CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Archetypical politician back stories have become so cliche that political conventions seem like a parade of candidates trying to one-up each other’s unlikely immigrant success, hardscrabble upbringing or heroic service origin stories. They’re often inspiring, if sometimes exaggerated. But rarely can a candidate claim all at once.
The back story that Tammy Duckworth, the Democrat running against Tea Party Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., told tonight stands above the rest — on a pair of prosthetic legs. Duckworth, whom Salon interviewed a few months ago when she was at a center of a national firestorm after Walsh insulted her military service, has a story that could hardly be written by a central casting.
She is the daughter of a Marine and a Thai-Chinese immigrant, and her family fell on hard times. “At 15, I was the only one with a job — after school, for minimum wage. Thank God for the food stamps, public education and Pell grants that helped me finish high school and college,” she said tonight, a casual slight, perhaps at programs that would be slashed by vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s budget. Later, she said, she joined the Army and became an assault helicopter pilot, becoming one of the first Army women to fly combat missions in Iraq.
“I was co-piloting my Black Hawk north of Baghdad when we started taking enemy fire. A rocket-propelled grenade hit our helicopter, exploding in my lap, ripping off one leg, crushing the other and tearing my right arm apart. But I kept trying to fly until I passed out. In that moment, my survival and the survival of my entire crew depended on all of us pulling together. And even though they were wounded themselves and insurgents were nearby, they refused to leave a fallen comrade behind. Their heroism is why I’m alive today,” Duckworth said. She finished the speech by taking a long, halting walk across the stage with her prosthetics fully visible, leaning on a cane, as she exited the stage to huge cheers.
The story is incredible and speaks for itself, but it would help if she could speak for herself a bit better. Despite the moving content, her delivery felt wooden or cold at times, impeding her ability to fully connect with the laudatory crowd, as did her habit of speaking over applause, even standing ovations.
Duckworth spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention as well. She also ran for a congressional seat in Illinois in 2006, a banner year for Democrats, and lost. She told Salon that a lot has changed since then (she may be right) and her opponent is doing himself no favors. But she would be served by being a better messenger for herself.