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- February 19, 2001
- Vol. 55
- No. 7
The Widow from Missouri
After Losing Her Husband and a Son in a Plane Crash, Jean Carnahan Hopes to Make Her Work in the Senate Their Living Memorial
So with this issue, PEOPLE begins a series of personal profiles on all 13 women senators, exploring what life is like for them in that powerful men's club. We begin this week with Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri, who won her seat under tragic circumstances. Her husband, Mel, the Democratic candidate for senator, was killed in a plane crash just weeks before the election, along with their son Randy. Here she talks about the life she built over 46 years with her husband and why she chose to stand in for him after his death.
Lost in her thoughts, Jean Carnahan contentedly tapped away at the computer in her second-floor study in the governor's mansion in Jefferson City, Mo. Aside from staff, she had the gracious Victorian home to herself. Her husband, Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, was flying with their oldest son, Randy, to New Madrid, Mo.—another stop in Mel's tight U.S. Senate campaign against Republican incumbent John Ashcroft. In his absence, the state's first lady was finishing a speech she was to deliver two days later to the Governor's Conference on Aging. But at around 8:30 that night, last Oct. 16, she was interrupted by an unexpected call: A state trooper from the governor's security detail wanted to speak with her immediately. When Sgt. Alan Walton entered the room and knelt in front of her, Carnahan recalls, "I knew what had happened without him ever having said anything."
The twin-engine Cessna carrying her 66-year-old husband, as well as Randy, 44, who was piloting the plane, and campaign adviser Chris Sifford, 37, had crashed south of St. Louis, I killing all three. "Nothing in the room seemed the same, because I realized you relate to everything around you in terms of people you love," says Carnahan, 67. "There was a picture of Mel that would never be anything but a picture. The books didn't seem the same. Nothing."
But at that moment Carnahan had no idea of the full extent to which tragedy would transform her life. Eight days later, acting Missouri Gov. Roger Wilson announced that should Mel Carnahan posthumously win the election—by law his name remained on the ballot—he would ask Carnahan's widow to fill the Senate seat until the next general election in two years. Her grief mingling with a profound sense of duty, she accepted Wilson's offer, setting in motion one of the more compelling subplots of a surreal election year. On Nov. 7 Mel Carnahan drew 49,000 more votes than the conservative Ashcroft—now George W. Bush's U.S. Attorney General—becoming the first deceased candidate ever elected to the Senate. And on Jan. 3 Jean Carpenter Carnahan, fighting back tears, held the family Bible in her left hand, raised her right hand and took the oath of office from Vice President Al Gore. At her seat on the Senate floor—once occupied by another Missourian, Harry Truman—she accepted congratulations and condolences from such new colleagues as Strom Thurmond, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Barbara Boxer of California. Delaware's Joe Biden also embraced her and spoke of losing his wife in a car crash just a few weeks after his own election in 1972.
"There has not been much joy in my life in the past three months," Carnahan said that day. "But I'm going to try to make this a new phase of my life." From the gallery, her son Tom, 32, an attorney, likewise grappled with conflicting emotions. "When I looked down and saw Mom instead of Dad, it was hard," he says. But, he adds, "she is very strong and very focused on being the best senator."
Carnahan is the eighth widow to assume a late husband's Senate seat but the first to have stood in for her spouse on Election Day. "Most widows come to the Senate without any electoral imprint," says Cokie Roberts, whose mother, Lindy Boggs, served 17 years in Congress after her husband, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, died in a 1972 plane crash—also on Oct. 16. But Carnahan, adds Roberts, "has been very involved in her husband's activities and is hardly a neophyte." Indeed, she has long been regarded as an adroit speaker and campaigner as well as an advocate for education and child welfare in her home state. "Here is a woman who was well-informed on the weighty political issues of the day," says former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, 55. "I think she will make a fabulous senator." Predicts Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland: "Keep your eye on her. I think she's going to be a real star."
Though she calls herself "a temporary novelty," Carnahan is resolved to be more than that in a Senate divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats. At a press conference her first day in office, she calmly laid out her legislative priorities: education, paying down the national debt, protecting Social Security and Medicare. "You will see me as an individual," she said, "rather than standing in my husband's shadow." Of course, that shadow is inescapable. "I keep thinking he'll walk through the door," she confided later. "Or I'll hear a door slam—Randy always slammed the door hard—and I'll think it's Randy. It's the little things."
The most effective therapy is a frenetic 18-hour day that starts at 6 a.m. with an online check of Missouri newspapers. "You're thinking about giving an interview, then you're thinking about voting or you're getting briefed or hiring someone," she says. "So the challenge is to try to keep some equilibrium. I figure if I can just get a more comfortable pair of shoes, that will be half the battle. These marble floors can be really bad on the legs."
In early February Carnahan moved into a two-bedroom rental off Pennsylvania Avenue. No stranger to the nation's capital, she was born in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 20, 1933, and grew up in the city's working-class Anacostia neighborhood as the only child of plumber Reginald Carpenter and his wife, Alvina, a beautician. As a child during World War II, "I wanted to be a Marine," Carnahan recalls. "So I organized all the kids in the neighborhood and taught them how to march." Early on she acquired a love of books, which she shared at age 10 by teaching her maternal grandmother to read.
She met Mel Carnahan, son of Missouri Rep. A.S.J. Carnahan, at a Baptist youth group meeting when both were 15-year-old sophomores at D.C.'s Anacostia High School. "He walked me home from school and carried my books," she says. "My name being Carpenter and his being Carnahan, we were seated side by side. That was true in every class, even when we went to college." On their second date, in 1949, Mel put his cards on the table: He told Jean that one day he was going to marry her and run for office. "I just laughed at the time," she says. "But five years later [in June 1954] we were walking down the aisle, and five years after that he was running for public office"—winning a Rolla, Mo., municipal judgeship. By then both had earned business administration degrees from George Washington University. When Mel completed his law studies at the University of Missouri in 1959, the couple settled in Rolla, where he established his legal practice and they raised a family—Randy, Russ, now 42 and a newly elected Missouri state legislator, Robin, 39, and Tom, all attorneys.
In one sense Jean was the classic stay-at-home mom. "She was always the den mother in Boy Scouts, the troop leader in Brownies," recalls Robin. Ex-neighbor Ruthanne Phillips remembers how she and Jean would get together with their families for evenings of popcorn and TV or to learn the hula hoop and the twist. "You always knew things would be fun when Jean was around," she says. But Carnahan was also a force in local affairs, organizing volunteers to push bond issues for schools and a swimming pool. Meanwhile Mel pursued politics, serving as a state representative from 1963 until 1966, when he lost a bid for state senate and returned to the law. During the '80s he was elected state treasurer and lieutenant governor, and he went on to score a landslide gubernatorial victory in 1992. Always Jean was his most trusted adviser.
"He was the one interested in public life," she says. "I helped behind the scenes—helped write the speeches, designed the [campaign] brochures. But I never thought in terms of running for office." An early computer buff, she also compiled a vast database of Mel's supporters. And she was often on the front lines, meeting and greeting. "Dad was sometimes described as not warm and fuzzy," says Russ. "He seemed more straitlaced, more 'Just get to work.' Mom has a real warmth and personal touch."
As first lady, Carnahan used her influence to promote her husband's Outstanding Schools Act, designed to reduce class size and upgrade school technology and health services and to improve Missouri's child immunization program. Policy aside, she opened the governor's mansion for public events, and every Halloween the first couple held a "Spooktacular" costume party for thousands of kids. On Oct. 16, the day Mel died, she had spoken to him for the last time at around 7 p.m. "He was in the airplane and I could hear the motor in the background," she recalls. "They were about to take off." Jean had visited some schools that day and was excited to tell Mel about the ways the kids were using computers supplied by the Schools Act. "He said, 'Yeah, I want to know. I'll be home early.' "
In the days after the crash Missourians joined their first lady in a collective outpouring of grief. At the state capitol on Oct. 20, some 10,000 people, the Clintons and Gores among them, attended an emotional memorial service. Townspeople lined the roads as a funeral procession bore father and son the 130 miles from Rolla to their final resting place in Elsinore, Mo. Throughout the ordeal Jean Carnahan displayed a strength and dignity that touched many supporters. Eulogizing her father, Robin recalled how he would build a fire in the fireplace each morning, then call out as he left for work, "Don't let the fire go out."
In the days thereafter, that would become the rallying cry for the Carnahan campaign. When Governor Wilson made his offer, Jean retreated to the farm with her family to mull over her decision. "We talked a lot about whether this was a good thing for her, whether it was a good thing for the state," says Robin. Her mother interjects: "Whether people would even do this. I mean, was I just being foolish to think people would go out and vote for someone who was not living?" But on Oct. 30 she held a brief news conference at her home. She spoke of her husband's devotion to education, the elderly and the infirm and his efforts to "rekindle civility" in public life. "I've decided to do what I think Mel would have wanted all of us to do," she said. "To keep the cause alive."
The race itself reflected bitter divisions nationwide. In stark contrast to the Carnahans, for instance, Ashcroft ardently opposes abortion rights and gun control, views that made his nomination to be Attorney General controversial (Carnahan would vote against him). On that most remarkable of election nights Carnahan watched returns at home with her family. Around midnight reports showed Mel behind but noted that votes were still out in St. Louis. Her response was Trumanesque. "I said, 'Oh, I think we'll do really well there. I'm just going to go to bed,' " Jean recalls. "So I started out to go to bed. Then they called me back because there was more news. Then they announced that we were ahead. Robin put her hand on my leg and said, 'We won.' And Tom and I just hugged each other. There were no cheers, only tears."
Today the tears still flow, but perhaps the healing has begun. Along with the books and the collection of Don Quixote figurines that Carnahan has brought to her Senate office is a snapshot of Mel and Randy on a mountain in Greece. "For a long time I couldn't look at them," she says. "I'm getting to the point where I can."
Mary M. Harrison in Rolla and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.
- Mary M. Harrison,
- Macon Morehouse.
October 10, 2015
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