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Saturday, December 22, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Editor, pundit Michael Kinsley now treats illness with truth

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It is an exceptionally rain-soaked afternoon, even by Seattle standards, and Michael Kinsley is seated on a deep purple couch in his living room, thick drops pounding on the wooden deck outside his Lake Washington waterfront home.

"It's not a subject I care to dwell on," he says, referring to Parkinson's, a disease he was diagnosed with eight years ago, and which he kept a secret until earlier this month, when he "came out" in a first-person essay written for Time magazine.

Kinsley, 50, speaks softly: The disease has taken from his voice the shrillness that was one of his trademarks when, until 1996, he played the regular liberal foil to Pat Buchanan's growling conservative baritone on CNN's politics-and-argument show, "Crossfire."

The former pundit and editor of high-brow magazines such as The New Republic and Harper's is now at the helm of Microsoft's online magazine, Slate. On this day, he's working from his home near Renton — a home many of his East-Coast-insider friends find remarkable for its way-out-West location.

When Kinsley forsook the Beltway for Seattle more than five years ago, the news caused such a tremor in the eastern political and journalism establishment that it produced a Newsweek cover story featuring a now-famous photo of a rain-jacketed Kinsley with the headline: "Swimming to Seattle: Everybody Else is Moving There. Should You?"

These days, the buzz surrounding Kinsley is not his location, but his illness. He knows this, but it doesn't mean he likes it. Still, despite his disdain for dwelling on Parkinson's, the former Rhodes Scholar says, with a smile in his eyes: "Well, you came out in the rain, so I'll dwell on it."

Accelerating change?

The revelation that Kinsley knew he had the disease as early as 1993 has caused some of his admirers — and there are many in the world of liberal professional newsmakers and news spreaders — to wonder how that knowledge affected his choices as a person and as a journalist.

It wasn't, he says, what made him abandon his life out East. But it may have accelerated the process.

That move "was a psychological response, not a physical or medical one. I mean, I might well have done it anyway. I was getting itchy anyway, but this made me really itchy. It makes you think, 'Do it now. You might not be able to do it later.' "

Are there other things he now feels compelled by the disease to do sooner than later?

"Well, I don't have to do them immediately," Kinsley responds quickly.

He's right. It's not as if he's about to die tomorrow. Aside from the softness of voice and a decrease in his typing speed, Kinsley says he's not experiencing many ill effects. He looks much the same as he did when he was regularly on television, though a slight beard has come to cover his narrow face and the circumference of his bookish eyeglass frames seems to have shrunk. He is quite slim, but he says he is about the same weight he was 30 years ago, and that his doctor recently told him to lose 5 pounds.

Kinsley still swims off his dock, sometimes even in winter. He goes snow camping.

Not bad for any 50-year-old, but certainly not bad for one suffering from a disease with no known cure.

It is named for the English doctor James Parkinson, who in 1817 identified something he called "Shaking Palsy." It turned out to be a progressive disease that damages a person's nervous system and causes tremors, difficulty in moving and rigidity. Now, thanks to medical advances and the slow pace of the disease, many patients have a normal life expectancy and, though their symptoms may be unpleasant or even debilitating, they are often more likely to die from unrelated illnesses.

About 1 million people in the United States suffer from Parkinson's, most getting it when they're over 50. Kinsley was 42 when he was diagnosed.

Cloaked illness

Five years after that diagnosis, a Seattle Times reporter interviewing Kinsley for a story about the progress of Slate noticed that he looked ill, and asked about it. Kinsley replied that he felt fine.

It's a type of encounter Kinsley had with increasing frequency as he continued hiding his disease, even as it progressed.

"Yeah, that was one of the downsides," he says. "I really don't think — I mean, I tried not to lie to people. I really, really, really tried, and I thought and still think that I succeeded in not lying to anyone who I was dealing with as a journalist. I don't remember what I said to (the Times reporter). My hope is that it wasn't too Clintonian."

So why did he keep it a secret in the first place? Was he worried that people would assume, erroneously, that his abilities as a thinker and writer had been impaired?

"Sure," he says.

Was there anything else?

"Isn't that enough?"

Perhaps. But there was, in fact, more.

"Disease makes people queasy. It's hard to maintain normal relations with someone you know very well or someone you're very close to who's got a serious medical problem. It can bring people closer together, I suppose. It can also put a shield between them. But, whatever, it just complicates it."

Kinsley also firmly believes denial is a valid way to cope with a slow, progressive illness — at least, to a point.

"If you're trying to keep something a secret, you're going to be suppressing it. You obviously can't control it. But maybe you can at some level, to some degree. And if you're constantly thinking, 'I don't want to let it show, I don't want to let it show,' that might be good."

He pauses for a second, thinking.

"It might be bad, on the other hand, because when you're tense, that might make it worse. But it might be good, so, who knows."

In any case, Kinsley eventually reached a personal point of diminishing returns on the denial strategy. A small number of people knew because he had told them. Others suspected something was very wrong.

"I mean, it gets harder and harder as more people know to keep it a secret. Eventually, the advantages of keeping it a secret are outweighed by the disadvantages. I think I hit that point."

The advantages?

"I don't have to talk about it. Mainly, you don't have to think about it. You don't have to look people in the eye and know that they know."

And the disadvantages?

"Lying."

Telling the boss

For a journalist and thinker, lying is problematic.

One thing Kinsley always did, he said, was tell his employers about his disease.

"I have always told my immediate boss," he says, and as he says this the phone rings. He springs up off the deep purple couch and strides into the kitchen. Someone from Slate is calling about a story. As Kinsley talks over the phone, his voice seems louder, the Parkinson's whisper gone.

He sits back down.

What was the reaction from his bosses at Microsoft to his illness?

"It's been perfect." His voice has softened again. "Never the slightest suggestion that this would have any effect on my employment."

That hasn't always been the case. In 1998, Kinsley was offered the editorship of The New Yorker magazine — one of the highest honors in the magazine world. He told the magazine's owner that he had Parkinson's, and a few hours later the offer was withdrawn.

Kinsley refuses to say the offer was withdrawn directly because of his disease, but he will say it left him with some hard feelings. The magazine has not commented on the matter.

Kinsley says Parkinson's won't affect him as a journalist — for example, in covering the controversy over stem-cell research, which some believe could provide a cure for Parkinson's.

"Certainly not with respect to the stem-cell issue. It certainly has had no impact on my positions. ... Is it a conflict for you and me and everyone else to be writing about the war on terrorism when our lives may be at stake? We have a vested interest. It's an interest, but is it a conflict?"

As a public figure with Parkinson's, Kinsley joins the likes of Michael J. Fox, Muhammad Ali and Janet Reno.

Does he feel a responsibility to take on an activist role, lobbying for more research toward finding a cure as Fox has?

"Yes, in a way I do, and then in a way I feel a responsibility not to. I'm not a huge obsessor about conflicts of interest, but I do think there are certain limits."

As a journalist, Kinsley worries that being associated with a cause might undermine his credibility. Also, as a commentator he doesn't want to become inextricably linked to a single issue.

"I want people to pay attention when I'm writing about a lot of other subjects. I've been writing about the capital-gains tax for 25 years and have had no impact whatsoever. But I hope that might change, and I don't want people to be thinking Parkinson's when they ought to be thinking capital-gains tax."

'A certain tolerance'

A recent Washington Post article suggested Kinsley had "gone native" after being in Seattle for five years.

"Well, you know, what does The Washington Post know about being a native in Seattle? I'm a Seattleite to The Washington Post, and I'm an East-Coaster to Seattleites."

And what makes a Seattleite, according to the brainy East Coast transplant?

"Love of the outdoors. A certain tolerance. And kindness. I mean, this is a grotesque generality, but if you can't say this to The Seattle Times, who can you say this to? People are nicer out here."

So is he staying?

"I can't guarantee that this is going to be my home for the rest of my life. But I hope it will always be part of my home."

Eli Sanders can be reached at 206-748-5815 or esanders@seattletimes.com.

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