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When Sen. Tammy Duckworth emerged as a serious contender for the Biden presidential ticket, it catapulted her from a rising Illinois force to a national Democratic star. In a political landscape that questions whether women should lead by being tough or being vulnerable, Duckworth proved she’s both. An Iraq War combat pilot severely injured when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, resulting in the amputation of both of her legs, she also spoke openly about enduring a miscarriage on the Senate campaign trail. Her withering dismissal of former president Trump as “cadet bone spurs” was one of the few that landed. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Sen. Duckworth expounds on the qualities that distinguish her from many of her colleagues, including her race (she’s the first Thai American elected to congress) and why she considers this year’s Academy Awards particularly important for Asian Americans.
What’s your all-time favorite movie?
I watched Crazy Rich Asians not too long ago and really enjoyed that because it took place in a lot of places where I grew up. It was just nice to see Asian representation on screen in a successful movie that everyone enjoyed, not just other Asians.
You were born in Bangkok and raised in Honolulu. What television shows resonated with you growing up?
Probably M*A*S*H. That was a show my family certainly watched. In fact, I brought DVDs of M*A*S*H when I served in Iraq.
Yeah. And when I was done with a long mission day, that’s what I would watch in my hooch … before passing out.
What do you think Hollywood gets wrong about war?
It’s neither as flippant nor as macho as Hollywood would show it to be. It’s messy and there are some real earnest people serving in uniform — not just people trying to be cowboys.
What’s your favorite book?
I used to have all of my troops read We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, and I thought that was a critically important book for my troops to read when I commanded a Black Hawk unit. I stopped watching the movie partway through because it wasn’t true to the book. It was a good movie and made a lot of money, but for me, the value of the book was many of the lessons that it reinforced about basic infantry tactics in success or failure.
Do you watch the Oscars and if so, are you rooting for anything in particular this year?
Well, obviously, all of the Asian Americans. I’m just thrilled to see Asians on screen who are not the cooks or the maids or the sidekicks. I just got very tired of the whitewashing of a lot of stories and parts that were written for Asians and then played by white actors. So I’m obviously rooting for Everything Everywhere All at Once. Michelle Yeoh is just great so I hope it does well and results in other movies and shows with Asian leads.
What series do you watch?
I’m a mom so I watch a lot of home improvement shows. But the series I watched most recently was probably The Great British Bake Off. It’s so pleasant. I need calm after my work day. I’m waiting desperately for The Mandalorian season 3 to come about because I’m a big Star Wars fan. When my daughters are not in the room, I watch Bridgerton. They’re only 4 and 8 so you can’t watch that with them around.
There’s been so much debate about identity politics and its role in defining our political discourse. What’s your take?
I wasn’t a mom when I was first elected to Congress, but I thought I was pretty progressive. Then I became a mom and I was traveling back and forth from Chicago to D.C. twice a week trying to express breastmilk to feed my baby and I was told, “Oh you want to pump breast milk, go do it in the handicap stall of the bathroom,” or worse, “Go plug your breast pump in at that outlet where everyone else is charging their cell phone.” So I passed legislation called the FAM Act (Friendly Airports for Mothers) which now means every airport in America has to have a lactation room. And I’m really proud that I wrote that law which I would never have had if I had not been a mom. I also wrote legislation to force airlines to report how many times they break medical-assisted devices because about every third time I get on an airplane some part of my wheelchair gets broken. Before I used a wheelchair it never occurred to me. So yeah, identity is important. Identity does matter. Lived experience matters. You have to look at it not as something that puts us in categories but that makes life better for all of us. So it’s important to have greater diversity and sometimes you’ve got to be conscious of that diversity which is why I fought so hard to have an Asian American nominated as a cabinet secretary. It’s important for the rest of the world to look and see and go, “Oh wow, that’s a really diverse cabinet. That’s America.”
West Wing or House of Cards?
I like West Wing because it’s my idealized version of what politics would be. I got to say, though, there’s been a lot of House of Cards moments.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Keli Goff is the Emmy-nominated producer of the documentary Reversing Roe. In addition to a long career covering politics, she has served as a writer for Mayor of Kingstown, And Just Like That and Black Lightning.
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