Part of the Election 2016 Special Report
While we’re preoccupied with the final days of the Clinton-Trump grudge match, there’s a U.S. Senate race in Illinois that recently caught my attention. It could end up being one of the few contests that swings the Senate to Democratic control. But what really interests me is not who wins or loses, but how the two candidates clawed their way back from considerable physical challenges.
Democratic challenger Rep. Tammy Duckworth, 48, lost both her legs in 2004 when, as a member of the Illinois Army National Guard, her helicopter was shot down over Iraq, making her the first female double amputee of the Iraq War. Incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, 57, suffered a serious stroke in 2012, a year into his first term as the junior Senator from Illinois.
It was when I read the Chicago Tribune endorsement of Duckworth a few days ago that my own experience came rushing back. The editorial began with Kirk’s 2013 climb up the steps of the U.S. Capitol that marked his official comeback from a stroke that required a craniotomy to relieve pressure on his brain.
Compared to Kirk’s stroke, my story pales. But I’m sensitized to how the word “stroke” can label someone as somehow “less than a full person.”
His Stroke Story Hits Close to Home
It happened in 2000, when I was senior producer of Nightline at ABC News. Because of a birth defect, an extra vertebral artery in my neck dissected, releasing a blood clot that temporarily affected my gait, speech and ability to swallow. My neurologist promised it was a one-time occurrence. And the great folks at Johns Hopkins Hospital aggressively put me through my speech and physical therapy paces.
While a stroke by no means disqualifies anyone from public office, we cannot tiptoe around the issue of Kirk's recovery and readiness.
— Chicago Tribune editorial board
Amazingly, within three months — far sooner than anyone anticipated — I was fully recovered and back to work, not only logging crazy hours on Nightline and later at NPR, but for a time anchoring NPR’s hourly newscasts.
Even today, 16 years later, well-meaning people who haven’t seen me for a while ask about my health. And even though my stroke and its effects are long gone, not a day goes by when I don’t think how lucky I am.
Questioning Kirk’s Health
Kirk was not as fortunate. He’s still on the road to recovery, but waging a valiant battle to get re-elected. The Tribune editorial gave me pause. In essence, the paper reasoned that Kirk was no longer up to the task of being a U.S. Senator because of the stroke and his physical limitations.
“While a stroke by no means disqualifies anyone from public office, we cannot tiptoe around the issue of Kirk’s recovery and readiness. His health is a fundamental component of this race,” it said.
Shortly after the editorial was published, Susan Danzig, a writer/teacher/activist and dyed-in-the wool Democrat (“I grew up in Brooklyn and live in Chicago. I didn’t know there was another party”) sent out this tweet: “Chi Tribune offers blunt reason for not endorsing Sen. Mark Kirk: his stroke. I’m voting for Tammy [Duckworth] but this is wrong.”
When I reached Danzig, she described herself as an “issues voter.” She said she couldn’t understand why if Duckworth is missing two legs and can do the job, Kirk, recovering from a stroke and whose doctor attests to his full cognitive functions, should be judged on the stroke and not on the issues.
A Talk with the Editor
So I e-mailed Tribune editorial page editor John McCormick to see if he would talk about why the endorsement seemed to be framed around Kirk’s stroke. And I told him in the spirit of full disclosure that I suffered a stroke in 2000 from which I quickly and fully recovered.
In response, McCormick called me and assured me that no one on the editorial board was “gunning” for Mark Kirk. In fact, he mentioned the Tribune has endorsed him six previous times, and acknowledged that Kirk’s voting record, as a moderate Republican, is closer to the Tribune’s editorial page’s views than Duckworth’s.
So when I was ready to question why the editorial board was so stroke-centric and not as performance- or issue-oriented in describing Kirk, McCormick stopped me.
A Surprising Revelation
“I don’t want to play coy with you,” McCormick said. “Your stroke was three years before mine and we walked very similar paths.”
He then went on to describe the general reporting process that led them to the conclusion that their apprehensions about Kirk’s abilities (based in part on his performance at the Tribune editorial meeting with Kirk and Duckworth) were, as the editorial says, reinforced by several sources who spoke confidentially about what they, too, have observed. (You can see the editorial meeting video here.)
Knowing the Tribune editorial shop leans Republican, that Kirk had been endorsed six previous times and that McCormick, of all people, has been personally sensitized about reentering the workplace after stroke, I was assuaged that this was not the insensitive editorial I originally thought.
But Kirk fired back, writing in his own op-ed piece in the Tribune this week that “instead of judging me for the work I’ve done in the Senate, the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board sought to “sucker punch” me by judging me on my health…. I’ll be the first to admit I cannot run as fast, jump as high or swim as quick as I used to… and that’s all we stroke survivors can hope for.”
More Than a Medical Condition
My former Nightline colleague Leroy Sievers didn’t like the word “survivor.” Sievers wrote a daily blog on NPR about his battle with cancer, right up until his death. You could substitute the word “stroke” for “cancer” in his blog entry from January 2007: “Five years ago, when I first had cancer and thought it was gone forever, I never used the term ‘survivor.’ I had survived, so it was technically correct, but I felt that was not how I wanted to define myself. Cancer was not my identity. I was more than that.”
Without really knowing them, I can speculate that Mark Kirk, John McCormick or any of us in the stroke club would always want to be defined by what we do, how we treat people and not by the illness we once or still have. Maybe Susan Danzig, who does volunteer work for people with disabilities, has it right: “We concentrate on their abilities, not their disabilities.”