CHICAGO — In a prime-time speech overlooking the U.S. Capitol, Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth seized her high-profile moment at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday by launching an offensive against President Donald Trump for politicizing the military and displaying failed leadership abroad.
The double amputee and Purple Heart recipient labeled Trump as America’s “coward in chief,” painting him as selfish and weak while portraying Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as a man of decency and integrity.
Duckworth said Biden “knows the fear military families live with because he’s felt that dread of never knowing if your deployed loved one is safe” after his late son, Beau, deployed to Iraq.
“That’s the kind of leader our service members deserve: one who understands the risks they face and who would actually protect them by doing his job as commander in chief,” Duckworth said. “Instead, they have a coward-in-chief who won’t stand up to Vladimir Putin, read his daily intelligence briefings or even publicly admonish adversaries for reportedly putting bounties on our troops’ heads.”
It’s a familiar line of attack for Duckworth, who has become a top ally of Biden on matters of the armed forces and veterans, and whose national profile has been elevated substantially in recent weeks as she was among the finalists he considered as his vice presidential running mate.
An Iraq War veteran, Duckworth has been an avid Trump critic, once calling the president a “five-deferment draft dodger” and frequently calling him “Cadet Bone Spurs” because he received a deferment from the military draft during the Vietnam War for bone spurs in his heels. He received four college deferments as well.
Duckworth holds the honorary title as a co-chair of this year’s convention and was making her fourth consecutive convention appearance, a streak that began in 2008, when she introduced Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015.
Her speech aired during the convention’s final hour, carried by all the national television networks and arguably the most prime speaking slot given to any of the other VP contenders who finished behind California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also gave DNC addresses.
Throughout the vice presidential vetting process, Duckworth noted she had a unique ability to call out Trump on the military and foreign affairs because she had served. As such, her speech focused entirely on those issues, while touching on her recovery from losing both of her legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade.
In doing so, she emphasized that “military service doesn’t just take sacrifice from those in uniform — it’s required from their families too.”
“My husband, Bryan, was the one who rushed to Walter Reed after I was wounded in Iraq. He was the one holding my hand, waiting for me to wake up. When I finally did, he was my rock, getting me through those hours, weeks, months of unspeakable pain and unending surgeries. He was my anchor,” Duckworth said of her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, who served as a major in the Army National Guard.
Duckworth said Biden, too, understands the sacrifices of military families “because he’s made them himself,” before comparing his values with Trump’s tenure.
“As president, Joe Biden would never let tyrants manipulate him like a puppet. He would never pervert our military to stroke his own ego. He would never turn his back on our troops or threaten them against Americans peacefully exercising their constitutional rights,” she said. “Joe Biden would stand up for what’s right, stand tall for our troops and stand strong against our enemies.
“Because unlike Trump, Joe Biden has common decency. He has common sense. He can command from both experience and from strength.”
The freshman senator from Hoffman Estates was in the mix to become Biden’s running mate until the very end, with Biden interviewing her over the final weekend before he made a decision. Duckworth, 52, gave one of “two standout interviews” during the search process along with Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, The New York Times reported earlier this month.
Duckworth was considered the most likely of the nearly dozen finalists “to be a smashing electoral success,” but Biden’s legal team worried that the fact she was born in Thailand to an American father and a Thai mother would lead Republicans to challenge her eligibility to serve as vice president in court, The Times reported. The campaign believed the fact that Duckworth’s father was an American citizen meant she would meet the requirement of being native born, but worried the GOP would shop for a judge who initially might rule otherwise, muddying the political waters, according to multiple reports.
Indeed, Trump supporters and Republicans have sought to make it a political issue with Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants who was born in California, much like Trump himself supported the false conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Trump also raised the issue during the 2016 GOP primary with Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who like Duckworth was born abroad in Canada, to a U.S. citizen.
During the veepstakes, Duckworth’s improbable personal story became more widely known, rising from selling flowers on a Hawaiian roadside amid poverty and nearly dying in combat in Iraq to joining one of the nation’s most exclusive bodies — the U.S. Senate. It’s a story Duckworth plans to tell in a yet-to-be-released autobiography, the Chicago Tribune first reported earlier this year.
“I couldn’t think of anything that demonstrated more courage than you in that helicopter,” Biden told Duckworth at a fundraiser earlier this year. “No one has more courage or compassion than you.”
During a brief virtual speech to the Illinois delegation to the DNC earlier this week, Duckworth described the vice presidential selection process as “tough, but such an educational experience.” The senator said she gained a new appreciation for how Biden’s loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident mere weeks before he took office in the Senate shaped his worldview, including how he commuted daily from Delaware to Washington.
“I got to really understand Joe Biden’s platform and what he’s trying to do,” she said. “I always knew Joe was empathetic and resilient and was somebody who was going to fight for working families because he gets us, but I got to appreciate that he really understood this firsthand because he was a single dad during a difficult time. He understood what it meant to work an entire long day, and then have to commute for hours to get home so you could be there to tuck his kids into bed.”
As Duckworth was under consideration for the running mate spot, she frequently appeared on cable news shows, attacking Trump for decisions such as using the military to clear peaceful protesters from a Washington, D.C., park and authorizing a missile strike at a Baghdad airport that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
She finished on a similar note Thursday night in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
“Donald Trump doesn’t deserve to call himself commander in chief for another four minutes, let alone another four years,” Duckworth declared. “Our troops deserve better. Our country deserves better.”
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