Sen. Tim Johnson: It's been a long road homeby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota made his first public appearance Tuesday since suffering a brain injury eight months ago. Johnson told a crowd of about 2,000 people that he's been given a second chance at life, and promised to use it to work for them in the United States Senate.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — High school bands and a middle school boys choir added a campaign-rally feel to what was billed as a homecoming celebration.
A sign over the podium was a message from Johnson, thanking the people of South Dakota for their support and patience. The crowd held signs saying, "Welcome Home Tim" and "We love you."
Johnson was brought on the stage in a wheelchair. He stood at the podium to speak, with his wife, Barbara at his side.
"Wow! You guys are a sight for sore eyes. It's good to be home in South Dakota," Johnson said.
Johnson stuck to his script. His speech was slow and deliberate, and some of his words were slurred. He said it was a slow and difficult recovery but he considers himself back.
Johnson admitted his speech isn't what it once was, but said that will be an advantage in Washington.
"I believe I have an unfair edge over most of my colleagues right now - my mind works better than my mouth does," he said to laughter from the crowd.
It's been nearly nine months since the 60-year-old Johnson has made a public appearance. Johnson's brain hemorrhage caused him to lose his speech and weakened his right side.
Johnson has been working from home but hasn't been to his Capitol office or appeared on the Senate floor.
While this was Johnson's first public appearance since December, he did allow one reporter access to document his recovery.
ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff met regularly with Johnson since his release from the hospital six months ago. Woodruff's report aired on ABC's Nightline several hours after Johnson's Sioux Falls appearance.
The Nightline report revealed how close Johnson came to dying, and how much he struggled to get where he is today. Johnson can walk up stairs. He has limited movement with his right arm. Woodruff asked Johnson how many years he'll be improving. Johnson responded, "forever."
"You constantly improve. Bit by bit, but constantly improve," said Johnson.
Johnson is up for re-election next year. Over the course of their interview sessions, Woodruff asked Johnson several times if he's running for re-election. Usually Johnson answered that he didn't know. Last week, Johnson was far more definite.
"I expect to run and to win," Johnson said.
That statement is causing some speculation on news blogs around the country. Johnson's press secretary issued a release saying a decision hasn't been made.
"It wasn't a definitive statement," said Bill Richardson, a political scientist at the University of South Dakota. "It was a statement you would expect from somebody who still has a fight with a body that has conspired against him, with a mind that's still the old Tim Johnson's mind."
Richardson said Johnson's public appearance bought him time to make a decision about his political future. He said the crowd was sympathetic and emotional, and will be more understanding.
Richardson said Johnson has proved to his constituents that he's a fighter and he has fight left in him. He said people in South Dakota look at Johnson differently now -- not sympathetically, but with patience and compassion.
"You might be able to consider him the new Teflon senator. It will be very hard for any prospective opponent to decide -- how do you campaign against THIS Senator Johnson?"
This Sen. Johnson, with slower speech and a wheelchair, promised his constituents, from all political parties, that he'll work hard, like he always has.
"The greatest honor in my life has been to stand by your side and fight for you in Washington. Never in my life have I been so grateful that you have been standing by my side as well," Johnson said.
Johnson is expected to return to work on Capitol Hill next week.
- Morning Edition, 08/29/2007, 7:20 a.m.