With the help of a cane, the 61-year-old South Dakota Democrat walks inch by inch toward his seat, moving so carefully that he looks like he’s picking his way across a patch of ice. As Johnson’s Senate colleagues watch and wait, a woman in the audience whispers words of encouragement: “Take your time up there.” Somebody else chimes in with, “Slow and steady.”
For Johnson, that’s the theme lately.
But is it enough?
A year and a half after suffering a debilitating brain hemorrhage, Johnson has gradually resumed his normal duties in the Senate, meeting with constituents, presiding as chairman over multiple subcommittee hearings, casting votes. But the man who once made his own copies and fetched his own pens now needs help putting on his jacket. He needs a cane to walk, a motorized wheelchair to get him from his Senate office to the Senate floor. His speech is slurred, and he sometimes has difficulty matching words to thoughts.
“It has been said that I was given a second chance at life,” Johnson says in an interview with Politico. “I have a new enthusiasm, and I’m determined to do an even better job and work harder for the people of South Dakota.”
Counters Kevin Woster, a reporter at the Rapid City Journal: “Why not sit on the back porch with your wife and watch your grandkids run around?”
Johnson was wrapping up a conference call with reporters on the morning of Dec. 13, 2006, when he stumbled on a question regarding earmarks. When the call ended, he discovered that he couldn’t speak at all. Julianne Fisher, the senator’s communications director, asked, “Are you all right, sir? Are you sure you’re all right?”
Johnson remembers knowing that something was wrong. His aides called the Senate physician. An hour later, as Johnson and his wife arrived at George Washington University hospital, the senator went blank.
For the next several weeks, as Johnson slipped in and out of consciousness, Democrats worried that his departure — by death or by disability — could cost them their narrow, 51-49 Senate majority.
“There was definitely a ghoulish aspect,” remembers Drey Samuelson, Johnson’s chief of staff. “People had basically buried him.”
The senator was very much alive — literally and, as it turns out, politically, too.
Johnson regained consciousness in time for the president’s State of the Union address in early 2007. He studied Senate memos and newspapers as he learned how to walk and talk again. Eight months after he was rushed to the hospital, he made a triumphant return to the Senate, saying, “My speech is not 100 percent, but my thoughts are clear and my mind is sharp.”
In October, Johnson announced that he intended to seek a third term in the Senate. But he didn’t make the announcement at a press conference, as many constituents had hoped. Instead, he did it in a written statement distributed by e-mail.
“Everyone assumed it was because of his difficulties speaking,” said David Kranz, a reporter at the Argus Leader. “I think it was probably the first thing that struck my mind.”
Johnson should have been in for a tough reelection race. President Bush and Vice President Cheney won 60 percent of the vote in South Dakota in 2004, and Republicans had high hopes of doing to Johnson in 2008 what they did to Sen. Tom Daschle then.
But Sen. John Thune, the Republican who ousted Daschle in 2004, says today that Johnson is “doing the things that people expect their United States senator to do.” Max Wetz, executive diretor of the South Dakota Republican Party, declined to speak on the record about Johnson’s medical condition. And after Democrats and their allies went on an early attack — the South Dakota Republican Party had accused the Johnson campaign of “stalking” — former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby, the one Republican who seemed most capable of defeating Johnson, bowed out of the race for what he said were family concerns.
“It was pretty nasty for someone who wasn’t even in the race officially,” said NRSC spokesman John Randall.
Three lesser-known Republicans — Joel Dykstra, Sam Kephart and Charles Gonyo — are left fighting for the Republican nomination. With $2.5 million in the bank, Johnson has a significant financial advantage over Dykstra, the best-financed of the three.
“He’s been a real fighter since this episode,” Thune says. “He’s put his shoulder to the wheel, and I don’t think anyone would tell you otherwise.”
It isn’t always easy, and both Johnson and his staff have had to adapt.
“We’re always thinking, ‘How do we get him there?’” Fisher said. “And, ‘Is the building handicap-accessible?’”
Since Johnson’s return to the Senate, his aides have tried to simplify his schedule by arranging constituent meetings at his Capitol hideaway office so Johnson doesn’t have to make the slow trek back to his Hart Building office too often. When there’s a series of votes, Johnson simply remains on the Senate floor as his colleagues come and go; his staff provides him with enough reading material to keep him busy between the action.
Because his handwriting is “a little shaky,” staffers have learned to take dictation from him.
The one thing staffers can’t do for Johnson is speak. In committee hearings, Johnson reads from statements, often pausing between words, seemingly frustrated. At other times, he stumbles over two- and three-syllable words. “For a politician, that’s uncomfortable,” Johnson concedes, cracking a smile.
Woster, who has reported on Johnson for years, said he sometimes struggles to understand him now. “You really have to focus on what he’s saying,” Woster said. “You can tell he’s sorting words in his mind and having trouble getting them out there.”
Echoing what he says he’s heard from other South Dakotans, Woster asks, “Can you really be 100 percent effective with those liabilities?”
Another South Dakota reporter said Johnson’s speech barrier “could potentially be an issue this summer when it’s time to travel around the state a little more and campaign.”
“It could be an issue if he has to engage in debates,” the reporter said. “But a lot of people suspect he won’t have to.”
Denise Ross, who runs the South Dakota political blog Hog House, says the concerns about Johnson have largely dissipated. “Initially, there were some who wondered about his mental faculties and his ability to do his job,” she said. “You continue to hear it every once in a while. But it’s not really gaining any traction, and there was actually backlash from other [blog] readers. I think people feel that even though his speech is a little rough, his command of the issues is so strong that it compensates for it.”
Thune probably disagrees with Johnson on a lot of those issues, but he’s not exactly eager to question his colleague’s abilities. “You can tell his mind is working,” Thune said. “When we interact, I don’t have any problem understanding or being able to communicate with him. His mind is fully engaged and sharp and crisp.”
Johnson’s staff says he hasn’t missed a vote since his return to the Senate. Rep. Stephane Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) adds that the senator “has not missed a beat in the service to our state.”
And so Johnson has continued to campaign for the seat he wants to hold. In recent days, he has appeared before crowds of hundreds and will continue to campaign “as aggressively as he can,” Samuelson said. “He loves the work.”
And, at the same time, he has won even more fans back home because of his tenacity and strength of character, observers say.
“He had a lot of respect in the state before, and I think this definitely heightened that,” Woster said. “We love him and, at the very least, we respect him.”