The Aftermath of a Senator’s Stroke

The Illinois senator is running for reelection after suffering a stroke. How much did it change his brain? And is it wrong to ask?

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Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
July 31, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

This is how Mark Kirk wants you to see him. It’s a Ju­ly morn­ing, in a first-floor foy­er of a chil­dren’s hos­pit­al. A dozen on­look­ers are watch­ing him as he treks up a flight of stairs. But Kirk, a Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or from Illinois, isn’t alone on this jour­ney. Trail­ing him, step for step, is a man named Eddy Brown. The 68-year-old Brown suffered a stroke in Feb­ru­ary; it left Brown’s speech slurred and his walk­ing im­paired.

Now, Kirk, dressed in a navy t-shirt and shorts, is chal­len­ging Brown to over­come his par­tial para­lys­is and reach the second floor. “Eddy, fol­low me,” Kirk says, turn­ing to make sure Brown is still with him. Brown’s reply is quick: “I’m with you, broth­er.”

The climb isn’t easy for the sen­at­or, either: In 2012, just a year in­to his first term in the Sen­ate, he too suffered a stroke. Today, his left side re­mains par­tially para­lyzed. He is of­ten con­fined to a wheel­chair and needs an aide’s help with some ba­sic tasks, like get­ting in and out of cars. As a res­ult, Kirk’s own trek up the hos­pit­al stairs re­quires a meth­od­ic­al ap­proach: lift­ing his right leg first, paus­ing for a second, and then swinging the af­fected left leg over.

But on this day, the 55-year-old Kirk is not a vic­tim; he’s the guide. And his protégé is fol­low­ing him up 21 steps, to the second floor, where cof­fee, re­fresh­ments, and the ap­plause of spec­tat­ors awaits. At the top of the stairs, as Kirk and Brown con­grat­u­late each oth­er, Brown’s wife, Mary, be­gins weep­ing—over­joyed, she says, to see someone show­ing that her hus­band’s life isn’t ef­fect­ively over.

The event—held in St. Louis, whose me­dia mar­ket ex­tends across down­state Illinois—was part of a series of gath­er­ings called “Kirk’s Battle Bud­dies,” dur­ing which the sen­at­or gives stroke vic­tims pep talks be­fore they climb stairs with him. “To me, this is the joy of my life, to meet folks like Eddy,” the sen­at­or told re­port­ers af­ter­ward. “This is the reas­on why I sur­vived a stroke, to be able to give back to my fel­low stroke vic­tims.”

Vice Pres­id­ent Biden (left) and a throng of sup­port­ers wel­comed Kirk (second from the left) back to the Sen­ate in Janu­ary 2013, al­most ex­actly a year after he suffered a stroke.

It was a genu­inely heart­felt mo­ment. But it was also un­deni­ably polit­ic­al. Kirk is up for reelec­tion next year. Even if he hadn’t suffered a stroke, he would prob­ably face the longest odds of any sit­ting sen­at­or. While Kirk is a re­l­at­ively lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an, he rep­res­ents solidly blue Illinois, and pres­id­en­tial elec­tion years—with their high­er turnout—tend to fa­vor Demo­crats. Mean­while, the likely Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee is a for­mid­able op­pon­ent: Rep. Tammy Duck­worth, who lost both of her legs in 2004 while pi­lot­ing an Army heli­copter in Ir­aq.

As he gears up for this dif­fi­cult cam­paign, Kirk’s staff is un­der­tak­ing an enorm­ous polit­ic­al gamble. Rather than hid­ing their can­did­ate’s med­ic­al struggles—as staffers for FDR to JFK have done—they have de­cided to em­brace them. Kirk’s first TV ad, which began air­ing in May, re­coun­ted how the stroke nearly killed him and de­tailed his long re­cov­ery. The cam­paign’s ar­gu­ment is that dis­ab­il­ity has fun­da­ment­ally changed the sen­at­or—hum­bling him and teach­ing him em­pathy for the chal­lenges faced by every­day Amer­ic­ans.

“A lot of us are very proud of fact that he is such a bet­ter per­son than he was be­fore the stroke,” says Kate Dick­ens, Kirk’s chief of staff. More so than be­fore, she ex­plains, he is “someone you can ac­tu­ally have a con­ver­sa­tion with, who can see both sides of something. Who is will­ing to un­der­stand the tough ele­ment of a con­ver­sa­tion and not just, ‘I already know how I feel about this.‘“Š”

But politi­cians don’t get a free pass to only tell their ver­sion of events. And so, if Kirk’s cam­paign wants to ar­gue that his stroke has changed him for the bet­ter, it also seems fair to ask wheth­er it has changed him for the worse. Has it af­fected his men­tal state, or his judg­ment, or his abil­ity to do his job?

Of course, ask­ing such ques­tions about a politi­cian’s health is a fraught en­deavor. When I brought up the sub­ject with Re­pub­lic­an politicos un­con­nec­ted to Kirk, many ex­pressed sur­prise and sug­ges­ted the top­ic should be ver­boten. However, over the course of more than a dozen con­ver­sa­tions with former and cur­rent Kirk staffers, al­lies, and con­fid­ants, I found that those closest to him ex­pect and wel­come the ques­tions. Field­ing them is ne­ces­sary, many of them say, be­cause dur­ing his reelec­tion cam­paign Kirk will have to calm con­cerns about his health. “Do I love that you’re ques­tion­ing it? No,” Dick­ens says. “Do I love need­ing to de­fend the in­tel­li­gence of my sen­at­or be­cause I hap­pen know he’s more in­tel­li­gent than the ma­jor­ity of the sen­at­ors up here? No, I don’t love it. But it is what it is. So I’m not go­ing to hide from the fact that it is a ques­tion. And neither will he.”

MARK KIRK FIRST entered Con­gress in 2001 and pro­ceeded to main­tain a vise grip on his cent­rist sub­urb­an Chica­go con­gres­sion­al dis­trict, even dur­ing the Demo­crat­ic wave years of 2006 and 2008. In 2010, he ran for and won a Sen­ate seat. A lib­er­al on so­cial is­sues but a staunch for­eign policy in­ter­ven­tion­ist, he has long been re­garded as one of the Hill’s most im­port­ant voices on na­tion­al se­cur­ity and the Middle East.

Kirk was al­ways ex­tremely smart—and, ac­cord­ing to those who know him, he was well aware of it. “He’ll prob­ably hate me for say­ing this, but he was a mi­cro­man­ager,” says Rod­ney Dav­is, a Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­man from cent­ral Illinois who worked as a staffer on the GOP’s get-out-the-vote ef­fort in Illinois in 2010. “I saw Mark’s fin­ger­prints on a lot of the de­cisions that were made.” “All of these guys are dicks,” says one top GOP of­fi­cial with ties to Kirk, com­par­ing him to oth­er politi­cians. “And Mark can be a dick with the best of them.”

On Janu­ary 21, 2012, Kirk began feel­ing dizzy and numb on his left side. Less than 24 hours later, he found him­self in an am­bu­lance, ask­ing a tech­ni­cian to hold his hand. As Kirk re­called dur­ing a pub­lic ap­pear­ance in April: “I held her hand really hard, be­cause “… I wanted my last breath on Earth to be hold­ing someone else’s hand. I was pretty sure the stroke was tak­ing hold at that point, that I was a gon­er.”

Rather than hide their can­did­ate’s med­ic­al struggles, Kirk’s staffers have de­cided to em­brace them.

But Kirk sur­vived, and weeks later, he trans­ferred out of the hos­pit­al in­to a re­hab­il­it­a­tion cen­ter. For about a year, he mostly stayed out of pub­lic view, save for two videos that provided up­dates on his re­cov­ery. Aides say now that, at the time, get­ting the sen­at­or to de­liv­er even a short scrip­ted speech to the cam­era was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for a man who was lit­er­ally learn­ing to talk again.

Kirk re­turned to Con­gress al­most ex­actly a year after his stroke, climb­ing the Cap­it­ol steps while be­ing ap­plauded by a bi­par­tis­an col­lec­tion of con­gress­men and sen­at­ors, plus Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden. But even al­lies ac­know­ledge that the sen­at­or’s ever-present fa­tigue was mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to ful­fill his role. “Early on, I saw him and he was clearly not able to do his job,” says Ron Gid­witz, a ma­jor Kirk donor and in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in Illinois GOP polit­ics. (A few weeks after I in­ter­viewed him, Gid­witz would cause a stir when he put for­ward—then quickly re­trac­ted—a call for Kirk to exit the race.)

Gid­witz and many oth­ers say they’ve seen dra­mat­ic im­prove­ment over the past few years. In all of my in­ter­views with the men and wo­men in Kirk’s or­bit, none sug­ges­ted he wasn’t cur­rently up for the job. “I’ve seen him im­prove him­self men­tally,” says Dav­is. “He’s able to hold his own in any situ­ation—where I think he would even ad­mit when he first came back, it wasn’t as easy for him.”

Still, he’s not the same. Some of the change is good: Aides de­scribe him as mel­low­er, less prone to be curt with his staff or col­leagues. One former aide sug­gests that the stroke—and the real­iz­a­tion that life is short—also em­boldened him on policy. In the spring of 2013, Kirk an­nounced that he sup­por­ted same-sex mar­riage. “Pri­or to that, to come out and be the second Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or to take that kind of bold stance, I’m not cer­tain he would have be­fore the stroke,” said the former aide.

Oth­er changes haven’t been as wel­come. The phys­ic­al di­min­ish­ment is ap­par­ent: It’s why he’s con­fined to a wheel­chair much of the time, why his left hand is curled in a ball, and why his face fea­tures a slight droop. His speech isn’t slurred, but the ca­dence of how he talks has slowed con­sid­er­ably. And, says Dick­ens, he’ll ran­domly be­gin talk­ing louder in the middle of a sen­tence be­cause he has been taught that stroke vic­tims let their voices trail off. “So some­times, you’ll just have a burst of em­phas­is, be­cause he’s re­mem­ber­ing to speak with em­phas­is,” she ex­plains.

Many around Sen. Kirk say they’ve seen a dra­mat­ic im­prove­ment in his con­di­tion over the past few years.

Aides are quick to ac­know­ledge Kirk’s phys­ic­al lim­it­a­tions, but they’re less in­clined to dis­cuss how he has changed men­tally. The re­frain from many of them is sim­il­ar: Kirk has the same sharp in­tel­lect he has al­ways pos­sessed. But some also con­cede that the sen­at­or, who once could give long, de­tailed thoughts about any top­ic ex­tem­por­an­eously, can no longer do so. It’s a con­sequence of the stroke, they say, that when he talks, he’s con­fined to one top­ic at a time.

“This is a guy who could walk in­to any room and, no notes, give a 15-minute speech on any top­ic,” says one former aide. “That’s not go­ing to hap­pen any­more.” An­oth­er aide com­pared his im­pres­sion of how Kirk’s brain has changed to movie-theat­er screens. Be­fore, Kirk had 16 pro­ject­ors up and run­ning at once in his mind’s eye, al­low­ing him to bounce from top­ic to top­ic with ease. Now, the aide says, it’s as if he’s down to one pro­ject­or.

MOST ALARM­ING, THOUGH, is the fact that, since his re­turn to pub­lic life, Kirk has re­peatedly found his way in­to the news for mak­ing strange state­ments—most in­fam­ously in June when he was caught on a hot mic re­fer­ring to Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham (a lifelong bach­el­or) as a “bro with no ho.” That fol­lowed his April as­ser­tion that people drive faster through black neigh­bor­hoods be­cause they’re wor­ried about their safety; which fol­lowed his Feb­ru­ary state­ment to Politico that “if we have a suc­cess­ful ter­ror­ist at­tack, all the dead Amer­ic­ans from that should be laid at the feet of the Demo­crat­ic caucus”; which fol­lowed a Janu­ary in­cid­ent in which he ques­tioned wheth­er hu­man activ­ity was con­trib­ut­ing to cli­mate change. (That last state­ment might not have been un­usu­al com­ing from many Re­pub­lic­ans, but it was out of char­ac­ter for Kirk, who has long been an en­vir­on­ment­al­ist.) Most re­cently, Kirk told a Bo­ston-based ra­dio pro­gram that Pres­id­ent Obama “wanted “… to get nukes to Ir­an,” and used the pres­id­ent’s middle name, “Hus­sein,” when he spoke of him. In most of these in­stances, Kirk apo­lo­gized or walked back his state­ment with­in days.

Dis­en­tangling wheth­er the linger­ing ef­fects of his stroke might have something to do with all of this isn’t easy. Kirk has al­ways been someone who en­joys get­ting a laugh; some people who know him well say that, when “bro with no ho” be­came big news, they saw the tell­tale sign not of a stroke vic­tim but of a nerdy former House staffer who was just try­ing to fit in. “He’s hil­ari­ous, and he of­ten­times makes bad jokes,” says Christine Radogno, the GOP lead­er in the Illinois state Sen­ate. “Things he’ll say as a con­gress­man, you’ll just say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t be­lieve that came out of his mouth.‘“Š” (At a re­cent gay-pride parade in Chica­go, I watched Kirk tell a man—who was com­plain­ing that his travel-writer hus­band doesn’t take him on enough trips—that if the hus­band didn’t im­prove, “I’ll call SEAL Team Six and whack him.” Both mem­bers of the couple told me they thought it was genu­inely funny.)

In truth, nobody knows what role, if any, the stroke plays in Kirk’s pub­lic state­ments. Ask the people who know Kirk best, and you’ll find mixed sen­ti­ments. Many point out that he is simply someone who has al­ways ten­ded to speak a bit in­cau­tiously. (They note that, in 2010, for in­stance, Kirk was re­vealed to have em­bel­lished his re­cord in the Navy, falsely claim­ing that he had taken fire while fly­ing over Ir­aq and had been awar­ded the U.S. Navy’s In­tel­li­gence Of­ficer of the Year award.) On the oth­er hand, al­most all of the Illinois Re­pub­lic­ans I spoke to ul­ti­mately agreed that, though the stroke wasn’t the only factor, it has likely at least amp­li­fied Kirk’s pen­chant to shoot from the hip. “It’s clearly worse,” a high-rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an with ties to Kirk told me.

Med­ic­al ex­perts of­fer little ad­di­tion­al clar­ity about the con­nec­tion between Kirk’s stroke and his verbal mis­cues. Vic­tims can in­deed be less in­hib­ited fol­low­ing a stroke; if enough parts of the brain are dam­aged, in fact, a per­son can ac­quire an en­tirely new per­son­al­ity. But all sorts of things—psy­cho­lo­gic­al or phys­ic­al—can change the way a per­son be­haves in pub­lic. Per­haps a near-death ex­per­i­ence con­vinced Kirk that he didn’t want to waste time min­cing words. It’s also true that people change as they age, and dif­fer­ences in the sen­at­or’s per­son­al­ity might be the con­sequence of a nat­ur­al evol­u­tion, rather than the stroke.

“The only thing you can say is these are val­id ques­tions that people could ask,” says Vic­tor Ur­ru­tia, dir­ect­or of the Com­pre­hens­ive Stroke Cen­ter at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pit­al. “But there wouldn’t be any way that you could say with any de­gree of cer­tainty that ac­tu­ally any of these things that people are no­ti­cing are due to a stroke. It’s im­possible to say that.” His as­sess­ment was echoed by two oth­er ex­perts I spoke with, who both em­phas­ized that a defin­it­ive dia­gnos­is was es­sen­tially im­possible.

The best meas­ure­ment of a stroke vic­tim’s cog­nit­ive cap­ab­il­it­ies is a neur­o­lo­gic­al as­sess­ment, Ur­ru­tia says. But ask­ing for one, he hastens to add, verges on dis­crim­in­at­ory: “That’s go­ing to be hard to say without sound­ing like a jerk, just to be frank.” Dim-wit­ted politi­cians who say something stu­pid, for in­stance, aren’t asked to take an IQ test. And de­mand­ing that a stroke vic­tim pro­duce res­ults from a sim­il­ar cog­nit­ive as­sess­ment could quickly be­come a double-stand­ard. “There’s a lot of old sen­at­ors that of­ten say things that don’t sound smart,” Ur­ru­tia points out. “You could say the same thing—what if they have Alzheimer’s?”

SOME THINK THAT, if the stroke has in­deed caused Kirk to lose his fil­ter, he should try to turn this new trait to his polit­ic­al ad­vant­age. One former aide com­pares him to the Jim Car­rey char­ac­ter in Li­ar Li­ar, a 1997 movie in which the prot­ag­on­ist, a law­yer, finds he can no longer tell a lie. It’s something, the think­ing goes, that voters might ap­pre­ci­ate. “I think he should lean in­to it a little bit,” says an­oth­er ex-staffer. “He’s leaned in­to everything else. All the phys­ic­al dis­ab­il­it­ies and stuff—he’s not shied away from that. It’s some­what re­fresh­ing to voters to have someone say, ‘Yeah, I’m go­ing to say how I feel.‘“Š”

But would voters really for­give their sen­at­or for a few off-col­or com­ments be­cause his stroke has made him, as some in Kirk-world like to say, too hon­est? Or would the pro­spect of hav­ing a sen­at­or who can’t al­ways fil­ter what’s com­ing out of his mouth scare them away?

Bey­ond Kirk’s verbal fil­ter, there are oth­er ques­tions, too. For someone who struggles to speak ex­tem­por­an­eously, the back-and-forth of a tra­di­tion­al de­bate with an op­pon­ent could be dif­fi­cult. Cam­paign aides ac­know­ledge it’s a ques­tion they have yet to an­swer. “Can he de­bate?” one wondered. “Can he have a dis­cus­sion with a [news­pa­per] ed­it­or?”

How all of this should in­flu­ence Kirk’s bid for reelec­tion is very much an open mat­ter. When does the men­tal state of our politi­cians de­serve scru­tiny? And when does this scru­tiny cross in­to an ugly kind of dis­crim­in­a­tion? These are the types of things that Illinois voters will have to grapple with in the year ahead. “In polit­ics, any is­sue is fair game,” says Dav­is, of Kirk’s cur­rent situ­ation. “Be­cause if someone is think­ing it, they’ll likely write it. But it’s also up to that same politi­cian to turn what one thinks is a weak­ness in­to a strength.”

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