WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 — Scenes from an uncommon political marriage:
Representative Jim Ramstad, a Republican from Minnesota, and Patrick J. Kennedy, a Democrat from Rhode Island, are deep in conversation on the House floor, Mr. Ramstad’s hand draped over his colleague’s shoulder.
Later that day, Mr. Ramstad receives a note in the Republican cloakroom from Mr. Kennedy, who needs a ride to a support group they attend in Georgetown. “Patrick’s not driving currently, so I’m sort of his chauffeur,” Mr. Ramstad says.
After the meeting, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Ramstad sit with friends in their regular booth at Morton’s Steakhouse. The gathering resembles any Washington power table, except the men are sipping Diet Coke and mineral water, have just come from “group” and are occasionally crying. “We love each other for our imperfections and for our common humanity,” Mr. Kennedy says.
The dinner last Tuesday celebrated Mr. Kennedy’s fourth month of sobriety, a process jolted into motion by an early morning car accident on Capitol Hill in May and a subsequent rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he was treated for an addiction to painkillers.
In the precarious course of his recovery, Mr. Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, has come to rely heavily on Mr. Ramstad, 60. He has served as Patrick Kennedy’s sponsor, his primary source of advice and support in what he calls “the daily fight for my life” against addiction.
The day after the accident, Mr. Kennedy received a phone call from Mr. Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic who has been an evangelist in Congress for addiction treatment and 12-step recovery programs. The men did not know each other well.
But in battling their addictions, the two built a fast kinship that flouts the partisan divisions of Congress, their own divergent politics and the conditional nature of so many friendships in Washington. They speak daily, often several times. Mr. Ramstad visited Mr. Kennedy during his 28-day rehabilitation, driving two hours each Saturday from his Minnetonka home. When the Rhode Island Republican Party chairman called for Mr. Kennedy’s resignation after his crash, Mr. Ramstad called it “a slap in the face” to all recovering addicts.
Former Senator Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who frequently attends the Tuesday dinners, said, “This is a story of a shared and common humanity and overcoming political differences in a town known for its inhumanity.” Mr. Cleland, who lost both legs and part of an arm in Vietnam, says he is in recovery from “the trauma of war.”
“It’s a great brotherhood we all share,” he said of the dinner group. “And it has nothing to do with politics except that we’re all in it.”
The political world could learn much from these gatherings, Mr. Ramstad says. “If we could turn Congress into one big A.A. meeting,” he said, referring to Alcoholics Anonymous, “where people would be required to say what they mean and mean what they say, it would be a lot better Congress.”
In a joint interview with Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Ramstad in Mr. Ramstad’s office, each man nods solemnly while the other speaks. Both are mindful of the confidentiality rules involving recovery groups. They say they agreed to be interviewed because their “sponsorship” relationship was revealed in court as a condition of Mr. Kennedy’s probation (he pleaded guilty to impaired driving).
Mr. Kennedy has big expressive eyes, a lanky frame and slightly hunched posture that lends the impression of an overgrown boy. Mr. Ramstad walks chest-out and speaks with the practiced certainty of a man who has counseled numerous addicts over 25 years.
The two men share a keen sense of the twin burdens that being an addict and congressman impose, Mr. Kennedy says. “To some degree, all politicians lead a double life, a public one and a private one,” he said. Mr. Ramstad has emphasized the importance of integrating what he calls “the political game face” with “the real person inside.”
Being a Kennedy carries its own weight, Mr. Kennedy says, given the legacy of drug and alcohol abuse in his family. His mother, Joan Kennedy, has endured a long battle with alcoholism, and his father was involved in a string of alcohol-related episodes earlier in his career. (Senator Kennedy says he will drink a glass of wine at home at night or in social settings. He describes himself as being “well” over the last 15 years, a recovery he attributes to his current wife, Victoria.)
In a phone interview, Senator Kennedy says he shares a meal with Patrick once a week. His son is doing well, he says, thanks in large part to “the incredible generosity of spirit” of Jim Ramstad.
Patrick Kennedy makes frequent references to the pressures and expectations inherent in his name. “When you grow up in my family, being somebody meant having power, having status,” he said. “The compensations you got were all material and superficial. I’ve come to realize, in the last few months, that that life made me feel all alone.”
Both Mr. Ramstad and Mr. Kennedy are active in a House caucus of about 60 representatives that promotes legislation for treatment of addiction and mental illness. Some of the members are addicts themselves, or recovering addicts, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Ramstad say, but neither would estimate how many.
Mr. Ramstad attended support group meetings with former Representative Phil Crane, Republican of Illinois, who battled alcoholism and says his own recovery was nurtured by the late Senator Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa, who spoke of his own struggle with drinking.
“There is a very powerful recovering community in this town,” said Capt. Ronald Smith, the former chairman of psychiatry at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and a regular at the Tuesday dinners. A recovering addict, he has treated many senators and congressmen and leads the support group attended by Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Ramstad and Mr. Cleland.
It is unclear, Captain Smith says, whether addiction is more common among politicians, but alcohol does tend to pervade political life, with its cocktail party fund-raisers, endless dinners and constant travel. Ann Richards, the former Texas governor who was buried Monday, used to visit prison inmates and say, “My name’s Ann, and I’m an alcoholic.”
Mr. Ramstad makes repeated mention of “July 31, 1981,” the day he awoke from an alcohol-induced blackout in a Sioux Falls, S.D., jail after creating a disturbance at a hotel coffee shop. He had just finished his first term as a Minnesota state senator. “If I had not wound up in that jail cell, I would not have sought treatment,” Mr. Ramstad said. “I would probably be dead today.”
Mr. Kennedy has endured several public battles with mental illness. He was treated for cocaine addiction as a teenager, suffered from depression as a young adult, was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder after coming to Congress in 1994 and then became addicted to painkillers. He also was prone to binge drinking, which contributed to a scuffle with an airport security guard and a visit from the Coast Guard after a heated argument with a girlfriend aboard a yacht, among other episodes that became public.
The May car crash was the latest embarrassment. The police found Mr. Kennedy disoriented, claiming he was heading to a House vote though Congress was not in session (it was 2:45 a.m.). Mr. Kennedy, who had been driving without headlights before swerving into a police barrier, blamed a mix of prescription medications for the accident.
Both men describe their signature humiliations — Mr. Kennedy’s accident and Mr. Ramstad’s arrest — as “blessings” that spurred them into recovery. “We both totally hit the wall, and it was publicized,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Or the barrier in my case.”
Mr. Ramstad says he has come to “love Patrick like a brother,” although there is more of a paternal tone to his manner when they are together. At one point during the interview, Mr. Ramstad tells him to turn off his hyperactive cellphone. Mr. Kennedy sheepishly obliges. He says he is learning to take instructions from a Republican.