's AFL-CIO voting record very often is a perfect 100 percent.

But Jim Ramstad is the recovery sponsor for Patrick Kennedy, and this represents more than just one hand across the partisan aisle in Washington. It represents an enduring alliance of a very special sort.

"When I had my troubles, he was there for me, honestly supportive," says Kennedy, 39 years old, who had been in treatment for cocaine when he was in high school. "He'd visit and talk with me about his own experience and about living with recovery while being a prominent public figure."

Ramstad, 60 years old, woke up from his last alcoholic blackout in a jail cell in Sioux Falls, S.D., a quarter-century ago, under arrest for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and failure to vacate. He had just finished his first session in the Minnesota state Senate. This was not what you call good publicity.

"I was so embarrassed I wanted to be dead," he says. "But instead of that being the end of my life and the end of my political career, it was the beginning of a new life. In fact I was so humbled, so embarrassed, that I was sure everything was over for me. But I got the monkey off my back and began to live honestly for the first time."

Honestly, Ramstad had been one big drinker, known for pouring a stiff drink. A friend remembers Ramstad pouring him a bourbon and water and saying, "Oh, hell, I got too much water in it," and then dumping the whole thing down the drain and starting over.

Ramstad has since started over, a process that began in the St. Mary's Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis and consisted of a lot of soul searching and learning. "I learned a great deal," he says, "about the progressive and fatal nature of alcoholism."

He had watched two of his uncles die of alcoholism. He didn't want to be like them. He didn't want any more alcoholic blackouts. He didn't want to go through another day not remembering what he had done the night before.

So he worked hard - a campaign, you might say, different from the sort he waged in public. But the odd thing was that his private battle, though a public matter, never became a political matter. Hardly anyone talked about it.

But when Kennedy decided to seek treatment, Ramstad decided to take action.

"I reached out to Patrick like I do virtually every week to others still struggling with this disease," he says. "I was simply doing what I do. Chemical addiction is an equal-opportunity disease, and the fact he was a Democrat and an Easterner didn't matter. He was just another person in need. I'd have reached out to Patrick Jones or Patrick Smith just as easily as to Patrick Kennedy."

So when Kennedy entered the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for treatment this May, Ramstad visited him for four successive weekends "to let him know I was here for him."

Ramstad, who has been in Congress since 1991, explains: "It helped both of us. I'm not a hero. I'm just working my program. I stay sober by reaching out to help others. In helping others we help ourselves."

This is the sort of bipartisanship that long ago was a part of congressional life. In the lore of the Capitol, House Minority Leader Bob Michel, the Illinois Republican, and House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., the Massachusetts Democrat, would spar till midafternoon and then adjourn to a friendly round of golf, followed by drinks on the veranda. Those days are long gone, and in truth are romanticized by old-timers looking back on an era that seemed sweeter or at least less contentious. It may not have been. O'Neill was one virulent partisan and Michel nursed many deep hurts.

There may be no moral in the story of Jim Ramstad and Patrick Kennedy, no tale for our times. It may simply be a story of one man who has known trouble trying to ease the pain of another man in trouble. But in a time when rituals of Congress seem emptier than ever, especially when lawmakers praise each other for leadership, the leadership that Ramstad showed, and the friendship that Kennedy found and fostered, is a grace note in our national life.

- David Shribman is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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