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Tammy Duckworth Is Nothing and Everything Like Joe Biden

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) questions Mark Esper during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be the next Secretary of Defense, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 16, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, like the man she might serve as vice president, prizes loyalty in her ranks and occasional mischief in her workplace.

So when a top communications aide prepared to defect last year to the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg, Duckworth recognized an opportunity. She recorded a faux media interview trashing Buttigieg for hiring her staff away, recruiting an intern to pose as a journalist on the tape. The file was sent to the departing aide, Sean Savett, who called the Buttigieg team in a panic.

Soon, Savett was summoned to the Illinois senator’s office, where she fumed theatrically, stalling as other staff members filed in quietly for the reveal: It was all a ruse. Duckworth handed him a parting gift — a Smirnoff Ice, the centerpiece of a viral drinking game known as “icing” — and gave a final senatorial directive: “Get down on one knee and chug.”

A year later, Duckworth is the one thinking about a new job and submitting to the attendant rituals. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is vetting her to be his running mate, and many of his allies see the freshman senator as a model contrast to President Donald Trump: a death-cheating, double-amputee Iraq War veteran whose life story — whose very appearance, whooshing by wheelchair through the Capitol — defines the decency and service that the president’s opponents have found lacking in this White House.

There are more accomplished legislators than Duckworth under consideration. There are more prolific policy thinkers and more electric campaigners.

But in bearing and biography, Duckworth, 52, is almost certainly the Biden-est choice — the would-be lieutenant who has, despite their disparate backgrounds, carved out a public life most evocative of his own. Although both are known as reliable Democrats whose more moderate instincts can sometimes disappoint progressives, they are also the kinds of politicians whose politics can feel beside the point to many voters.

Like Biden, who entered the national consciousness as a 30-year-old senator-elect left to mourn his wife and daughter, Duckworth has forged a political identity around trauma and personal resilience, her status as a wounded warrior shadowing every inch of her professional arc since her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down outside Baghdad in 2004.

In an interview, Duckworth suggested the two share a perspective that can flow only from confronting unfathomable pain, from sitting with loss and slogging through Plan B anyway.

“Why did some troops come home from a trauma and survive and thrive? And why do some come home and kill themselves?” Duckworth asked, without answering. “You could almost say that I’m a success story of someone who survived a trauma. But it wasn’t easy. And I think that’s what Vice President Biden and I have in common. We’ve been able to face the demons. We’ve been able to face the fear, the doubts and all of that, and we’re still here. But we both know that it’s not easy.”

Less weighty parallels, in style and political substance, likewise imply an intuitive partnership.

Like Biden — whose decades of verbal blunders have not kept him from six Senate terms, the vice presidency and the Democratic presidential nomination — Duckworth can at times sound less than smooth at a microphone but has rarely paid much of a penalty for it. Past rivals said this owes, in part, to the campaign perils of insulting someone so visibly marked as a survivor of war. Most recently, after Duckworth suggested clumsily that removing monuments of George Washington merited discussion, attacks on her patriotism from conservatives like Tucker Carlson seemed to only boost her reputation among Democrats.

And ideologically, Duckworth would appear closely attuned to Biden. She has spent much of her career positioned to the right of liberal Democrats, retaining some centrist muscle memory from her unsuccessful first congressional race in 2006 — when she pledged fiscal conservatism and punishments for “illegal immigrants” — and occasionally leading Republicans to wonder if they are looking at a kindred soul.

“I had a chance to develop a friendship with Tammy about 15 years ago while we were both out at Walter Reed,” Bob Dole, the former Republican senator and presidential nominee, said in an emailed statement, recalling his time as a patient at the veterans hospital during Duckworth’s stay there. “In hindsight, I wish I had brought up politics. She could have run as a Republican.”

Yet Duckworth’s is a worldview that has long defied easy labeling. She is at once the product of a globe-trotting conservative military family sustained by food stamps in her youth and a soldier who gave her limbs to a war whose wisdom she came to question. She is a woman well acquainted with male-dominated worlds — fellow pilots called her “Mommy Platoon Leader” long before she became the first sitting senator to give birth, at age 50 — and a canny politician whose connections helped guide her to the upper reaches of her party.

Those close to Duckworth still describe her present career as something of a consolation prize. Plan A was flying helicopters, and she did not surrender the vision easily.

Recovering in 2005, Duckworth vowed that “some guy who got lucky one day in Baghdad” would not dictate her future.

Nine years later, concluding her first congressional term, she reconsidered.

“I mean, it did,” she conceded to a reporter. “I’m in politics.”

Plan A: Flying Helicopters

The campus misogynist was enjoying his soapbox. Duckworth wanted to keep it that way.

It was the early 1990s at Northern Illinois University, where Duckworth was pursuing a doctorate in political science, and a traveling evangelist had been lamenting the evils of skirt-wearing women in a public square.

“I came in and said, ‘I wish somebody would shut that guy up,’” recalled Patricia Henry, one of Duckworth’s professors. “She said, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that.’”

Friends said such earnest alarm over would-be speech infringement reflects Duckworth’s itinerant youth across Southeast Asia, which often exposed her to repressive governments and introduced her to the tenets of U.S. democracy through the rose-colored lens of a child expat.

Born in Bangkok to a white American veteran father and a Thai mother of Chinese descent, Duckworth did not learn English until she was 8. (Some Democrats suspect that the president and his allies would make an issue of her birthplace if Biden chooses her, recalling Trump questioning the presidential eligibility of Sen. Ted Cruz, another U.S. citizen born outside the country, when the two competed for the Republican nomination in 2016.)

Some of Duckworth’s earliest memories involve the Khmer Rouge seizing control of Cambodia, where her father was working for the United Nations. She remembers watching bombs go off in Phnom Penh from their rooftop. Her upbringing, she said, gave her “an idealized version of America.”

More than that, these seminomadic years seemed to enforce a certain comfort level with short-notice upheaval.

“There’s a built-in flexibility with children who’ve grown up as expats,” said Alison Parsons, a close friend who attended school with Duckworth in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Bangkok. “You have to be able to reinvent yourself. I’m not talking about flip-flopping, but you have to be able to make friends, to make connections on a dime.”

Facing financial distress, Duckworth’s father moved the family to Hawaii in her teens, finding space in a down-market hotel and leaning on public assistance.

Imagining a life in the foreign service, she graduated from the University of Hawaii before moving to the mainland for an international affairs program at George Washington University. She held up Madeleine Albright as a role model.

But while in school, Duckworth joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, partly because she noticed that many of her friends had military backgrounds.

She found herself taken with the ostensible meritocracy, she said, that allowed a “little Asian girl” to rise so long as she could shoot straight, even as one fellow cadet, Bryan Bowlsbey, tested her nerves.

“He made a comment that I thought was derogatory about the role of women in the Army,” she told C-SPAN years later. “But he came over and apologized very nicely and then helped me clean my M16.”

They have been married since 1993. Bowlsbey now works as an information technology consultant.

Although Duckworth moved to Illinois to pursue a doctorate, she went through flight school and entered the Illinois National Guard in 1996.

Before her deployment eight years later, Duckworth had been working at Rotary International, helping to manage offices in its Asia-Pacific region. When the Guard sought out commissioned officers for a mission to Iraq, she volunteered, arriving in March 2004. (Duckworth has said she always believed the Bush administration “started this war for themselves,” but as a soldier, “you keep your personal opinions to yourself.”)

Duckworth spent much of her time there inside an operations center, coordinating missions. She flew herself about twice a week.

Her last waking day in Iraq, Nov. 12, 2004, began unremarkably. Duckworth’s crew was conducting “taxi service,” in her telling: shuttling people and supplies, with a stop at a base in Baghdad to acquire Christmas ornaments.

She had been at the controls all day. A colleague, Dan Milberg, playfully called her a “stick pig,” requesting to take the lead on a final flight. She obliged.

They were about 10 minutes from their destination when an explosion scorched through the right side of the cockpit, where Duckworth sat.

A rocket-propelled grenade. A fireball blast at her lower body.

She does not remember feeling pain immediately. She does remember the black smoke — and an aircraft suddenly impervious to her prompts. By this point, Duckworth learned later, she had no feet.

Milberg was able to land on a plot of open woods. Duckworth, on the cusp of losing consciousness, has retained a snapshot from the haze of her rescue: a cluster of tall grass poking through the base of the Black Hawk. She wondered how it had gotten there.

Plan B: Politics

Duckworth awoke more than a week later at Walter Reed. Her legs were gone.

The next days passed in a whir of continuous trauma: surgeries, hallucinations from morphine, flashes of guilt that she had somehow crashed herself.

Duckworth’s mother and her husband took turns counting to 60 at her side, guiding her from one minute to the next. And soon, there was another patient on the hospital grounds: Her father, who had suffered a heart attack in Hawaii shortly before his daughter’s injuries, had another after traveling to see her. He died a few weeks after Christmas.

Around the same time, a new mentor figure entered Duckworth’s life. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had been looking for local veterans to invite to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. Duckworth attended with an IV drip running beneath her clothes.

The senator asked her to stay in touch. “I gave her my personal cellphone number,” he remembered, “which she greatly abused by calling me — I say that in jest, of course — by calling me incessantly to do constituent work for all of her fellow vets at Walter Reed.”

The rehab process was painful and often slow-going. Her left leg was amputated below the knee. Her right was an inches-long stump that Duckworth had asked doctors to leave, despite the complications of fitting a prosthetic to it, because she believed it would help her fly again.

It was not until later that year, she said, that a call from Durbin made her consider an alternate path. There was a congressional seat coming open in the Chicago suburbs with the retirement of a long-tenured Republican, Henry Hyde.

“I said, ‘Tammy, would you ever consider running?’” Durbin recalled. “She didn’t say no.”

By the summer, with a full return to combat looking remote, Duckworth had been casting about for her next “mission,” she said. A campaign seemed as good an option as any.

The transition was not frictionless. Like many first-time candidates, Duckworth could be tempted to act as her own campaign manager, former advisers said, seeking to impose military efficiency on overlong phone calls. Unlike many first-time candidates, she was still learning to walk in her new legs.

One focus group of Democratic primary voters bristled when Duckworth wore a skirt, saying that the prominence of her prosthetics felt like the calculating work of operatives.

“There was a big negative reaction,” said John Kupper, an adviser to the campaign. “They thought they were being manipulated.” (Duckworth has said she prefers skirts because they make bathroom visits less logistically complicated.)

Her military background was more of an asset in the general election for a right-leaning district. She remarked to voters that she had been shot down “18 months after the mission was accomplished,” nodding at the Bush administration’s infamous premature victory lap.

She patiently identified herself in calls to would-be donors, who often interrupted her health care pitch with questions about her life.

“Yes,” she would tell them, “I’m the one who was injured.”

Duckworth would ultimately lose, narrowly, to Peter Roskam, a local Republican legislator. But the contest drew national attention and enshrined Duckworth as a potential star in the party.

Rod Blagojevich, the not-yet-jailed governor of Illinois, appointed her to lead the state’s veterans department. Her name was floated as a possible Senate replacement as Barack Obama chased the presidency.

And at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, Duckworth was invited to speak in prime time on the night Biden accepted the vice presidential nomination. She joined the Biden family backstage beforehand, convening “soldier to soldier” with Beau Biden, she recalled, just shy of his own deployment.

“It was a family moment,” she said, “and they allowed me to join.”

The speech seemed to erase any doubt that Duckworth was a politician now — or, at least, that she would be again before long. After joining the Obama administration in 2009 as an assistant secretary for Veterans Affairs, she took notice as a favorable district redrawing supplied a cleaner shot at a House seat.

When Duckworth decided to run again, in 2012, she was the one picking up the phone.

“There are some candidates you have to recruit,” said Steve Israel, then the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “She called me.”

The Plan From Here on Out

Duckworth’s years in Congress since then — four in the House, nearly four in the Senate — have done little to eclipse the central facts of her biography.

Perhaps this was inevitable. Major policy feats can be elusive in the minority party. Voters who know much about Duckworth nationally seem likelier to recall her path to Washington than her work while there. Since defeating Mark Kirk, the incumbent Republican senator, in 2016, she has probably received the most attention for another personal turn: bringing her newborn to a Senate vote, a first for the chamber.

Colleagues praise Duckworth as a forceful advocate for veterans and people with disabilities but sometimes struggle to name her signature legislative triumphs.

She is not considered a foremost national voice in some policy areas of particular significance in this moment, like policing and the economy — a potential weakness in her case to be vice president.

Duckworth has generally opposed the legislative priorities and high-profile nominations of this White House, with a handful of exceptions, including a vote supporting Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, which a majority of Democrats opposed, and another for John Kelly as homeland security secretary.

Trump has signed into law legislation that Duckworth pushed involving veteran entrepreneurship and expanded access to lactation rooms in airports. Her office is quick to cite an analysis last year identifying her as the most effective freshman Democratic senator.

Some peers said she has been especially valuable during private sessions on foreign policy. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and a fellow member of the Armed Services Committee, recalled Duckworth’s lacerating questions recently at a classified briefing about intelligence community assessments of apparent Russian bounties on U.S. troops.

“She was pummeling them,” Blumenthal said.

Among staff, Duckworth can be more puckish, known to celebrate “Talk Like a Pirate Day” and razz communications aides by suggesting that she has just uttered something damaging to congressional reporters: “Don’t really know what I said,” she has bluffed upon returning to the office. “You might want to track them down.”

It is true, though, that Duckworth can seem less practiced than some other senators when speaking to the press, mixing self-deprecation with political self-assessments that might dishearten the left.

In the interview, Duckworth by turns explained why the vetting process had been uncomplicated (“I was a soldier for 23 years, and I don’t have a lot of money”); said she remained a fiscal conservative (with an aside about wasteful defense contracts); and appeared to acknowledge that her coordinates on the ideological spectrum were difficult to track.

“People talk to me, and they’re like, ‘So, are you lefty, or are you ultraconservative and a hawk?’” she said. “I’m like, ‘I’m just about the strength of America.’”

Duckworth is not the sort of senator who had been discussed as an instant presidential hopeful, like Kamala Harris, another freshman. Many Democrats believe that vice presidential contenders with more experience in a national race, like Harris or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would be wiser picks.

Yet in recent weeks, Duckworth said, she has been compelled to consider a life one septuagenarian’s heartbeat away from the presidency — and whether she might be ready for the highest promotion, if required.

She defaulted to military imagery (“Every soldier is taught to be able to pick up the rifle of a fallen comrade in front of them”) and ticked through her credentials, sounding for the first time like a job applicant: Senate, House, VA, doctorate, speaker of “a bunch of languages.”

And then Duckworth cut herself off, abandoning the hypothetical with a promise: “I’m going to do everything I can to keep Joe Biden as healthy as he can possibly be.”

She let a long laugh fly, imagining her place in the command.

“I’ll be the one like, ‘Here, here, take your vitamins,’” she said. “‘Let’s go work out together.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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