Trish thought the critics resented a TV writer’s presumption that she could make it on Broadway. She was wounded by accusations that she gave false hope to Alzheimer’s victims and their families. Didn’t they read the papers? Didn’t they know there were promising drugs?
She decided to rewrite the script.
In 2002, when the play ran off-Broadway under the title Surviving Grace, critics stomped on it again, for most of the same reasons. But this time George saved it from the fate of its predecessor. He paid for a $400,000 TV ad campaign—practically unheard of for a small production with bad reviews. “It just doesn’t make sense,” the general manager of the original production told the New York Post, noting that the play had lost more than $1 million. Trish replied, “I feel that no goal was ever achieved by fleeing.”
George was smoking cigars, drinking, and laughing with some of his closest friends. It was June 23, 2001, the 60th-birthday party for Don Flexner, a prominent Washington lawyer, at a friend’s house in Potomac. He and Trish had left LA for DC after Steve Case, a cofounder of America Online, asked George to be his general counsel and top lobbyist.
George was with friends by the swimming pool when he felt nauseated. He sat down to catch his breath. A few minutes passed and he felt better. But then the nausea returned. George threw up and broke into a sweat. He staggered into the living room and plopped down on a chair.
Trish arrived at the party late; she’d been at the Kennedy Center, where Surviving Grace was in previews before going to New York. She poked her head into the living room and saw an old man slumped on the couch. She moved closer and saw that it was George.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
George stood up and immediately collapsed on the floor.
Some doctors at the party rushed to the living room. They raised George’s feet up on a chair. “Is he comfortable?” someone asked.
“He makes a nice living,” Trish deadpanned.
George stared up at her from the floor. “Even now?”
She shrugged. “Honey, it was a lay-up.”
The ambulance took George to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville. His heart rate was dropping. In the emergency room, a cardiologist told him he had a blocked artery. They were going to give him an anticoagulant.
Five minutes later, George overheard the doctor talking to another physician. “The drug isn’t working,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do.”
George beckoned the doctor. “My wife is the blond woman in the waiting room. Find her and tell her that I love her.”
That’s the last thing he remembers. He woke up two weeks later at a hospital in Virginia.
With George in a medically induced coma, Trish hid behind her shield. “George is going to change his diet,” she told the Washington Post’s Reliable Source. “Basically, we’re never letting him eat again.” Ba-dum—tsh! “This is a helluva way to get publicity for my play.”
Their grown son, Tyler, asked why she hadn’t cried. “I can’t afford to cry,” she said. “When this is over, whatever happens, you’ll go home and have your life. But Dad is my life.”
When George woke up, he found that his motor skills had deteriorated. He tried to bring a spoon to his mouth but kept missing. He had to learn to get up from a chair by pushing with his arms, not his legs.
Lying in his hospital bed, George was startled by sudden noises, a branch hitting the window. Every heart palpitation made him wonder: Is this it?
He made a few decisions. He wouldn’t let a morning pass without telling Trish he loved her. He would spend more time with his children—he knew he had never been perfect in that regard. He had already charted his exit from AOL, stepping down following the company’s merger with Time Warner six months before the heart attack.
After cashing in his stock options, worth tens of millions, George would never have to work again. He turned his energies to nonprofits. He joined a regional planning commission for homeland security after the 9/11 attacks. He was selected as chairman of the Phillips Collection. He became an outspoken proponent of heart-disease research.
George was 58 when he nearly died. He surveyed his achievements and found that while he was proud of his contributions—to the First Amendment, to building a television network, to the development of the Internet—he hadn’t led those movements, nor had he really chosen them. As he started getting used to the idea that one day his friends and family would go on living without him, George decided he wanted to leave footprints.
“I would like to repair the world before I go,” he says. “My tombstone’s going to say, ‘I wasn’t finished.’ ”
In 2006, George and Trish sat in the Capitol Hill office of Massachusetts representative Ed Markey, whom George knew from his work at CBS and Fox. George and Trish had been asked to host the Alzheimer’s Association gala for the third time, and they wanted to honor Markey with an award.
That’s very nice, he told them, but Washington is full of galas. If you really want to raise the money needed to find treatments or a cure, you need to get Congress to allocate it. And that’s not going to happen until we hear from the public. You have to form a political movement. You have to become activists.
Markey, whose mother had died of Alzheimer’s, pointed to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which was supported largely by the families of sick children and had managed to elevate the profile of that disease. The foundation invested in promising research from for-profit enterprises. It raised money from private donors and in some cases by collecting royalties on the sale of drugs developed under the foundation’s auspices. A team of scientists supported by the foundation identified the gene that caused cystic fibrosis, and virtually every drug available for treatment of the disease was developed with the foundation’s support.
This model suited George and Trish. It spoke to his belief in free enterprise and its capacity for innovation. And it was driven by people who had been directly affected by the disease. That human element resonated for Trish, who has always started discussions about Alzheimer’s with the story of her mother.
George and Trish had never shied away from telling powerful people what they should do. A few years earlier, Trish told Hillary Clinton, then a senator from New York, that in the same week her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the mother of Clinton’s old friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason was diagnosed with AIDS. She’d contracted HIV from a blood transfusion.
“If that happened today,” Trish told Clinton, “her mother would be living, but my mother would still die, because the HIV/AIDS people raised their voice and demanded that something be done.” Trish wanted the same consideration from Congress. “I don’t want a share of their pie. I want a bigger pie.” Clinton agreed to help and cofounded a congressional task force on Alzheimer’s. It eventually grew to 200 members.
But the money didn’t follow. And George and Trish knew they’d have to find an awful lot of it. The National Institutes of Health spends more than $5 billion a year on cancer research and around $3 billion each on cardiovascular and heart disease and HIV/AIDS. Annual research on Alzheimer’s comes to only about $400 million.
George remembered once hearing Newt Gingrich say that Alzheimer’s, if left untreated, would overwhelm the federal budget. He asked the former House speaker if he’d head up a study group to devise a national recommendation for fighting the disease. Gingrich agreed and asked former senator Bob Kerrey, with whom he’d once run a commission on long-term care, to be his cochair.
A few weeks after Gingrich accepted, George and Trish were at a dinner party at the home of Stephen Breyer, the Supreme Court justice. Sandra Day O’Connor was there. She had retired from the court and was spending more time in Arizona, where her husband of 54 years, John, was dying of Alzheimer’s. George asked her to join the study group. She agreed on the spot.
George assembled an army: Gingrich, Kerrey, and O’Connor were joined by Mark McClellan, who had run Medicare and Medicaid in the George W. Bush administration; David Satcher, the former surgeon general; Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher; and others. The Alzheimer’s Association helped with funding. So did George’s philanthropic foundation; he was now putting his own money on the table.
The study group worked for two years. In 2009, it unveiled its report before a special Senate committee on aging. “Our nation has no real plan,” O’Connor said. A massive push was needed for prevention, treatments, and a cure and to rein in the costs of caring for a swelling elderly population.
The study group’s efforts led to legislation, the National Alzheimer’s Project Act. On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed it. It was the first major piece of Alzheimer’s legislation ever enacted. But again, there was no money in it. The law gave the federal government the mission to wage war on Alzheimer’s but didn’t supply the ammunition.
So George and Trish opened another front.➝
As the bill wound its way through Congress, George and Trish went door to door on Capitol Hill asking lawmakers to support another piece of legislation, already written, called the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Act. It had first been introduced in 2004, 11 days after Ronald Reagan’s death from the disease. It would allocate $2 billion for research into Alzheimer’s—real money, the kind that would put it in the same league as the other big killer diseases.
Trish visited Senator Carl Levin, the influential chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “Everything George says is brilliant,” Levin told her, but he wouldn’t support a bill that gave money to only one disease. “I’m not disease-specific,” he said.
“But this specific disease will get you,” Trish said. “And it will bankrupt this country.”
Levin was immovable.
“Okay,” Trish said. “I’ll camp outside your door until you agree to support this. If you need me, you know where to find me.”
No one told her that people don’t usually talk to senators that way. When another senator told her he wanted the National Institutes of Health to decide how to spend money, she asked, “If you can’t make a decision, then why were you elected?”
Markey took up the bill in the House. And though it failed to come up for a full vote, George and Trish personally secured the support of 46 senators.