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For the commentator, this one's personal

Television political commentator Morton Kondracke has dispensed a lot of advice to presidents over the years, exercising about as much influence as other pundits.

Which is to say, very little.

But when discussion turns to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Kondracke's voice rises above the din of the Washington chattering class. His wife of 34 years, Milly, is dying from an aggressive form of Parkinson's disease, one of the afflictions researchers hope to cure in the future through stem cell research.

The Fox News host and former McLaughlin Group regular has just published a book about the experience, Saving Milly: Love, Politics and Parkinson's Disease. At the same time, President Bush is struggling to decide whether to allow federal funding for the controversial research.

As a result, Kondracke has found himself in the middle of a tough ethical and political debate that has blurred the lines for him between commentary and advocacy.

Saving Milly is a wrenching account of Kondracke's beloved wife's deterioration and a primer in what he calls "disease politics" _ why breast cancer and AIDS get more federal research dollars than Parkinson's and other illnesses with less organized advocacy movements.

As a media figure, Kondracke frequently speaks in favor of stem cell research on Fox, where he co-hosts a show called The Beltway Boys, and in the pages of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, where he is a columnist.

As an author, Kondracke plugs the research while promoting his book on TV outlets such as NBC's Today show. His friends and acquaintances in the Washington press have booked him on other TV shows or written columns or profiles, including one that appeared recently on the front page of USA Today.

In describing his and Milly's desperate and ultimately unsuccessful search for a cure, Kondracke gives voice to a dynamic that is taking place behind the scenes at the White House, where some Bush advisers, such as chief of staff Andrew Card, are reportedly in favor of the research because they have close family members who might be helped by it.

Other advisers, led by political strategist Karl Rove, worry that a decision in favor of the research will alienate the Republican Party's anti-abortion base and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

The research involves the destruction of human embryos _ a slippery slope, opponents say, toward sacrificing the unborn to help the living.

But for those whose lives are being destroyed by disease, it's hard to equate embryos in a laboratory with their loved ones who are suffering, especially since the research would be conducted on embryos created for fertility treatments that are not needed and, therefore, are slated to be discarded.

For Kondracke, the former Millicent Martinez of Chicago represents all that is good about life. Born of a Jewish mother and Mexican father, she was raised in poverty by relatives after her father was deported for sympathizing with the Communist party.

He died soon after, and Milly's mother was often absent, suffering from mental illness.

Despite her hard life, Milly was outgoing and easily made friends. She later became a psychotherapist. She met Mort when he was a young reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who dreamed of becoming a Washington big shot.

At first, Mort snubbed her, believing she didn't have the cachet to help him climb the social ladder. "I figured that the person I planned to be someday should have a Vassar or Wellesley graduate for a wife, or possibly an heiress," he wrote.

But she was in love with him. Gradually, Mort realized that he loved her, too. They were married in 1967.

Over the years, Milly kept Mort tethered in the often warped culture of Washington, where status and title are everything, and pomposity is rampant. "I was snobbishly dismissive of those below me," Kondracke wrote, while his wife made friends with everyone: a hairdresser, the Sears repairman, fellow psychotherapists.

When Mort's drinking got out of control, Milly poured his liquor down the drain and sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous. "She was the only person, other than my children, who I truly cared about," Kondracke wrote.

Then, in 1987, Milly had trouble forming the letter K when she tried to sign her name to a check. After a couple of doctor's visits, she was prescribed a drug called Symmetrel. But the doctor, not wanting to alarm her, didn't tell her what it was for.

When Milly looked up its purpose in a medical book, she called Mort at work in tears. She had seen Parkinson's patients and was terrified of the fate that awaited her.

Today, her body is crumpled in a wheelchair. She is barely able to swallow or whisper and sometimes drools. She communicates by laboriously pecking out words on a keyboard. Her hair long ago turned white.

Parkinson's turned Mort into an activist and deepened his faith in God. He came to believe that Milly's illness had a purpose, and that purpose was to spur him to use whatever influence he had to help lobby for a cure.

For a time he led an advocacy group working to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health, quitting when he was told that his lobbying work meant he would have to give up his accreditation as a journalist. He became a friend and ally of then-Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., a cancer survivor who shared Kondracke's goal of more money for medical research.

Among the most promising new areas was stem cell research. Extracted from microscopic human embryos, stem cells have the power to grow into any other cell in the human body, offering the possibility of repairing cells or tissue damaged by disease.

In the past, stem cells have been taken from embryos that were left over from fertility treatments and slated to be discarded. The news last week that a privately financed Virginia fertility clinic had fertilized human eggs for the sole purpose of medical experimentation has strengthened opponents' hand.

"There is a slippery slope problem," Kondracke acknowledged in an interview. "If you can get stem cells from a five-day-old embryo, why not grow a six-month-old fetus and take the heart for transplant? We're talking Frankenstein here.

"But it seems to me that just because there is that danger, that doesn't mean we should stop the research. This is an argument for people to use their brains."

The Bush administration has discussed a compromise that would encourage research on stem cells extracted from adults, but researchers say embryonic stem cells offer more promise.

Patient advocacy groups led by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation are lobbying hard for the research. The foundation has recently launched a television and print advertising campaign featuring an 11-year-old girl with diabetes.

But influential congressional Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, have written an open letter to Bush warning him away from approving the research.

For the Kondrackes, time appears to have run out.

Milly has recently agreed to be fed through a tube surgically inserted in her stomach. They have discussed at what point she might want to have the tube removed and go to a hospice. But for now, she wants to live, Kondracke says.

He wrote, "I will keep working to end Parkinson's disease on her behalf, and I will hug her in my heart forever."

Washington journalist Morton Kondracke, an advocate of stem-cell research, and his wife, Milly, who has Parkinson's disease, communicate by using a computer keyboard since Milly lost her ability to speak.

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