One-on-One Illinois

Sen. Dick Durbin on the political power of people's stories

By Ted Cox

Individual stories have political power, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has found.

Durbin said recently that the only way to represent a diverse state like Illinois is by being a straight shooter, a lesson he learned from one of his political mentors, U.S. Sen. Paul Simon.

"I try to do two things," he said. "First follow Simon's example and try to answer questions yes or no. Be straight with people. When you try to BS folks and avoid answering, they have no respect for it. But if you tell them where you stand and why you stand there, it can make a difference."

And that's where the power of stories comes in as the second key.

Durbin laid out his thinking in a recent interview with Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, founder of One Illinois. We previously focused on Durbin's thoughts on the political divide, in the state and nationwide, but now we're releasing a series of videos from their conversation, starting with Durbin's thoughts on the power of political narrative.

Durbin cited the since-resolved debate over the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality. He recalled how, when the debate was raging, he had a town meeting in Hillsboro and was stunned to find people showing up with Bibles, "and they started quoting to me things in the Bible they thought backed up their position against people who were gay and lesbian."

He added, "I found the most effective thing in politics is to talk about real-life stories." So he countered with the tale of Margarethe Cammermeyer, a Vietnam War combat nurse and later U.S. National Guard colonel who became a lesbian late in life and disclosed that in what she thought was a routine security-clearance interview in 1989. The guard immediately moved to discharge her, and the ensuing legal battle led to the Clinton administration adopting the policy of "don't ask, don't tell," which proved to be a bridge to today's wider acceptance of gay rights. Cammermeyer told her own story in her autobiography, "Serving in Silence," which was turned into a TV movie starring Glenn Close.

At the time, however, Durbin laid out the basic issue for people at town meetings like the one in Hillsboro like so. "There was no indication she had ever done anything wrong or in any way compromised her position representing and defending our country and saving the lives of people, and she ended up being asked to leave," Durbin said. "Is that fair? It's interesting. In these small towns people looked at one another and said, 'That's not fair. If she did something it's one thing, but just to be a lesbian, she's going to be dismissed?'

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Alderman Ameya Pawar talk at Durbin's office in downtown Chicago. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Alderman Ameya Pawar talk at Durbin's office in downtown Chicago. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

"You had to tell stories," Durbin insisted.

He later deployed the same tactic in public debates on the Affordable Care Act, talking about how some person had lost a life's savings on medical care, or how someone had been denied coverage for a pre-existing condition. "When I started telling stories to the opponents," he recalled, "it reached a point in one town meeting that was pretty hot where one of them shouted out, 'Stop telling stories! We don't want to hear any more stories!'

"So what I found through the course of my political career is when you're going to take a tough position, back it up with a human experience, so the person on the other side hears it and has to answer it."

The truth in real-life stories can force people to confront their own prejudices and preconceptions and come to a greater, wider understanding of the human issues we face every day — a basic tenet One Illinois shares with Durbin.

Durbin granted that, while Illinois might be considered a Democratic blue state, geographically it's largely red and Republican by county, where "my political views are less and less popular," he said. "But I still go there, and I try my best to meet up with people and to talk over some of these things. And I think that goes a long way."

One Illinois will be releasing additional excerpts from Durbin's interview with Pawar on our Facebook page. Look for them in the coming days.