A refusal to die in the darkness


For six years, until 1991, Victor L. Crawford lobbied to protect the right to smoke. And he was good at it.

Tall, debonair, with a trial attorney's flair for language, Mr. Crawford says flatly that he "did it for the money." A former Maryland state senator who used to smoke 2 1/2 packs a day, he says he was paid well to fight bills that would limit smoking.

"Health Nazis," he glibly labeled the groups arrayed against the tobacco interests. "Yeah, yeah," he says with a dismissive wave. "I argued freedom of choice and all that. You have the right to smoke if youwant to. Yeah, I said it all."

He pauses. "I did a lot of damage."

He is sitting in a coffee shop at Johns Hopkins Hospital, fresh from the bustling oncology center, where his fellow patients await their round of chemotherapy, their dose of radiation. Some are bald from the drugs. Some sit weakly in wheelchairs. Some appear robust, their looks belying the illness within.

Now, Victor Crawford says, he's lobbying on behalf of those patients, trying to make up for the years he spent in the pay of thetobacco interests.

Last month, he stunned a legislative committee in Annapolis by standing to testify in favor of new regulations that would ban most smoking in Maryland workplaces.

"I know what [tobacco] is," he told the committee. "And it is a killer."

In September, doctors in Washington examined Mr. Crawford and said they were very sorry. Three weeks, they said. Three months if he was lucky. They'd done all they could for his cancer, a marauder that had charged from his throat to his pelvic bones and now was in his lungs and liver.

Today, he is in an experimental chemotherapy program at Hopkins, where he has been taking the drug taxol. The CAT scans no longer find tumors in his lungs and liver. But the drug has caused such numbness in his hands and feet that he fears more treatment will leave him in a wheelchair.

Last week, he and his doctors decided to forgo the prescribed 12th round of treatment. He says the prognosis is "good." He has "months, maybe a year, maybe years," his doctors tell him.

And in the time he has left, Mr.Crawford, 62, is trying to undo some of the damage he believes he did as a smooth, successful lobbyist.

"Unless you've been through it, you don't know what it's like to lie in a hospital bed for eight days with lead shields around you, and nobody can visit you -- not even the nurses -- for more than five minutes at a time because they've put a radioactive implant in your neck.

"You look at the muscles in your legs, that you were so proud of, reduced to this" -- he brings the fingers of both hands together to form a narrow circle -- "because of atrophy.

"Nobody should go through what I've gone through," he says. "Even if you've done it to yourself."

Good money'

Victor Crawford spent 16 years in the Maryland legislature, representing Montgomery County as a delegate and later as a senator until he retired in 1982. He enjoyed the Annapolis power brokering.

"He was a wheeler-dealer who just threw himself into the Annapolis scene and just put himself at the center of everything," says Montgomery state Senator Howard A. Denis, a Republican.

"I remember someone describing Victor as the closest thing we had to a riverboat gambler: cowboy boots, pinky ring, vest and gold watch," says Montgomery Del. John A. Hurson, a Democrat, who calls Mr. Crawford a mentor.

When he left Annapolis, Mr. Crawford decided to lobby to supplement the income from his Rockville law practice, which focuses on criminal law.

"He was very white-hat," representing good guys such as the Olney Theater, says Linda Crawford, his wife of 12 years. But the white hats generally don't have big lobbying budgets.

"I figured the big money was with the black hats," he says. He was approached by the tobacco industry and he said yes. "Nobody twisted my arm. I knew what I was doing."

He lobbied for the Tobacco Institute and related interests in Montgomery County and at the state level from 1986 to 1991.

"It was good money," he says.

"It wasn't that good," Ms. Crawford says. Later, she estimates that over six years her husband earned $15,000 to $20,000 from the industry. "It looked good at the time," he says.

He did a fine job, fighting to weaken anti-smoking bills. He fought nonsmoking areas in restaurants, bans on workplace smoking, laws against smoking in elevators. If he couldn't defeat the measures, he got them watered down. "We won more than we lost," he says.

He knew all about smoking. He'd taken up cigarettes at 13. Even then, long before the U.S. surgeon general began to crusade against cigarettes and years before he would understand the hell of cancer, Mr. Crawford knew that smoking was bad.

In his late 30s, he gave up cigarettes for cigars and pipes. Three or four years ago, he gave up the pipes.

"I thought I was out of the woods," he says. "We're all in denial. We all think it will happen to the other guy." Then it happened to him.

Pain began shooting along the right side of his neck. In January, 1991, a doctor diagnosed it as an inflamed carotid artery and prescribed steroids, Mr. Crawford says. In December 1991, when the pain persisted, he consulted another doctor, and a biopsy confirmed cancer.

"The doctor said it was right out of a textbook: smoking," Mr. Crawford says.

The treatment included surgery, and the removal of the larynx. "I told the doctor, 'I'm a trial lawyer. If I lose my voice, I may as well give up.' " He was not going into a courtroom holding a machine to his throat so he could be heard.

But a new surgery at Georgetown University Medical Center preservedhis voice box and his deep baritone.

In 1993, doctors found bone cancer in the pelvis. They removed part of the bone, and Mr. Crawford, always "superathletic," Linda Crawford says, was playing racquetball within weeks.

Then, in August, a test found spots on the lungs and liver. And the doctors said they could do no more.

H. Furlong Baldwin, head of Mercantile Bankshares Corp. and chairman of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, heard the grim news and urged Mr. Crawford to come to Hopkins. Since September, he's been dosed with taxol.

For his appointment there last week, Mr. Crawford, the Senate's riverboat gambler, arrived wearing a simple yellow, open-necked shirt. At 6 feet, 2 inches, he used to weigh 221 pounds, "mostly muscle." Now he's at 173 -- he's been lower -- and his trousers are belted in loose gathers at the waist.

He wears a gray-streaked wig so nicely made it's hard to tell if it's his hair or not. He smiles wryly when he's told that. "It's expensive," he mutters out of the side of his mouth.

His eyebrows, a blend of black and gray horse hair, are pasted on -- a trick that a doctor friend showed him with props from a theatrical makeup shop.

His neck surgery took the muscles, nerves, jugular vein and lymphnodes from the left side of his head, where the skin is still leathery but the scar is faint. He has no feeling in his left shoulder. Blue dots are tattooed on his head and neck, imprinted there a couple of years ago so the doctors could precisely direct the radiation into his throat.

Between his law appointments, he calls acquaintances he's heard have been diagnosed with cancer and takes them to lunch to let them talk.

It's a new support system of sorts. His original cancer support group comprised eight men undergoing treatment.

Mr. Crawford is the only one left.

A year ago, he could not have imagined launching his new campaign. He was far too private.

When he decided to give up drinking in 1980, he did it alone. He wouldn't consider Alcoholics Anonymous "because everybody would know."

It was the same with cancer. When he was first diagnosed, he kept his illness from as many people as possible.

But he was haunted by his ties to the tobacco industry -- and had no idea how to exorcise the guilt. "I guessed I deserved it. I made money off it, so I guess now I pay the piper."

Then a friend suggested he talk to Roger Rosenblatt, who was writing a long article on the tobacco industry for the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Crawford agreed to talk anonymously. He was still "in the closet," he says. He didn't want to jeopardize his law practice, and he certainly didn't want pity.

Voice of truth'

But by the time the article appeared in February, Mr. Crawford had agreed to speak openly.

"I made the decision that if you're in the closet, you're going to die in the darkness."

In June, his friend Senator Denis called and asked him to testify in Annapolis before the panel reviewing new workplace limits on smoking. Into a hearing that would bog down in lawyerly debate over regulation technicalities strode Mr. Crawford, with a most personal story.

"You could hear a pin drop," says Senator Denis. "It was the voice of truth. There was no arguing with it."

Delegate Hurson remembers that the former senator looked so weak, while sounding so powerful.

"Even with the destruction it's done to his voice, Victor's delivery is so characteristically him, it all came through. His use of words. It's typical Victor, not to pull punches at all. It was very dramatic because everybody knew he'd been on the other side.

"The greatest thing I saw in that testimony was the personal catharsis, in public," Mr. Hurson says. "He was trying to make amends."

Unofficially, Mr. Crawford says, he's heard that the tobacco industry is annoyed that he is "biting the hand that fed him."

Officially, the Tobacco Institute sounds quite reasonable. "That's certainly Mr. Crawford's right," Tobacco Institute spokeswoman Brennan Dawson says of his new campaign. "People should be allowed to do what they want to do."

Today Mr. Crawford's story will be featured on the CBS program "Sunday Morning."

No hard feelings

"Victor is an absolute hero," Linda Crawford says. "I was madly in love with my husband before this. But after these three years, the courage, the strength he's shown. The intimacy we've developed . . ."

During the time Mr. Crawford was lobbying for the tobacco industry, Ms. Crawford was an executive assistant for health issues to Gov. William Donald Schaefer. She wrote Mr. Schaefer's executive order that banned smoking in state offices.

The Crawfords say they never discussed their different professional opinions on smoking at home.

But that's all in the past. Now, Mr. Crawford wants to enjoy life with his wife for as long as he can. Last weekend, they flew to Santa Fe for the opera, "Tosca" and "The Barber of Seville," and a spa.

He spends his weekdays in court defending his clients. She works in Washington for an association of pharmaceutical manufacturers. His children -- a son, 29, and a daughter, 27, from his first marriage -- stay in touch.

On a family trip to Bermuda, the Crawfords rode their motorbikes on the wrong side of the street. People said they were crazy. "No," Mrs. Crawford laughed, with assurance, "this won't be what does us in."

He says he bears no hard feelings toward the Tobacco Institute. "They're very smart. They're very tough. They're very good at what they do. I admire them for that. I don't admire them for what they sell."

He says he's going to keep talking about smoking. But he doesn't want to be exploited -- "someone you wheel in and wheel out. I've done that myself as a lobbyist, bring in someone in a wheelchair to make your point. I know how the game is played. I don't want people to do that to me. I have too much pride and dignity.

"But I want to give someone some help," Victor Crawford says. "I don't want to die in the darkness."

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