‘I Was in a Very Deep Foxhole’

Matthew Cooper
June 27, 2013

Mark Kirk was elected to the Senate in 2010, but he’s not your ordinary Republican freshman. First, he’s a moderate from the Chicago suburbs. And he was probably best known for taking Barack Obama’s seat until 2012, when the former intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves suffered a stroke at just 52. It spared his mind but hindered his mobility. He returned to the Senate in January, slowly walking up the 45 steps of the Capitol to applause from his colleagues. He spoke with National Journal about his recovery, Chicago’s mayor, and the National Security Agency mess. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ How are you feeling?

KIRK Better and better. I would say rehab works.

NJ How much time are you spending on rehab at this point?

KIRK I go to the Senate gym each day. I also go to Walter Reed. A lot of my fellow patients are missing limbs. You’re having a tough day and you look over at a soldier who might be missing a leg or two arms, and he is doing great. And you think to yourself, “There is nothing challenging me like what is challenging him.”

NJ Everyone was marveling when you came back to the Senate and made it up those stairs.

KIRK They all told me that was the first big bipartisan moment that had happened in a while. That’s something really to celebrate.

NJ Is it harder to do your job? And does it still hold your interest to do things like dial around for fundraising or haggle over amendments?

KIRK What I would say is that the Senate is appropriately designed to accommodate older men [laughter], and so I’m in pretty good shape. The whole thing that drives me is public service.

NJ Has this experience changed how you see health care?

KIRK My concern is what happens if you have a stroke and you’re not in the U.S. Senate and you have no insurance and no income. That’s the question that I have been asking, and the reality is that if you’re on Illinois Medicaid and are a stroke survivor, you will get just five visits to the rehab specialist. That’s it. Senator [Tim] Johnson [D-S.D.] and I are working on a stroke agenda.

NJ You underwent brain surgeries. From what I’ve read it was a spiritual journey.

KIRK I spent a lot of time in the ICU on the edge of oblivion and really did think a lot of death and the process of being dead. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and I was in a very deep foxhole.

NJ I heard you had visions of angels, with New York accents, not Chicago ones.

KIRK That’s right. Sometimes I’d look over and see figures talking about me. They had a pretty good sense of humor.

NJ You were in military intelligence. From what you know about these NSA programs, do you have real concerns?

KIRK I do. It’s bad intelligence work to be focusing in on 121 million Americans who aren’t doing anything particularly terrorist-related.

NJ Did the NSA go in this direction on its own, or was it just doing what Congress authorized?

KIRK Just because you brief eight people in a windowless room doesn’t mean that Congress supports you. Congress supports you through open debate and the involvement of the American people through the 24-hour news cycle.

NJ It seems like we’re in a world now where a Bradley Manning or an Edward Snowden has so much more access than an intel officer might have had 20 years ago.

KIRK We have a classified Internet on the backside of the intelligence community, and if you’re on that system, then a Bradley Manning can download the presidential book of secrets like in the movie [National Treasure].

NJ How do you think Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is doing?

KIRK Well. Really well. I’ve only known him since he was elected to the House. And I think he’s doing a very good job.

NJ They say moderate Republicans are an endangered species. What would you like to see your party do in the coming years?

KIRK We’ve been called extinct so many times that it turns out not to be true.

NJ But what about the national party?

KIRK What often happens is that people or politicians get out of date, and that’s my worry about the Republican Party. It apparently doesn’t understand how multicolored and how multicultural our country has become.

NJ You’re interested in running again?