Monday, January 10, 2011
Patrick Kennedy rebuffs Sarah Palin’s words - Brett Coughlin - POLITICO.com
Patrick Kennedy, who lost two uncles to assassins’ bullets, says there’s an obvious connection between the violent rhetoric of today’s politics and the massacre in Tucson.
“When Sarah Palin puts targets on people’s districts? Or you have 10,000 signs on the mall during the healthcare battle saying ‘Bury Obamacare with Kennedy’? When the vitriol and the rhetoric is so violent, we have to connect consequences to that.” said Kennedy, who left congress two weeks ago after serving eight terms representing Rhode Island.
Saturday’s tragedy touches on both elements of Kennedy’s new mission in life — helping someone after they’ve been afflicted by a brain injury and ensuring universal access to mental health services, which might have prevented Jared Lee Loughner’s apparent paroxysm of madness.
In lengthy interviews with POLITICO, Kennedy talked about both Giffords and Loughner.
He called Giffords a “very compassionate person, with a generous spirit. She was always asking about me and how I was doing,” in the time just after his father’s death.
After the final vote on health care reform, Kennedy volunteered his services to raise money for Giffords and other Democrats who had voted yes and were facing a tough reelection fight. Kennedy was able to raise about $65,000 for Giffords “virtually overnight,” he said. “She was happily surprised.”
In Loughner, Kennedy sees an object lesson for the media and others. “When I hear terms about the alleged shooter in this case, perjorative terms like psycho, lunatic, or they say ‘He’s crazy.’ These are terms we use to describe someone’s mental health?” he asked, his voice booming over the telephone.
“This is a rare opportunity to take all the stigma and stereotyping, and take the terms like crazy and psycho, that are being bandied about by reputable people who should know better, and use this as an opportunity to have some enlightened debate about better public policy that can help respond to the real need amongst many families whose family members are part of that very small subset of individuals who suffer from violent, paranoid schizophrenia.”
(Loughner has not been diagnosed with schizophrenia; he faces federal charges in the deaths of six people and the wounding of 14.)
Out of Congress for just two weeks, the former Rhode Island representative already has his new nonprofit The Next Frontier underway.
Kennedy will present the first major research of the nonprofit on May 25, 2011, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech about sending a man to the moon. He sees the new effort as trying to coordinate all the brain research that is being done by an army of scientists around the globe.
“You have umpteen different groups all trying to do their own research: bipolar [disorder], Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, epilepsy,” Kennedy said. “They file all these things as if they are individual disorders when they all have one organ in common, the brain. We know a fraction of 1 percent of what we need to know, unless we are working on the big picture about what’s common to all.”
Kennedy says scientists have been inspired by the metaphor of everyone working together to achieve something that seemed impossible.
“They call brain research the last medical frontier,” said Kennedy. “Instead of going to outer space, we’re going to inner space.”
As in the 1960s when Sputnik spurred the United States to action, Kennedy says there is a national security interest at stake: “Our race to space is the suicide rate among soldiers and veterans. All that research — Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s — that’s all going to accrue to the soldiers’ benefit.”
The totality of the effort taps into very personal issues for the 43-year-old, eight term congressman. His father succumbed to brain cancer, his aunt Rosemary was lobotomized. Kennedy himself has struggled with addiction and remains in recovery.
A few weeks after his father – “Lion of the Senate” Edward Kennedy — died, Kennedy was sitting on a bench outside of the Cannon Office Building talking. Asked if he intended to take up the mantle and continue his father’s lifelong work in health care, Kennedy said “I don’t know.”
Not long after that, Kennedy announced he would be retiring from Congress.
Later in the year, as the Tea Party and anti “Obamacare” protests exploded all over the country, Kennedy saw a sign outside of the Congress. It said “Bury Obamacare With Kennedy.” He was later told that thousands had been handed out.
The event lead Kennedy to say that he feared for the future, and pointed to his family’s well-known tragic story.
“My family’s seen it up close too much with assassinations and violence in political life. It’s a terrible thing when people think that in order to get their point across they have to go to the edge of violent rhetoric and attack people personally,” Kennedy said during a speech before healthcare providers and union officials in downtown Providence in September 2009, according to the Providence Journal.
“It’s fine for people to debate the issue and attack the issue, but when they go and stoop to the level of the vitriolic rhetoric that we’ve seen this debate turn up, it’s very, I think, dangerous to the fabric of our country,” he said at the time.
“There are consequences to violent rhetoric,” he said. “Some people can see through TV ratings and right-wing talk show hosts that just try to create some theater, but unfortunately, there are some that can’t see through it. And that’s the danger in it. There is definitely freedom of speech, but freedom of speech does not allow yelling ‘fire’ in the middle of a crowded movie theater.”
Kennedy remains optimistic about the future, however, and said he is courting some major corporations to help raise money for veterans returning home with traumatic brain injury.
Last fall, in San Diego, Kennedy gave a speech before the National Foundation for Neuroscience, lamenting that there hasn’t been a “galvanizing moment” to spur the coordination of research of the brain.
What happened in Tucson may now be the moment.
“We’ve had a war on cancer, but never a war on Alzheimer’s. We’ve had a war on poverty, but never a war on Parkinson’s. As a result, progress has been painfully slow,” Kennedy told the researchers in San Diego. “To develop and gain approval for new treatment takes about 18 years, and the number of FDA approvals of new molecular entities has actually declined. Recently, pharmaceutical-company investment has declined with it. I suppose it’s possible to look at these facts and say, ‘The pace of discovery is uneven. That’s just the way it is.’
“But I say it’s time – it’s long past time – to redouble our efforts. To refocus our work. To marshal the American spirit toward this great challenge,” he said. “So when people ask me, after more than two decades in politics, what’s next? I’m proud to tell them. This is next.”