Two Weeks of Life – Reflections on Religion and Politics: Eleanor Clift

This speech by author and journalist Eleanor Clift was delivered on Oct. 11, 2008, at the 31st annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the Regency Hyatt Chicago.

By Eleanor Clift

Good afternoon, everybody. I’m very glad to be here in this beautiful city and this beautiful hall. Of course, I’m glad to be anywhere where I get to finish a sentence without getting interrupted!

Some of you may recognize me as the voice of reason on The McLaughlin Group, which is a televised public affairs show. But it’s really more like a televised food fight. It’s the only show where you are expected to speak before you think. And treating each other rudely, interrupting, is all part of what The McLaughlin Group is all about.

The show was created by John McLaughlin, formerly, Father John McLaughlin. He is a former Jesuit priest and he actually got his start in politics teaching in a boys’ prep school in Rhode Island. Over the years, I’ve met a number of his students and they would describe him coming into the classroom in his long priestly robes with a velvet rope around the middle, a black Homburg hat, and white gloves. He was quite a scene. And every classroom had a beadle. It’s an Anglican Church term, the person who follows behind the bishop with the incense. In secular terms, it would be the teacher’s pet. On The McLaughlin Group, Pat Buchanan is the beadle. And John uses the term; some people think he’s saying “beetle,” but it’s beadle.

John told me years ago that the best and the most memorable teachers are those who project themselves as characters. That’s what he did in the classroom, and that’s what he does on television. The show started out very much oriented to the right. John McLaughlin’s favorite president was Ronald Reagan. John had left the priesthood by then, and his first wife was Ronald Reagan’s Labor Secretary, Ann Dore McLaughlin.

Over the last eight years, George W. Bush has driven John McLaughlin around the bend, just like he has just about most of the country. Joking aside, the Newsweek poll coming out this weekend has only 10% of the country saying that we’re going in the right direction. I’d love to meet those ten percent! Maybe they’re the ones who are getting the bailout on Wall Street.  The show is a rigorous discussion or debate, and like John puts it, he creates a situation so as to get the greatest polarity. In other words, he wants a fight. And so he chooses panelists who come from differing ends of the ideological spectrum and you have very little time to speak so you have to interrupt or the show would go by without you. 

I’ve gotten pretty good at interrupting, but I still have trouble holding the floor. I get about one sentence out and I can see the other panelists begin to levitate, you know, ready to chase after me. Someone once paid me what I took as a compliment. He said that The McLaughlin Group without Eleanor is like a fox hunt without the fox.

My late husband, Tom Brazaitis, who was a card-carrying member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, used to help me get ready for the show. He was a journalist. He had great wit and intelligence. He used to tell audiences that he helped me get ready by simply shouting, “Wrong!, Wrong!”  I must say, every Friday morning, when I prepare for the taping, which is early Friday afternoon, I miss Tom, because he really was an enormous help. I miss him for lots of reasons, of course, but he was responsible for a lot of my best lines, if you want to know the truth.

When he died in March of ‘05, I wrote a column for Newsweek, which Newsweek posted on the Web, which was basically a tribute to the grace and courage which Tom had showed over a very long battle with cancer. He had been diagnosed initially in 1999, and like many people who undergo surgery for cancer, we thought the surgeon was exactly right when he told us he got it all, and we thought cancer would never darken our door again.

Well, a year later it showed up in his lungs and he–we–entered the world of oncology treatments. I’m sure there are people in this audience who know what that’s like. Tom often said that he never had any symptoms from the cancer; it was all from the treatments. But the treatments kept him going, and he fought metastatic cancer for almost five years. In the last year, it spread to his brain, and that was really what I call the beginning of the end, or what he called, in the columns he wrote, “the end game.” 

But this was a man who, as I wrote in the column, had trouble handling a sinus infection. And so when he was stricken with this illness, I think he was as surprised as I was, by the way he was able to rise to the occasion. Dealing with his illness, from the perspective of a journalist, he covered it like a story. And that gave him some distance from what he was experiencing. He also became something of a role model for other people battling this particular form of cancer. 

The therapist he was seeing those last couple of years, who specialized in people facing terminal illness, used to be greatly amused how Tom would announce that he wasn’t religious. But he had all these people praying for him and he had this whole support network and so you can just substitute another word for

“prayer” and he had his network. He drew a great deal of comfort from this network of people and I think he inspired them. 

So when I wrote this column, it attracted the interest of a publisher in New York, who called me up and said he wanted to have lunch with me. I thought we were going to talk about a political book. I’m basically, at heart, a reporter. I do express opinions but it’s not all I’m about. I like to be a little fact-based. So we really couldn’t come up with a rant, as I would put it, that I could churn out quickly enough. Halfway through the lunch, he said, “You know, you have a personal story to tell.” And I said, “Yeah, it will be the last chapter of the memoir I write some day.” And he said, “No, you should write it now, and you should write it in the context of the debate the country has just gone through over Terri Schiavo.”

She was the young brain-damaged woman who had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years and the battle that ensued when her husband appealed to the courts to have her feeding tube removed.

I like to say that Tom had the journalistic good sense to die the day before Terri Schiavo. The duality of these two deaths was very much on my mind as I was called upon to comment on The McLaughlin Group about Terri Schiavo while I was living an end-of-life drama in my own living room. 

Those of you who are familiar with hospice understand how it works. The hospital bed gets delivered to the house and the person then is allowed to die in familiar surroundings. It’s a very good thing. It’s also a very all-encompassing experience. 

I was ambivalent at first about doing a book about these two very different deaths. I didn’t initially see how they could be put together. But I began to warm to the idea because I saw it as a way to order my thoughts. Experiencing any death is terrible and I don’t know if you can rank them, but when you lose a spouse, your whole life on a day-to-day basis gets altered. So I really had to come to terms with how my life had been radically changed. We were supposed to grow old together; these are the things that happen to somebody else. . . . all those defense mechanisms that we all have as we go through life. 

I also knew that Tom would approve of my writing a book. He was very public about his disease. He wrote a dozen columns over a period of almost six years about getting the initial diagnosis, and then his battle. He compared the diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer to being on the 90th floor of the World Trade Center and not knowing whether you were going to get out alive, but you were sure going to try. 

His columns form the appendix of my book. When I told the publisher I wanted to include the columns, he initially said, “All of them?” Well, there are a dozen, 800 words each. He said, “Can’t you pick three or four?

” I really couldn’t, so I gave him the hard copy. He was taking a train from Washington to New York. When he got to New York, he called and said,

“You’re right. We’re going to run all twelve.”So that was one small victory over an editor, which we journalists really savor!

Tom and I had also done the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio, twice, about living with cancer. When he had decided to undergo whole-brain radiation in an attempt to stem the tumors in his brain, knowing that it would cost him ten IQ points, he joked about it. He found humor in all of these instances, and he would also find various mathematical analyses to show how he could always fall on the positive side of whatever the rankings were.

Joan Didion’s book also had a great impact on me. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking. It was about her husband’s really sudden death from a heart attack at the dinner table. I could relate to her disbelief that this had actually happened. She continued to go through the paces of living, as did I. A lot of people have said to me, over what are now three-and-a-half years, “Oh, you’re so strong.”

Well, I don’t particularly feel strong, but to me the alternative is to go collapse in a corner somewhere and that would make me feel worse. That was exactly Joan Didion’s response. She also said something that I write in the foreword to my book, “You learn in journalism school: Write what you know.” And I certainly knew this.

So the result was a book that Annie Laurie mentioned, titled Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death and Politics. It’s written in diary form. It’s all three of those topics. It’s a love story. It’s a death story. And it’s a political story. The truth is that not much changed in Tom’s physical condition over those two weeks, but I tell his story and our story, in flashbacks. Terri Schiavo, over the period of those two weeks, was the center of a legal, a political and a moral firestorm. 

When I did the writing, I could switch from the personal experience and then I could put on my reporter’s cap, which gave me the distance from the story, and I found it fascinating to go back over those two weeks, because frankly when I was living it, it was all a blur. 

The basic facts are that Terri Schiavo had collapsed at age 26, and she was in this state that’s called PVS, persistent vegetative state. Her husband had cared for her over much of that period of time, but he had taken up with another woman, and had fathered two children.

He had appealed to the court for the right to remove her feeding tube on the grounds that her condition was hopeless, that she was not going to recover, and that this is what he believed she would have wanted. Her parents sued to stop him from having his wish carried out. The period that I write about in March of 2005 was actually the third time that her feeding tube had been removed. The parents had prevailed twice before, with the help of Governor Jeb Bush, the President’s brother, and the intervention of the Florida legislature, which had passed legislation to save Terri. That legislation had been declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. So the Schindler family, the parents of Terri Schiavo, had basically exhausted all their remedies through the courts in Florida. After some 30 court actions, the case was now kicked up to the United States Congress. Terri Schiavo had become really an icon of the religious right. The issue of when life ends had become entwined with the abortion debate. It’s part of what Pat Buchanan would call “the culture of life” and “the culture wars.” I would point out, just as a footnote, that Gov. Sarah Palin in her rallies frequently uses the phrase, “culture of life.” It is a phrase that resonates, particularly with the religious right.

At the time, the Republican-controlled Congress, led by Tom DeLay, was eager to have a distraction from their various ethical problems. Tom DeLay actually called Terri Schiavo “a gift from God.” On the Senate side, you had Sen. Bill Frist, who had been an acclaimed pediatric surgeon in his former life, before entering politics. He went out on the Senate floor and said that he was speaking as a physician, and he declared that he did not believe that Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state. I quote in the book a hospice physician saying, “If Sen. Frist really believed that, he should be kept away from sharp objects.”

Anybody in the medical profession understands that you can’t diagnose persistent vegetative syndrome by watching a videotape. It’s a clinical diagnosis. You have to spend time around the person. People in this state experience sleep and wake cycles. Their eyes open and close. They make sounds and they grimace. The difference is that these reflexes are not intentional. There’s no thought process behind these physical reflexes. In any event, though, the videotape that all of us did see, did show a woman with a very sweet, if empty, expression and the case really captured people’s interest.

Pres. Bush, you might remember, interrupted his vacation. It was Easter time, and the President flew back to Washington. He actually signed this legislation at 1:11 a.m. in the morning. That’s when the Congress had completed its work. This is a Congress and a government that typically moves at a glacial pace. So this was really an extraordinary reaction to, really, one family’s difficulties. There was an attempt to write the legislation so it would have broad impact on all sorts of cases like this, but, fortunately, there were some sounder, cooler, heads in Washington and they essentially wrote it so it would only apply to Terri Schiavo.

Because they saw that they were treading in territory that could prove very problematic.

But the Republicans in the Congress thought they had a winning issue, and so did the Democrats. Very few Democrats objected. And in fact, Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat from Iowa, actually joined in to “save” Terri Schiavo. His impetus was from the disability rights movement perspective. Sen. Harkin had a mentally disabled brother, and he understood the argument from disability advocates that if Terri Schiavo was judged worthless, what kind of judgments would be made about other people with disabilities. I don’t really view Terri Schiavo’s situation as a disability. I think it was far different, but I can understand that perspective and I do air it in the book.

But the polls showed that 82% of Americans thought that the government intervention in this family’s tragedy and dispute was inappropriate. A majority of evangelicals, self-identified evangelicals, 68%, also thought that it was an inappropriate use of government.

I lay that all out in the book. Although I hasten to say it’s not a political book. I think it is a fair-minded analysis, but I do believe that the intervention in the Schiavo case was the beginning of the unraveling of the Republican majority on Capitol Hill.

I did a lot of reporting for this book. I talked to Terri Schiavo’s parents, and her brother, and I give them a sympathetic portrayal. They got enough back, emotionally, when they visited Terri that they believed, wrongly, that she would recover. Their position was that even if she didn’t recover, they still loved her unconditionally. The father even, at one point, said, “Even if her legs became gangrenous and had to be amputated, we would still love her.” Now, that sounds very selfless, but the point is it’s not about them.

In our society, and the way our courts are set up, it’s about what this young woman would want. The husband, although he was not a sympathetic figure–he used to rather proudly say, “I’m not warm and fuzzy”–had produced enough convincing evidence to satisfy numerous judges, appointed by Republicans and Democrats alike, but mostly Republicans, that Terri Schiavo, his wife, would not want to live this way. 

She had verbally expressed it by watching a TV program or when a relative had died saying, “I don’t want to die being connected to a bunch of tubes.” The parents argued that this was a woman in her 20s, just saying this unthinkingly. Well, it was enough to satisfy the courts. 

As I said earlier, the tape of Terri Schiavo is what made her case news. That sweet smile, and the fact that she seemed to respond. It was haunting. It haunted anybody who saw it. But I learned it was edited down from many hours, to make it appear that she was tracking objects and responding to her mother. 

When they did the autopsy after she died, they discovered that her optic nerve had been destroyed, so she was blind. She couldn’t have seen anything, to follow an object, anyway.

On The McLaughlin Group, when we taped, I took the position that I thought she should be allowed to die. But there was a rigorous debate, both on camera and off camera. John McLaughlin, I remember once, said as an aside, not on camera,  “I think the parents should just get some bereavement counseling.” Pat Buchanan, who was Jesuit educated, took the position that food and water, even if it’s artificially delivered through a tube, is not extraordinary means.  Catholic doctrine says you can turn down medical treatment if it proves too burdensome and they also take the position that food and water is not extraordinary. But if it’s delivered artificially,then it’s a medical procedure. So that all got muddied because the Pope actually issued one of his encyclicals, basically confusing what had been thought to be Catholic doctrine and kind of opening it up to suggest that removing this feeding tube violated Catholic doctrine. So the two of them would argue on air, and they would argue off air.  Then I would go home and, in a way, the debate continued in my living room. The young nurse assigned us by hospice would roll her eyes in disgust as she saw the television coverage of protesters trying to smuggle in food and water to Terri Schiavo. She would say, “Don’t they realize they would just asphyxiate her?” 

There was an older woman who I had hired to come in the afternoons and she was horrified that Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed. While I was saying just the opposite on television, I wasn’t going to get into a debate with her. And frankly, I was gratified for her devotion to my loved one. 

This media firestorm over these couple of weeks generated a lot of confusion about science, about medicine and the law, and the teachings of the Catholic Church. The hospice community stood aside and really didn’t try to correct a lot of the myths about what was happening to Terri. You had protesters screaming that the hospice was a death factory and so forth. The hospice people took the position that they were there to help the family, whatever the family decided they would do. But I think they missed an opportunity to correct some of the myths that were put out there about what hospice is. I’ll be up-front about it, I’m now on the board of the National Hospice Foundation, because having gone through that experience I realize how valuable hospice is.

In this book I intertwine these two stories to really get at how we die in America. Tom died on March 30, the day before Terri Schiavo. The Pope, by the way, died that Saturday. It was a fairly big week. I commented that in life, Tom was a very competitive person. He was competitive as a writer, as a runner, as a high school basketball player. Even as he was sick and losing weight, he would say with some pleasure that he was now at his high school weight. Everything was a contest.

I remarked to the hospice nurse that in the race to the pearly gates that Tom had won. I immediately thought better of what I had said, and I quickly added, “Or lost! Depending on your perspective.” And she said, “Won.”

So hospice did play a central role those last four months of his life, making possible the closest thing to what I imagine is a good death, when death is inevitable and it’s imminent. As Annie Laurie said, we live in a death-denying culture and most people don’t accept hospice soon enough. The statistics show they spend less than two weeks in hospice, because it has this connotation that you’re giving up. To be admitted to hospice, a physician has to certify you have six months or less left to live. Although, frankly, they don’t really kick you out. And if they do, they refer to you as a “hospice failure,” so maybe that’s what we should all aspire to be. 

I think attitudes about this last chapter of our life are changing, and that’s in part because the baby-boom generation is coming to grips with its mortality. They’ve changed every stage of life, mostly for the better, that they’ve been through. So the hospice movement, and they do use the word “movement,” is growing. So is the demand for hospice-style, holistic care. As somebody said, “It’s the best medical care that nobody wants.” It’s home visits. You don’t see a doctor but you’re assigned a nurse. And there’s a social worker. They look out for the whole family. But nobody actually moves in and there’s this sort of moment of realization where you realize that you’re in charge and it’s pretty scary. 

Don Schumacher, who is the CEO of the National Hospice Foundation, says that he thinks that once the baby boomers come into their own on this issue that they’re going to be demanding death trainers and below ground lattes. I do remember remarking to Tom when I was kind of getting into this role of being the caretaker, and the caregiver–and he had this wicked sense of humor, he said, “You better be careful, I hear they’re recruiting from the ranks.”

Tom had a particular connection with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and with the attitudes that have brought you all together. He was a fallen-away Catholic who in the last years of his life proudly embraced atheism. And he did not flinch those last few months. I remember when hospice wanted to send a chaplain. I accepted it. It was a young Asian woman. She came in, and she basically asked him if he liked traditional hymns or modern hymns. He said he liked both; he loved music. She sang and it was fine. 

He was not afraid of death. He figured it was like going to sleep. That it would be like it was before he was born: no consciousness. That kind of oblivion terrifies some people, but Tom found it comforting. Unlike Terri Schiavo’s family, I didn’t have anyone questioning my judgment about how to handle Tom’s final days. He had arranged his cremation a year ahead of time. Stubbornly, I didn’t open the envelope until I had to–then I was very grateful that he had left me that roadmap. 

The role of religion:

They always say people change their minds at the last minute; I guess that’s why I invited the young chaplain in. It was a nice moment, but Tom had no second thoughts. He firmly knew what he believed and he wasn’t about to change.

I want to conclude here on a somewhat lighter note. I do include the story of Art Buchwald in my book. Art was a friend of many years. His office was on the same floor as Newsweek. I don’t know how many of you remember–he was quite a noted humorist. He had decided that he did not want to go through dialysis. He was 80 years old. He’d had some sort of a medical episode that required having part of his leg amputated. He’d been put on dialysis. He did two or three treatments. He decided it wasn’t for him, and he checked into the Washington Home, which is a hospice in the Washington area, expecting to die within two weeks. But his kidneys started to work enough that he got another year of life. He wrote a number of columns from the hospice. The first one was “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die.” He turned the dayroom at the hospice into sort of a Paris salon: Donald Rumsfeld came by; Ethel Kennedy was there just about every day, and he was having the time of his life. I went and visited him several times, and he would turn to me and say, “Eleanor, if I was on dialysis, nobody would care!”

He did outlive his hospice benefit. He then paid the freight himself. He told me it was about the equivalent of a first-class suite at the Four Seasons. Now, if he didn’t have the means, I don’t think they would have charged him. But he eventually did check out of the hospice and went to Martha’s Vineyard, where he wrote a book called Heaven Can Wait. 

He seemed to be having such a good time while he was dying that it was very disconcerting to the people at the hospice. The chaplain pulled me aside one day, and she said that she felt that Art wasn’t taking this seriously enough. She used that overworked word; he wasn’t coming to “closure.”  I said, “Well, you can mention it to him.” She did, and he said, “Look, I’m not religious. But I’m a cultural Jew and I’ve talked to a rabbi, and I’ve arranged my burial, my funeral service, the whole bit.” And he said to her, “You’re a Protestant. You’re a chaplain. So if you want to bring in a Catholic priest, fine by me.” So she brings in a Catholic priest. He remembered the columns that Art had written when Nixon was going through the impeachment. When Art told me the story, the priest was for Nixon. But they spent 40 minutes talking politics and he looked over at the chaplain, and she looked very unhappy. He said to me, and I quote, “She probably thought he would come in and say, ‘Let’s pray’ or some bullshit like that.”

There’s also a line in the book when he said to me, “All the problems in the world are caused by religion. Underline all!,” he told me. So I tell his story as well.

When I first started doing publicity for this book, the young publicist at Basic Books said, “Well, what’s the takeaway?” I had to think about that. I think one takeaway is that I want to lift the curtain on death and lessen the mystery and therefore the fear. Because death is part of life and I think it’s worthy of honesty and humor, the same kinds of range of emotions that we bring to other milestones of life. 

So, bottom line: This is an experience I wish I didn’t have, but it’s one that more and more of us will have because advances in medicine make the 21st century as challenging a time to die as it is to live. One friend said to me, “The doctors tell us what we can do, but they don’t and they can’t tell us what we should do.”

I want to close in the words of a hospice physician. Her name is Joanne Lynne. In fact, her husband is the head of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington. She’s a hospice physician. She said to me, “I was struck by just how sure the politicians were.” This is watching the Schiavo episode. “Everything was painted in primary colors, and I always see things in shades of gray. It’s just the humility when you stand in the presence of death. After taking care of 3,000 people who died, for every one of them I say a prayer. And I’m not a particularly religious person. It’s more a mark of being aware of how small my powers were, the nature of life and our participation in it. If you talk to people who spend a lot of time with very sick and dying people, you don’t get very many who are ideologues. They’ve had the patient for whom they had to smuggle in the mistress, even when they think it’s just outrageous. And I had a patient who wanted to be sure he was sedated heavily near the end of life because he didn’t want to spill the beans on something.” 

She said, “We’re all humbled. And it’s such a mercy that we have so little untimely death. We’ve had a spate of AIDS that took a lot of young people. But people who’ve had a chance to complete a life, who’ve had relationships, who’ve had their wins and their losses, they have a story to tell. The ability to help them with their last challenges is an honor. There isn’t a lot of turnover in hospice work. People love it.” 

So I take that with me as I try to spread the word about hospice and I try to spread the word about how Tom handled his final challenge and what I learned from it. He was a terrific role model, and if he were here today, he’d love every minute of it. 

He loved this organization, he loved trading stories about all of the trials and tribulations atheists face in the world. And he would so enjoy the renaissance you’re having right now, making the bestseller list, and really being treated more seriously and openly than you have had in my memory. So, I’m sorry he missed this. I’m sorry he’s missing this Presidential election, too.

But I think it’s going to come out OK. I don’t know where people are politically here, necessarily, but I think I can guess. I did predict on The McLaughlin Group this week that Barack Obama would win with over 300 electoral votes. But we better hurry up and have the election!

Eleanor Clift is contributing editor for Newsweek. She was formerly Newsweek’s White House correspondence and deputy bureau chief. She writes about the White House, Congress and politics. Ms. Clift appears on the McLaughlin Report. Brill’s Content called her one of Washington’s most accurate prognosticators. Her husband Tom Brazaitis, a Foundation member, covered Washington for the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1974 to 2002, and was Washington bureau chief for 19 years. He and Ms. Clift co-wrote two books together, War Without Bloodshed: The Art of Politics (1996), and Madam President: Shattering the Last Glass Ceiling (2000). Her newest book is Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death and Politics.

Freedom From Religion Foundation