It's too bad that Hamilton Jordan isn't still alive to remind the media that Ted Kennedy isn't already dead. Jordan, who died last week after surviving four different cancers for 22 years, would have loathed those funereal and, in the case of the New York Post (TED IS DYING), offensive headlines about Kennedy. So does Kennedy, no doubt. The senator will bring to this struggle his fighting spirit, the greatest of our time. Only three days after learning that he was suffering from a malignant and inoperable brain tumor, Kennedy was already on his boat near the family compound at Hyannis Port, determined once again to sail against the wind.
There was a time when mentioning Kennedy and Jimmy Carter (or Carter's right hand) in the same breath would have meant a story about a Democratic family feud even more bitter than this year's between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But today these men offer priceless lessons in how to overcome endless adversity and deep unpopularity and go on to lead redemptive and joyful lives that touch millions. Their example might also get us into a new war we desperately need—a war to save the more than 500,000 Americans who die every year of cancer.
Both Kennedy and Jordan became famous at age 31 with people rooting for them to stumble. Kennedy arrived in the Senate in 1962 for no other reason than that his brother was president. Jordan, a Machiavellian Georgian, had written a brilliant memo outlining how his obscure peanut-farmer boss could get to the White House, then made it happen. But he refused to make the necessary concessions to Beltway traditions and paid for it with failure.
By that time, Kennedy had lost four older siblings, nearly died in a 1964 plane crash and endured the shame of Chappaquiddick. His story was one of pathos, fecklessness and failed promise. In 1980, Kennedy launched an ill-conceived challenge to Carter for the Democratic nomination. Despite trailing by 700 delegates, he took the struggle all the way to the convention, where he snubbed Carter on the podium and helped doom Carter's campaign against Ronald Reagan that fall.
In different ways, the two men then slowly remade their lives. Kennedy remarried and, happy at last, devoted himself to the Senate, working across the aisle to amass an astonishing legislative record, particularly on health and education issues. And that's not even counting all the awful bills he blocked. Jordan remarried, too, and he and his wife started a Georgia camp for kids with cancer. Only months later, Jordan, then 41, was diagnosed with lymphoma, the first of a variety of cancers that invaded his body over the next two decades.
I got to know Jordan in recent years, and I agree with Carter, who says he was one of the most extraordinary people he has ever met. Even when ailing, he brought creative energy to countless causes. At first Jordan couldn't find a publisher for his book, "No Such Thing as a Bad Day," which eventually helped me and thousands of others cope with cancer. "The greatest challenge is the mental and emotional one of living with all this," he wrote me in 2004 after my own lymphoma diagnosis. "But the mind is a powerful, powerful resource which I believe can be decisive in this battle, sometimes leading to cures against overwhelming odds and often extending life significantly."
Jordan liked to point to a study by Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford, ridiculed at first but now replicated, that showed 18 months of additional survival for women with breast cancer who developed strong support networks. That didn't mean they were upbeat all the time, but they lived longer by developing a spirit of resistance.
Cancer is a disease with not enough hope and not enough money. Ten days before he was diagnosed, Kennedy chaired a Senate hearing featuring Lance Armstrong and Elizabeth Edwards. (Had he been well enough, Jordan would likely have joined them.) Afterward, the senator got choked up recalling his son Ted's bout with bone cancer when he was 12, and his daughter Kara surviving lung cancer. Kennedy worked on funding the first "war on cancer" in 1971 and believes it's now time to rearm and fight with smarter weapons. When I asked him recently why the costs of effective lymphoma treatments called Bexxar and Zevelin weren't being reimbursed by the government, he helped fix the problem fast.
We'll soon find out if the senators who were choked up last week at the prospect of losing their beloved colleague will be ready to get serious about cancer. Think we're already spending enough? Jordan sent me an e-mail toting up how we spend more in six months in Iraq ($54 billion) than we've spent in 30 years on the National Cancer Institute, which funds most cancer research. Today, only two in 10 grant proposals from qualified researchers are funded by the NCI, which means that plenty of possible cures die for lack of funding.
Jordan was always plotting ways to advance the cause. Last summer, after I visited him (and his portable oxygen canister) at his home in Atlanta, he suggested I ask each of the presidential candidates if they would commit to doubling cancer-research funding over the next 10 years. At a cancer forum in Iowa sponsored by Armstrong's Livestrong group (skipped by John McCain and Barack Obama, who are expected to show up for another Armstrong cancer forum this year), the Republicans declined to commit, but all the Democrats in the race did.
Last Christmas, Jordan posted a message for family and friends. His suffering had been immense. "Some idiot once wrote a book titled, 'No Such Thing as a Bad Day.' While that appeals to my optimistic nature, I want you to know that I have had a couple of lousy years." But then Hamilton couldn't help himself. A few paragraphs later, he wrote: "I take it back. There really is no such thing as a bad day. We never know when the Good Lord is finished with us, but I am not through yet." And neither is Ted Kennedy, still sailing through the storm.