By Scott Holleran
North Shore residents may remember Kathryn Cameron Porter as the crusading former wife of Republican John Porter, who served as the North Shore’s 10th district congressman from 1980 through 2001. Recently interviewed about a range of issues by telephone from her home near Washington, DC, the Michigan native and current special adviser on Iran to Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk remains an outspoken activist. During the interview, she talked about anthropology, travels to distant lands and thoughts on everything from the nation’s foreign policy to what was once her home on Sheridan Road.
Scott Holleran: What do you miss about the North Shore?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: The honesty. I know that sounds terrible but people are more straightforward on the North Shore. When you’re inside the Beltway, everyone has an angle. When I first came here, you really felt like Capitol Hill was a small town; people welcomed you. That has changed. Now it’s a battleground. I miss my friends, too. I was very active in women’s organizations and the North Shore has some amazing women. I’m still friends with many of them. I miss our old house on 1124 Sheridan Road in Evanston. It’s not there anymore. I’ll never forget when John Porter came home and handed me two bricks from [our former home] and he said ‘they’re from our house’. They had taken our old house down. It had been taken from 1884 Ridge Road and the people who’d bought it took it down. There are things I don’t miss about the North Shore.
Scott Holleran: Such as?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: A rigidity of social roles. I often felt like a rebel soul in an inflexible social model, where, frankly, there were many empty, vacuous lives. But it has been a long time, so maybe it’s changed. I’m going to visit fairly soon because my niece lives in Chicago. But I don’t plan to wander up to the North Shore. It’s too painful.
Scott Holleran: Whatever happened to the Porter for Congress campaign van?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: [Laughs] I don’t know. There was a story that one of the campaign staffers had bought it. The last I heard I think it was in Libertyville. I remember it was very comfortable.
Scott Holleran: What is the biggest misconception about being a politician’s wife?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: That you can’t say what you want. I learned early on that I could say anything—I always tried to be honest and straightforward—if I smiled and talked in a sweet little voice. People responded to that, so I used it. I was very outspoken. I was head of the [feminist Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)] movement and I was very active. When I married John, I felt like I could change the North Shore, where I felt like there was almost a class system, and make it more amenable to looking at people’s troubles and acting on it. Instead of having dinner parties, I proposed going into the inner city and helping people. There was one time—and this was when I was driving a Porsche 914, the one with the roof that comes off, that I drove to [government housing] Cabrini-Green [in Chicago] for some project. So, I’ve always felt protected and had this feeling that, if you’re open and transparent, nobody’s going to hurt you. I still think that.
Scott Holleran: You were recently in Africa promoting human rights when Islamic terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Libya at Benghazi and murdered the ambassador and three Americans and you had to go into hiding. Did you feel protected then?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: That was scary. I have been in some extraordinary situations where if I hadn’t gone into myself, I’d be dead. Years ago, I went to where the Dalai Lama was speaking and I made some supportive statements for Tibetans. Afterwards, the [Communist] Chinese government cracked down on them and 17 monks died, so I said, ‘that’s it, those people are dead because of me and my big mouth’—but the Dalai Lama heard about my comments, came to me, grabbed my hands, gave this incredible body laugh and he told me I wasn’t meant for a contemplative path—he told me I’m meant for a rocky path—and I felt as if a protective shield was coming around me. Whenever I get depressed, I think about that conversation. The year was 1984. Now, of course, if my granddaughter were going [somewhere dangerous], I’d feel differently.
Scott Holleran: What was your most dangerous trip?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: The north of Iraq in the 1990s. I was in a refugee camp with Kurds who had fled an attack by Turkey. I was trying to report back to various human rights groups in the United Nations. I’d had dreams about how I would die—it was always while trying to protect children—and here these people were in tents and suddenly military helicopters came down and people started running toward the mountains. I stood there throwing kids into the cave mouths as the helicopters went by and I just knew that was how I was going to die—but they didn’t fire a shot. It was terrifying. I said goodbye to my family in my mind. I had just been with this Kurdish girl who had been in a village in Turkey where the girls had been put in a hut while the men and boys were herded into the village center and shot. She had survived but she was catatonic. They took me to see her. Nobody could get her to talk. I hugged her and held her and she started crying. By then, I had seen some rough scenes in Turkey. So I was already on edge.
Scott Holleran: Define human rights—and is it different from individual rights?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: That’s a good question. I think it’s the right to [hold] your beliefs—the right to be who you want to be—whoever that is—and I put a heavy emphasis on women because I believe I’m bringing women’s voices to tables where they don’t have a chair to sit. I work with men, too. It’s your right to exist in any form you want to live your life as long as you’re not infringing on anyone else’s right. I also believe in the right to defend oneself.
Scott Holleran: What is your greatest achievement as an activist?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: I know I have affected policy and brought things to the table. I think it was Ronald Reagan who said you can accomplish anything if you don’t care who gets the credit. I think it was Margaret Mead who said never underestimate the power of a small group of committed individuals to change the world. I am proud of the creation of the Congressional human rights caucus. They shed light on the numbers of situations where people are denied basic rights. Look at what we did for [Soviet dissident] Natan Sharansky.
Scott Holleran: Was politics part of your childhood?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: Yes. My grandfather was political, a big Democrat and very much an activist—he was for the common man, a big liberal—but he was a southern Democrat, originally from Arkansas. He had moved north as so many did to work in factories. He wanted to help others.
Scott Holleran: What was your first job?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: I worked as a waitress at the A&W Root Beer stand while riding on rollerskates, so I was carhop. There was a rollerskating rink near where I grew up. We used to go there on Friday nights.
Scott Holleran: Are you still in touch with John Porter?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: Yes. I was married to John for 30 years. I do miss the ‘remember when’ moments. I think I made a difference in his running for Congress and John was a very good congressman. He is more reserved [than me] and he motivated me in terms of what we could do together in changing the world. That’s why I wanted him to run. I should have done it myself.
Scott Holleran: What were your first thoughts of Sen. Mark Kirk, Congressman Porter’s former chief of staff?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: That he was obviously intensely bright and he had a spark other people didn’t have—so we hired him as a legislative assistant and he moved himself up. Mark was able to handle both my rebel soul and John’s buttoned-down personality and he had a roundedness. He stood out. He still does—and he’s getting better. I’m so proud of Mark. He takes stands on issues others won’t take. He recently set up this working group on Iran, so I’m involved in that.
Scott Holleran: What are your thoughts on the North Shore’s last Republican congresswoman, Marguerite Stitt Church?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: I loved that woman. She once told me: “You must convince John to run and if John doesn’t run, I think you should run.” I loved going to her house. I think about her all the time. I’m also still friends with her successor [former North Shore Congressman Donald Rumsfeld].
Scott Holleran: You traveled to Afghanistan when Mr. Rumsfeld was secretary of defense, right?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: Yes, I was active in Afghanistan under the Taliban. I visited a compound in a remote area near Jalalabad before 9/11. I was going to see a warlord who was dying. I was trying to bring the warlords together to allow us to build schools for girls—we built five under the Taliban—and they wanted me to sit on a chair on a structure and I would not sit on it because I [sensed] something bad was going to happen. I was veiled, not wearing a burka, but I was wrapped. Then, a person helpful to us came in and said we must leave now—so we did—and it turned out that Osama bin Laden had arrived and was in the same compound. The same person said we were to meet this group of people—this was the July before 9/11—and these guys came in wearing wristwatches and Western dress. They allowed me to use my camera and [I learned that] they had all received flight training in the U.S. A couple of months later, we were attacked on 9/11. My first thought went to that dinner in Afghanistan and the men with the flight training.
Scott Holleran: Did you know anyone who died on 9/11?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: Yes. I knew a woman who died on the plane that hit the Pentagon.
Scott Holleran: What do you regard as the gravest threat to the U.S.?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: Our lack of foreign policy vision. I personally think [former secretary of state] Hillary [Clinton] could have been the greatest secretary of state and Obama kept her under his thumb. I was in the western Sahara when Benghazi happened. This is a wild, raucous world and Obama is using Chicago machine politics in our foreign policy and it’s more than irresponsible; it’s foolhardy. When I look at our foreign policy and where our vulnerability is, I believe we’re at our most precarious moment. I don’t know where this is going.
Scott Holleran: Do you think it is possible for Islamists to infiltrate the U.S. government?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: I would not be surprised. I think we have to be open-minded. We can’t say that couldn’t happen. Think of the moment when the planes hit the Twin Towers. How can we not be vigilant? I’m worried about the Chinese threat, too, and there’s an unwillingness to look at that. We don’t seem to be capable of looking at foreign affairs objectively—there’s always someone saying, ‘oh, that’s racist’. I know there are good, decent Moslems. But we’ve lost our ability to think.
Scott Holleran: You’re writing a book. What is the theme of Roads?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: Roads that I have been on in life. I started writing it as a letter to my granddaughter and grandson. I want them to understand what my life is about, from Sheridan Road to that CIA road in Iraq and the road that took us across the green line in Cyprus. It’s an exercise in anthropology—looking at differing lifestyles—and it’s a personal journal. I was in Arkansas once and I went to an embankment where they’d found pieces of bones from before the boat people came and I realized that there’s so much knowledge that we haven’t acquired yet. I view archaeology as a wind back and forward in time and if we could concentrate on the way people structured life in the past, then we might find a better way of structuring our lives in the future. Especially as you get away from religion—if you go to pre-history, there is a lot of wonderful knowledge. That’s my interest in anthropology and archaeology; it’s a tool for our future. I’m going to give Roads to my grandson and granddaughter. I’ve written 12 chapters.
Scott Holleran: What was your favorite thing about living on the North Shore?
Kathryn Cameron Porter: Our house on Sheridan Road. It was a block from the shore. You could see the lake through the trees and I loved walking and being near the lake. It’s just a unique, wonderful place to live. I loved the proximity to Northwestern because I had to play catch-up with my own education, being a mother at a young age. I remember that I had a wonderful professor who was a film critic and he made me look at movies in a whole other way. It was a pathway to my interest in anthropology.
Scott Holleran: Tell me about your home in Wintergreen.
Kathryn Cameron Porter: It’s up above the ski resort, off the Appalachian trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia—and it’s a great antidote to Washington. There’s something about it that keeps my feet on the ground.
A version of this article originally appeared in the North Shore Weekend on March 29, 2013.