Kerry the Lifesaver, Part Two

Posted February 3, 2004 at 6:55pm

It turns out there’s another Republican who is coming forward to say that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) saved his life, but this rescue mission occurred in a corridor of the Capitol — not the jungles of Vietnam.

The incident dates back to 1988, when then-Sen. Jacob “Chic” Hecht (R-Nev.) rushed out of a GOP Conference luncheon gasping for air because he was choking on a slice of apple. Kerry happened to walk off a nearby elevator and hurriedly performed the Heimlich maneuver.

“He sized it up in a split second and saved my life,” the 75-year-old former Senator recalled in a telephone interview this week.

“Every year at Christmas my wife and I call John Kerry and thank him for saving my life,” Hecht added. “My wife of 45 years gets very emotional. He seems very happy that we remember him every year.”

In an interview, Gail Hecht said of the couple’s annual calls to Kerry: “He just makes light of it like it was nothing. I say, ‘I owe you my life for saving my husband — what more can someone say?’”

And like Jim Rassmann, the Republican from Oregon who contacted Kerry’s campaign office last month to reveal that the candidate had saved his life during the conflict in Vietnam, the former Nevada Senator said he would be glad to put his partisan leanings aside to appear at the side of the Democratic frontrunner.

“I’m sure if I was asked, I would,” said Hecht, who revealed that his wife is planning on her own to attend a campaign event in California and their two daughters have already been working to elect Kerry. “My whole family is very sensitive and very appreciative of what he did.”

Hecht said that he and his wife were on a long vacation to Australia and New Zealand around the time of the Iowa caucuses and had very little access to news reports, so they were not aware of Rassmann’s decision to fly into Des Moines last month and appear with Kerry at an emotional campaign event.

Rassmann, a former Green Beret, had been traveling on the Bay Hap River behind Navy Lt. Kerry’s boat in 1969 when they both faced an ambush. Rassmann’s boat was blown out of the water and a wounded Kerry turned his own boat around to rescue his comrade.

After being informed of the story by a reporter, Hecht felt an instant kinship with the Oregonian. “Of course I do,” said Hecht, who is still more amazed by Kerry’s actions in the Capitol.

“When someone is drowning, it’s obvious,” Hecht said. “But in my case, 99 out of 100 would have thought it was a heart attack. Someone else who is not as sharp as him would have laid me down and I’d be dead. But he just immediately figured it out.”

After finishing a round of golf on Tuesday afternoon, the retired Hecht delighted in recounting what he calls “the number one story of my life.”

On July 12, 1988, Hecht had been digging into his lunch of fruit salad and cottage cheese at the GOP’s weekly policy lunch when he suddenly felt a piece of apple lodge in his throat.

“It’s the worst feeling,” recalled Hecht, noting that he could not breathe or talk so it was difficult to communicate the problem to his GOP colleagues. He decided the solution was to force himself to vomit and thus rushed into the hallway for some privacy.

That didn’t work, and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) tried in vain to help by slapping Hecht on the back. Kerry suddenly emerged from an elevator and sprung into action as he happened upon a hunched-over Hecht.

Kerry tried the Heimlich maneuver four separate times until the windpipe of Hecht, who was now blue in the face, was finally cleared. “He said later, ‘When I grabbed you, you had passed out,’” Hecht noted.

Hecht still needed the help of a team of Capitol physicians, who were unable to remove the apple for some time. The Senator was left with a smashed rib and a sore throat that could not handle solid food for several days, but he realized that it was nothing compared to what could have happened.

“It became an international story at the time, and Dr. Heimlich called me and said, ‘You had 30 seconds. If you had not been saved, you would be a vegetable.’”

There was a remarkable bit of irony to the story, centering on the fact that Kerry was serving as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that election cycle. Hecht, who had been elected in 1982, was facing his first re-election bid and was one of Kerry’s top targets.

“You know, that says something about America,” Hecht said immediately after the incident, according to news reports. “That’s the difference between America and another country. He’s targeted me as No. 1, yet he saved my life. That’s the story of America.”

Hecht did end up losing to Democrat Richard Bryan, who wound up serving two terms in the Senate. Hecht landed a terrific consolation prize: serving as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas in the first Bush administration.

And Hecht is certainly not bitter about the political work of the former DSCC chairman, which is why he and his wife have kept up the annual tradition of calling Kerry’s office around Christmas and getting his personal assistant to track the Senator down regardless of where he is in the world.

“He says, ‘It’s one of the best calls I get every year. I look forward to it,’” Hecht noted.

That call was particularly poignant this past Dec. 23, when the couple tracked an exhausted Kerry down at his Sun Valley, Idaho, vacation home.

Kerry lamented that there would not be any time for skiing during the holidays, noting that he would only be at the vacation home for a total of about 24 hours and would spend most of that time catching up on sleep. Rather than rush the couple off the phone, however, the Senator proceeded to spend 30 minutes discussing his campaign — which was still struggling at the time.

“He said, ‘It’s going to turn for me,’” Hecht recalled Kerry saying. “And he laid it out, and what he laid out is happening.”

So does Kerry have this conservative Republican’s vote? Hecht laughed heartily and then there was a long pause.

“Only the good Lord and myself will know,” he finally said.

There was much less hesitation from Gail Hecht when asked whether she will cast a ballot for the Democrat. “How could I not?” she said. “He’s someone very special in our lives. There are some times that you make exceptions.”