In spite of the TV cameras, the tributes, the applause, the flowers, the fanfare, Wednesday was not Sen. Tim Johnson’s first day back in the Senate after suffering a debilitating brain hemorrhage eight months ago.
He had made a secret visit two weeks ago, on a Sunday in the middle of the congressional recess when the Capitol stood nearly empty and the lights on the Senate floor were dimmed.
With only his wife and an aide, Johnson did a dry run of Wednesday’s triumphal return. He returned to the office that he hadn’t seen since Dec. 13, the day he had been on a conference call with reporters and suddenly lost his train of thought.
He saw the chair where he had sat that day, unable to speak, while his panicked staff called an ambulance.
From his office, he traced the route to the Senate floor, a path he’d taken a thousand times, but never on wheels. He navigated the Senate hallways in his new, navy blue chrome electric scooter.
When it came to boarding an escalator, he veered left and took a series of elevators. He reached the floor and parked himself behind his new desk, now situated closer to a level entrance.
And there, in the silence of the August recess, with only a few startled Capitol Police officers looking on, he confronted his new reality.
Johnson made his public return to the Senate Wednesday. He plans to reassume all the duties of a normal senator.
He met this morning with the two other lawmakers from South Dakota to discuss local issues. He attended the weekly Democratic caucus luncheon. He gave a speech on the Senate floor and, later, cast a vote.
Everywhere he went, his Senate colleagues greeted him.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) offered a “Great to have you back!” Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) had a “So great to see you!” The Congressional Taiwan Caucus sent him an orchid.
A gaggle of TV cameras filmed him entering his office. Some staffers burst into tears when they saw him.
But it is clear that the brain injury has altered his life forever.
Much of his right side remains partially paralyzed. He shakes hands with his left hand and is learning to write with it, too. He can speak, but only softly and with a lisp. He can walk, but only slowly and with great effort. His face little resembles the ear-to-ear grin of his official photo. His smile is lopsided now.
But everyone around him maintains he’s the same person, that he’s still sharp — and still able to serve South Dakota.
Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who ran against Johnson in 2002, was entirely positive on Johnson’s comeback.
“In terms of his mental capabilities, they’re there. He’s a 100 percent on that,” Thune said. “When we were discussing all the things impacting South Dakota — he’s been involved a lot already from home — he was very much on top of the game.”
The other member of South Dakota’s congressional delegation, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, echoed Thune’s assessment.
“Whether you spend a couple of hours with him over dinner or whether you start working with him in the office or seeing him on the floor, he’s back,” she said. “His speech may not be perfect, but it’s obvious to everyone that there’s been no impairment to the cognitive abilities.”
In his address on the Senate floor Wednesday, Johnson thanked his colleagues for their support. As people approached him beforehand, he offered a smile or a thank you. When he got off the elevator and aimed his scooter toward the Senate floor, he uttered a quiet, “Here we go.”
Johnson’s recovery was important to more than just him and his supporters. With the Senate divided 51-49 in favor of the Democrats, his death would have thrown control to the Republicans. South Dakota’s governor, a Republican, would likel have appointed a Republican to fill his place.
With the Senate split equally between the parties, Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as president of the Senate, would have cast the deciding vote.
Many feared that Johnson’s illness would be exploited for political gain. South Dakota has been battered by vicious Senate races in recent years.
The level of partisanship was high. But Thune, despite having run spirited campaigns against both Johnson and former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, never uttered a partisan word.
“The Republicans never once tried to take advantage of this illness,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “John Thune, I admire and appreciate what you have done during Tim Johnson’s absence.”
To Johnson, who sat several yards away, Reid said, “We love you. I love you.”
Johnson has yet to announce his reelection bid. His spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, said, “He expects to run for office. He wants to get his sea legs back now.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee e-mailed supporters, noting that Johnson “has stood up for Democratic principles for decades as a civil servant” and that he “returns to the Senate this week stronger and more determined than ever.”
Johnson has never craved the limelight. He’s the kind of boss who makes his own photocopies and gets his own pens from the supply closet, Fisher said. Before his illness, few people outside of South Dakota and Washington knew who he was.
His wife, Barbara, when asked what her husband did, could get away with saying, “Oh, he works in government,” according to a story recounted by Herseth Sandlin.
Several people close to him said he was ready to return to a low-key routine.
“He’s looking forward to this day being over because of the media attention he’s received,” said Herseth Sandlin.
“That’s not Tim’s nature.”