By Albert R. Hunt
WASHINGTON — These days, most dispatches from Washington focus on petty partisanship, posturing, impasses and a political culture that rewards confrontation.
Here's a respite: a story of kindness, comity, generosity reaching across the political divide.
It's about the two senators from Illinois, Dick Durbin, a 30-year veteran of Congress, and Mark Kirk, a freshman. Durbin is the Senate Democratic whip; Kirk represents the bluest, or most Democratic, state of any Republican senator.
Fifteen months ago, at age 52, Kirk suffered a sudden ischemic stroke while in Illinois; it was serious, and he was in a coma for a week. After regaining consciousness, he believed he was in danger of dying and doubted he would return to the Senate. He endured three operations and strenuous rehabilitation to learn to walk and function.
Immediately after the stroke, one of the first visitors to Kirk's stunned Washington office was Durbin.
"It was such a shock," the Democratic lawmaker recalls. "We just wanted to pitch in and help any way we could."
Durbin "came with his chief of staff and told us they would do anything to work with us — legislation, constituent mail — to call anytime we needed him," says Kate Dickens, who runs Kirk's Senate office. "He said, 'I'm your acting senator.' It was very comforting."
Durbin later visited the recovering senator at home, and they had a lengthy one-on-one conversation. Every commitment was fulfilled. Press releases were issued jointly; they co-sponsored legislation and undertook collaborative projects in their state. Their offices worked together closely. The Republican staffers recall that when questions persisted about whether Kirk would return to the Senate, it was Durbin who insisted that he would.
Their collaboration got results. Despite the logjam of judicial appointments, Durbin made sure that a Kirk appointee, John Tharp, was confirmed as a judge on the U.S. District Court in Northern Illinois.
They also worked together on what Kirk calls the "crown jewel" of Illinois appointments: the replacement of the U.S. attorney in Chicago. Patrick Fitzgerald, who resigned from the post last year, indicted and convicted the previous two Illinois governors, a Republican and Democrat. It is, to put it mildly, a politically sensitive post.
Durbin and Kirk, with the help of a bipartisan group of advisers, submitted four names that were acceptable to both senators. The president is expected to make his choice soon.
Their relationship had been cordial before. Durbin was chairman of the campaign of Kirk's 2010 opponent. After the election, they agreed to wipe the slate clean.
The trauma of the stroke deepened their professional and personal bonds, both men said in interviews. "We now have a close relationship, which I value very much," Durbin says.
"We put our state ahead of party," Kirk says.
Displays of personal compassion in politics aren't entirely uncommon. Vice President Joe Biden has written about the kindness he was shown by some colleagues when, shortly after he was elected to the Senate, his wife and young child were killed in an automobile accident. In 2003, when the son of Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon committed suicide, one of the first people to come to his office to console him and talk about loss was Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy.
Yet with comity so rare in Washington these days, the Durbin-Kirk experience is noteworthy. There were others who rose to support the afflicted senator.
The lawmakers Kirk cites include his "best friend" in the Senate, Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican. Kirk appreciates the special support from Durbin because they're from the same state and because, as a party leader, the Democrat has clout.
Durbin, 68, is one of the few confidants of President Barack Obama in Congress and one of the most liberal lawmakers, a staunch supporter of progressive and labor causes.
Yet, unlike many other politicians, he cultivates ties on the other side of the aisle; politics, he believes, is about relationships. He persuaded the conservative Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio to join the group that was trying to craft an overhaul of immigration policies. They unveiled their proposal last week; prospects for eventual Senate passage are good.
And, to the dismay of some on the political left, he joined the bipartisan majority on the Bowles-Simpson deficit panel in supporting a long-range deficit-reduction plan that included cuts in entitlements and tax increases.
Kirk's recovery has been slow but steady. He walks with a cane and is regaining other abilities. He missed all of last year's congressional session. He's back full time now, and fully engaged. During a recent all-night Senate "vote-a-rama," there were 42 roll calls until 5 a.m.; he made them all.
During rehabilitation, he set a goal: When the Senate convened this year, he was going to walk up the steps to the Capitol. He told Durbin he would be "thrilled" if he would join him.
On Jan. 3, Kirk, accompanied by the vice president, Manchin and Durbin, walked up those 45 steps.