Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., addressed a crowd today in Sioux Falls, S.D., "Wow. You guys are a sight for sore eyes. It's good to be home."
It's been a long road home for the senator in the eight months since the brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him in December. In that time he's had to learn to walk again and to cope with speech slowed by aphasia.
"I am back and I promise you all that I will work harder than ever for you and for our state," Johnson said.
One thing Johnson, who will return to the Senate on Sept. 5, hasn't lost is his sense of humor.
"I will promise you that when my speech is back to normal, I will not act like a typical politician and overuse the gift."
"Of course, I believe I have an unfair edge over most of my colleagues right now — my mind works faster than my mouth does," he said. "I'm hoping that folks will focus more on my work than how quickly I walk these days."
Johnson has always been a straightforward, moderate Democrat from a mostly Republican state. He is a man so respected by his colleagues that they made him chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. He is also the only senator with a son who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When Johnson fell ill with what appeared to be a stroke, the outpouring of concern from both sides of the aisle was heartfelt and genuine.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters, "This is a time to pray for Tim Johnson's health, and I'll leave it to others to start doing political calculations."
Shortly before noon on Dec. 13, 2006, Johnson was conducting a telephone news conference when his words began to falter.
"I looked at him and kind of gave him a sign like wrap it up. And he said, 'Frustrating.' He said frustrating, I think two times," Johnson's communications director Julianne Fisher said. "And I turned and looked at his scheduler and pulled her aside and said, 'I think he's having a stroke.' … By 12:15 he was probably in the ambulance and gone."
Johnson only recalls part of that day.
"I remember that time, and all the way to the emergency room— ambulance ride, the emergency room. And then I become vaguer. I don't remember anymore," he said.
Johnson was unaware that the scene outside George Washington Hospital quickly became a media circus, much to the dismay of his worried family and staff inside.
Johnson's wife, Barbara, told ABC's Bob Woodruff, "To look outside your hospital window and see five or six satellite trucks lined up and 60 or 70 members of the press — God bless you for what you do — but that day, you know, and for those couple of days, it was just overwhelming and we just want to pull back and let Tim heal. We just want to be together as a family."
The Beltway and the press buzzed with the possible consequences of Johnson's illness. The Democrats had just retaken the Senate by a slim 51-49 margin. If Johnson died, the Republicans might take back control.
"I had reporters that were yelling at me saying, 'Clearly you understand this is a 51-49 Senate. This is a big deal.' Which is incredibly offensive," said Fisher.
"One of our oldest sons said it best, he said, 'It's like our dad is a poker chip.' … The control of the Senate rested on him, and it was like who held the chip, who was going to win the poker match?" Barbara Johnson told Woodruff.
"All that fuss and the guest of honor was asleep," Johnson said.