Why Did Kirk Make The "George Washington" Comment?

Nov 3, 2016

Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Senator Mark Kirk debate in Springfield.
Credit Screenshot

U.S. Senator Mark Kirk says he apologized, and that apology was accepted, so it's time to move on from a controversial comment he made at last week's debate minimizing his opponent's family legacy of military service. The Republican gave an interview to public radio on Wednesday; click below to listen to the bulk of it.

The backlash against Kirk was swift, after he said "I'd forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington" in response to his Democratic opponent, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (who is of mixed heritage) saying her family members have worn miliary uniforms since the American Revolution.

Critics say the comment was at least offensive and ignorant; at most, racist.

Kirk says it was meant as a "a snarky remark".

"I have been known for being too quick to turn a phrase," he said. "Which of us in the last six years would have never said anything that any body was not offended by?"

The propensity to speak before thinking is one that Kirk says was a problem prior to his 2012 stroke.

His brain surgeon says has made a "full cognitive recovery," though full medical records have not been released. This weekend, Kirk is set to again climb the 103 stories of Chicago's Willis Tower.

Kirk says it's "disappointing" that two groups -- the Human Rights Campaign, which supports gay rights, and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords's gun control organization -- withdrew their endorsements over the weekend in light of Kirk's wisecrack.

He's trying to fight off a challenge from Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth.

Kirk was a rare Republican to receive a nod from the Human Rights Campaign -- which supports gay rights -- and a gun control group led by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

Both pulled their endorsements after Kirk made a wisecrack minimizing the Duckworth family legacy of military service. Many critics immediately condemned it as racist.

"Those organizations tend to be pretty supportive of the Democratic party," he said. "I'm sure the DNC brought pressure to bear. And that was effective. So kinda disappointing to me because I have a great record on supporting gay rights and marriage equality."

That includes voting against bills to outlaw same-sex marriage at the federal level, voicing his support for Illinois' same-sex marriage act, and bringing attention to LBGTQ issues by speaking in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act during his first floor speech after his stroke. 

"You should be allowed whomever you wish," he said, noting that as a leading Republicans, he wanted to "send a signal to Republicans to go ahead and vote for marriage equality, so that Illinois can be a beacon for ... freedom of whoever you want to love."

Kirk says other achievements include earning an F from the National Rifle Association, laying the groundwork "for a hopeful  federal ban on sewage dumping in the Great Lakes," and taking a leading role in a coalition backing sanctions against Iran. 

With less than a week before the election, Kirk says he has not decided who’s getting his vote for president. Kirk was one of the first high-ranking Republicans to call for GOP nominee Donald Trump to drop out of the race, citing Trump's remark (the irony of Kirk thereafter taking heat a remark many consider racist has not been lost on various political observers).

But Kirk says he doesn't like Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton either.

"No decision," he said. "In my frustration. I had in the past suggested General Petraeus, just out of great frustration. But I think a lot of voters will go to the polls and think 'is this is? is this the best that we can do?' And I very much feel that way."

Kirk says Trump's ascension came as a "complete surprise." Kirk says he doesn't personally know anyone who has attended a Trump rally.

Both candidates are veterans: Kirk was in the naval reserves, and Duckworth lost her legs flying a helicopter in Iraq. They'll debate again, in Chicago, Friday.

Kirk has seen his fundraising pale in comparison to Duckworth's, and most polls show she's in the lead.

"It's a possibility" that he won't return to Washington, Kirk admits. "No matter what happens, part of my commitment to the people of this state is going to continue to be focused on people who suffered from stroke like I have."