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. 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.
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.
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.
PLAN A: FLYING HELICOPTERS
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. 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.
But while in school, Duckworth joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. 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 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 shuttling people and supplies, with a stop at a base in Baghdad to acquire Christmas ornaments.
A colleague, Dan Milberg, requested 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.
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 and hallucinations from morphine.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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, just shy of his own deployment.
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. Duckworth decided to run again, in 2012.
Duckworth’s years in Congress since — four in the House, nearly four in the Senate — have done little to eclipse the central facts of her biography. 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.
But colleagues praise Duckworth as a forceful advocate for veterans and people with disabilities. Trump has signed into law legislation that Duckworth pushed involving veteran entrepreneurship and expanded access to lactation rooms in airports.