Senator working through his grief

Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

This should be a joyous time for Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant Senate majority leader.

His close friend was recently elected president. Senate Democrats will return to work in January with their effective ranks swelled to at least 58. And he was reelected to a third term in a landslide victory.

And yet, the Saturday before election day, Durbin and his wife, Loretta, were at a Washington-area hospital as his eldest daughter, Christine, 40, succumbed to a congenital heart condition after weeks in intensive care.


He missed the jubilant celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park for Barack Obama’s historic victory, watching it on TV instead. And he missed his own victory celebration as staff in Chicago phoned him in Washington with the voter returns.

“It hurt because it was something that I had dreamed of, and it was just a magical night,” Durbin said of the raw elation he saw in Chicago on election night. But, he said, “I was where I needed to be: with my family.”

Friends say Durbin, 64, is quieter and more reflective these days. His staff says he has reminded them to stop and remember what’s most important in life.

“I think a part of him has died with her,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a close friend.

Obama, who speaks regularly with Durbin and has consulted with him on Cabinet appointments and other decisions, calls Durbin “a special, caring person.”

“It is painful to see anyone suffer great loss,” Obama said. “He and Loretta have been such wonderful friends to me and Michelle and so many others that we ache for them and their family.”

The day before Thanksgiving, Durbin was in his Senate leadership office on the third floor of the Capitol, plotting out the legislative agenda with staff and talking about the road ahead as the balance of power in Washington shifts dramatically to Democratic control.

“Getting back to work for me is therapeutic,” said Durbin, who spent the holiday in the capital with family.

During Congress’ lame-duck session, he spent much of the week meeting with incoming freshmen senators, holding discussions about rescuing the troubled auto industry and sifting through requests for jobs in the new administration.

First on the legislative agenda is an omnibus fiscal 2009 spending bill and a second economic stimulus package. Durbin hopes Congress will pass the legislation so that it can be ready for Obama’s signature on Jan. 20, the day he will be sworn into office.

But even with a bolstered Democratic majority in the Senate, “that may be wishful thinking,” he acknowledged.

Durbin is also hoping to quickly expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to include coverage for low-income children well above the federal poverty line. President Bush twice vetoed legislation aimed at expanding SCHIP despite protests by many states.

Even before Obama was elected as Illinois senator, Durbin was promoting him to colleagues as something special.

“I said, ‘I don’t believe you, no one could be that great,’ ” Boxer recalled.

After Obama was sworn in to the Senate, Durbin shared credit with his junior colleague when it came to announcing federal grants for Illinois projects and urged him repeatedly to run for president.

“He was his best friend, his best advisor. He protected him from the time Barack got here until just the other day,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “At a non-public meeting the other day, someone criticized something that one of Obama’s staff had done, and he came to the defense of Barack in a tenth of a second.”

Being close to the president has its perks, and Durbin said he would be comfortable with senior advisors to Obama, including Durbin’s own former chief of staff, Pete Rouse, as well as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett.

“It will be helpful to be able to call the White House and have a person on the other end of the line who doesn’t need a memo to understand what I’m calling about,” he said.

Still, Durbin said he was cognizant that he represents a separate branch of government with its own prerogatives.

“I want to help him be successful, but I also have a responsibility as a senator to speak out when I think he is making a bad decision and to try to be constructive but honest in analyzing his administration,” he said.

Durbin realizes the expectations for Obama are extraordinary even as the problems are beyond anything the nation has confronted in recent history.

“What’s amazing to me is how many people out there, even in these tough economic times, are willing to walk away from a better-paying position in life to be part of this Obama march,” he said. “They really see it, as I do, as part of a historic moment.”

In fact, with so many qualified people and so few Cabinet slots, Durbin said Obama has been struggling to decide how to fill several positions. This week, Obama is expected to formally name retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr. as national security advisor and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of State -- decisions that Durbin lauded.

“When Hillary Clinton as secretary of State visits a foreign country, she will be received in a way no other Cabinet member could be,” he said. “She will be respected because of her role as first lady, her connection to President Clinton and the respect she managed to accumulate during the course of her campaign.”

In the weeks since his daughter’s death, Durbin has received thousands of condolence cards and e-mail messages. He has heard from people he has not seen in decades -- even from the student teacher in Christine’s kindergarten class who wrote that she still remembered his little girl.

And he has been struck by the number of people who can identify with his loss.

“There is a fraternity of grief in America, of people who are still grieving deaths in their family,” he said. “This very public event with my daughter allows them to sit down and write a card that says, ‘You don’t know me, but this is what I went through, and I know what you’re going through.’ ”