SOME OLD MEN complain constantly about their health. Others wouldn't tell you if they were at death's doorstep. J. Joseph Moakley, South Boston's venerable Democratic congressman, is among the latter.
J. Joseph Moakley
When a Globe column on his 1994 reelection campaign mentioned in passing that "his health is poor," Moakley showed up at the Globe to dress down the columnist who wrote it. (It was I.) When he was spotted in March 1995 hobbling with a cane, he insisted he had no problems save for a touch of arthritis. "Christ," he swore, "they've got me in O'Brien's already. How many times can I tell people . . . my overall health is fine?" O'Brien's is a funeral home.
Three months later, gaunt and in pain, Moakley was in a Virginia hospital bed having his liver removed.
Now he is pursuing yet another term in Congress. He has been in the House of Representatives since the Nixon administration, longer than all but a couple dozen of his colleagues. As ever, he claims his health is fine. "My appetite is so good," he declared Tuesday in a charmingly wacky malaprop, "that I can eat the tablecloth right off the chair."
His buoyancy has appeal, but even Southie Democrats are not immune to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Few surgical ordeals are as serious as a liver transplant. Moakley admits he has to take 10 different kinds of medication daily -- everything from antibiotics to steroids -- to keep his implanted liver from being rejected or reinfected. He has hepatitis-B, so is likelier to suffer a relapse than most transplant survivors. And there is more surgery coming: His hip is wrecked and needs replacing.
Last September, with his wife gravely ill, it finally dawned on Moakley, who chaired the House Rules Committee until the Democrats lost Congress, that there is more to life than nonstop politics. He called a press conference to announce that his 24th year in Congress would be his last. In the weirdest, saddest, most incoherent performance of his career, he abruptly changed his mind -- at the last minute, on live television. He would run again after all, he announced. Yet even as he said it, he seemed to know he was making a mistake.
"We're rounding third base," he observed of himself and his wife. "We don't have a lot of quality time left." They had less than they knew. Evelyn Moakley passed away six months later.
When he can be persuaded to let his guard down, Moakley speaks poignantly about the toll politics has taken. "If I had my life to live over," he mused in an interview 13 months ago, "I probably would have balanced my political and nonpolitical life. I really put too much weight on the politics, and everything else was secondary." He tells of Tip O'Neill, the late House speaker, missing the graduation of each of his five children -- because he couldn't pry himself from Washington politics long enough to fly back to Massachusetts. "It got me thinking," Moakley says.
He may be thinking; he isn't letting go. "They never go back to Pocatello," runs an old Washington aphorism. Meaning: They get so addicted to power and its ambience that they can't bear the thought of voluntarily returning home. (Pocatello, Idaho, was the hometown of US Sen. Worth Clark, who left the Senate in 1945 and was still haunting the Capitol years later.)
When he came out of the hospital last fall, Moakley vowed to become a national spokesman for organ donation. "I will make that my No. 1 priority," he pledged. "I want to make transplants my white horse." No question, it would mark a worthy and distinguished new chapter in his career. But it's hard to be a crusader on a white horse if you're playing politics on the Potomac.
Dr. Paul Gryska
In years gone by, Moakley often faced token or nonexistent Republican opposition, leaving voters with a Hobson's choice: Moakley or nobody. This time, the GOP has nominated a candidate of uncommon distinction, one no voter in the 9th Congressional District would have to hold his nose to vote for. Paul V. Gryska is a surgeon at the Newton-Wellesley and Faulkner hospitals, a professor of surgery at Tufts Medical School, and a former medical director of the American Cancer Society. His range of avocations runs from sailing (he has crossed the Atlantic twice) to scouting (he leads Eagle Scout Pack 200 in Medfield).
Mostly, though, he saves lives. Gryska specializes in cancer surgery and is something of a New England pioneer in camera-assisted laproscopic surgery. His patients are devoted to him, and the feeling is mutual. He is, not surprisingly, passionate about health care, with well-thought-out views on medical regulation, Medicare's role in doctor training, and health insurance reform. His expertise is admirably suited to a congressional district that boasts 22 hospitals, more than any other.
Gryska is serious, but not severe. He recalls Henry Kissinger's 1982 heart surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. As Kissinger's body was being shaved for the operation, Gryska entered the room. "He was lying there," the surgeon laughs, "lathered from the neck down with shaving cream, and he's on the phone to Reagan. 'I'm going to have four bypasses, Mr. President,' he's saying. 'Al Haig only had three.' "
The motto of Gryska's campaign is: Put A Doctor In The House. Its unspoken corollary might be: Let the patient come home. After 24 years, it's time the tired incumbent took a rest. "Joe Moakley has been our past," Gryska puts it. "He can't be our future."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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