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By Deborah Kalb

Theater offers abundant lore about understudies, thrust into the spotlight, becoming stars. This year, as if to prove that American politics can be just that astonishing, Jean Carnahan became Missouri’s newest United States Senator. That event was totally unexpected and rooted in tragedy—yet it has turned out to be a role for which she had been preparing, unsuspectingly, for much of her life.

Jean Carnahan speaks at the Governor Office Building dedication in September 2000 in Jefferson City, Mo., with husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, BA ’54, seated beside her.

Jean Carnahan, BA ’55, returned to Washington this year as a new U.S. Senator, after one of the most unusual campaigns in American history. “I got here under some very unique circumstances,” Carnahan reflected during a recent interview in her private office in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Her understatement is considerable. The poignant story captured and held national attention last November. Carnahan’s husband, Mel Carnahan, BA ’54, at the time Missouri Governor and Democratic Senate candidate, was killed in a plane crash just weeks before the election. Also killed in the crash was the couple’s eldest son, Roger, and campaign aide Chris Sifford. Amid her shock and sorrow, Jean Carnahan agreed to the new governor’s proposal that, if Mel Carnahan won the election posthumously, she would accept an appointment to the Senate seat he would have filled. At the time of his death, the popular Democratic governor had been in the final phase of a heated battle against incumbent GOP Senator John Ashcroft (now U.S. attorney general). The contest remained close, and in the end the late governor narrowly defeated Ashcroft. Missouri’s new governor, Roger Wilson, then named Jean Carnahan to a two-year term that began this past January.

“It was a lonely time for me,” Carnahan, 67, recalls. As she remembers it, no one pressured her one way or the other as she considered whether to accept the role as her husband’s stand-in. From the family farm in Rolla, Mo., she heard about how her husband’s supporters were putting out mailings, handing out buttons, and burning bonfires—all to urge a continuation of the Carnahan battle. “It was such a remote thing,” said Carnahan of the fight to keep her husband’s campaign going. “I just didn’t believe that people would do that. Obviously they wanted something to survive the crash.”

At a news conference Jan. 3, after being sworn in as the junior senator from Missouri, Carnahan began her remarks by mentioning the tragedy. “I have just gone through a very bittersweet moment in the Senate chamber,” she said. “I always felt that I would be an observer from the balcony. That didn’t happen that way. Instead, I was a participant on the floor. But I felt very strongly that there were three people smiling down on us there today.”

As a freshman senator, Carnahan says she’s trying to chart a centrist course, aligning herself with colleagues who seek bipartisan, compromise solutions to problems. She was named to the Commerce, Armed Services, Governmental Affairs and Aging committees upon arriving in the Senate, but the reorganization of the chamber, sparked by the defection of former GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, temporarily threw her assignments up in the air. Asked just after Jeffords’ decision what the impact of his switch—which pushed her party into the majority—would be for her, she responded philosophically. “Everything I do up here I’m doing for the first time, so everything’s unique,” she said. “The tables turn frequently.”

While Carnahan may be new to elective office herself, she played a major role in her husband’s lengthy political career. Mel Carnahan was elected Rolla municipal judge back in 1960, served in the state legislature in the mid-1960s, and was elected state treasurer in 1980 and lieutenant governor in 1988 before winning the governorship in 1992. Mel Carnahan told GW Magazine, in an interview in its winter 2000 issue, that his wife was a crucial partner: “Jean never worked outside the home, because she was busy raising our four children…And when I was out of office, I helped other candidates, sometimes as a campaign manager, sometimes as local contact person, and Jean was a full partner in all those activities…she was a very great part of making those things a success.”

For her first Senate floor speech, delivered Feb. 16, Carnahan chose to focus on education, specifically on a bill she introduced that would provide $50 billion in funding directly to local school districts over 10 years, to help them reduce class size and improve instruction. Similar legislation was included in the Senate education bill that passed this spring.

Jean Carpenter, who grew up in Washington, D.C., first met Mel Carnahan, the son of a Missouri congressman, when the two were 15-year-old high school students, in a church youth group on a Sunday night. “Then the next day, he showed up sitting next to me in class at high school,” she said. “It’s kind of like fate brought us together.” Alphabetically ordered seating charts helped, too. After graduating from Anacostia High School, they both headed to George Washington, where they majored in business administration. Mel, who had been told by his father that he couldn’t get married until he graduated, finished a year early, in 1954, whereupon the two were wed. Jean graduated a year later.
She took both day and night courses at GW, while also working for a U.S. Army research group. A self-described “nontraditional student,” Jean commuted to school and never experienced dorm living. “I didn’t have the benefit of a campus life,” she said. Few of her fellow business administration students were women—“business and public administration was not something that was...particularly attractive to women at that time,” she remembers—and many of the men in her classes were military people. She credits her time at GW, with its Washington setting, as providing additional exposure to government. And, she and Mel Carnahan took several classes together.

Unlike some other freshman senators, Carnahan—with her Washington roots—is familiar with the city. “It gives a certain comfort level, being here,” she said. “But of course, it’s kind of new being on Capitol Hill.” Despite her knowledge of the nation’s capital, one of the toughest problems she says she’s facing as a senator is coping with the hectic schedule. “You don’t set your own schedule,” she said. “You may start out the day thinking you’re going to do a certain number of things, and it may just be totally different from that, because you have votes, or people who will come in to see you that you didn’t expect. You have to be flexible.”

And she’s getting used to life in a closely divided Senate. “I think we need to work together to accomplish anything up here,” she said. “I don’t think any progress can be made by just standing in the public arena and bashing heads together. You have to do things in a bipartisan way. And that’s very difficult.” She said the Jeffords party switch will force the Bush administration to make more concessions to the moderates. “They’re going to have to be a lot more bipartisan,” she said. “I think that’s the message that’s come out of all this.”

Carnahan said she had heard rumors about party-switching before Jeffords’ surprise move. “And of course, it’s one of those things that you think, ‘Well, it’s just too good to be true,’” she said, adding, “It’s certainly not something we want to gloat over...It gives us the reins of responsibility now, and it puts a very heavy responsibility on Daschle and the Democrats to do something productive.”

So far, Carnahan said, her most difficult vote came when she opted against confirming Ashcroft as attorney general. She was under heavy pressure from both sides as the Feb. 1 vote approached, and attention centered on whether she would support her fellow Missouri politician. “It had a lot of emotional impact to it for me,” she said. “It took some soul searching.” But, she added, “Once I decided, I felt comfortable with it.” Although she voted against Ashcroft, she recently rated his performance so far as “pretty commendable,” adding that he had “softened some of his rhetoric.”

Another big vote came on President Bush’s controversial tax cut legislation. Carnahan was among a group of moderate Democratic senators who ended up supporting a compromise $1.35 trillion version of the plan, which passed the Senate comfortably in late May. The $1.35 trillion figure became the final number that Bush subsequently signed into law.

Because she was appointed to only a two-year term, Carnahan will have to run again next year for a four-year term if she wants to continue her political career. She demurs when asked about her plans. “The longer I can put it off, perhaps the better,” she said, adding that she hasn’t felt a great deal of pressure to make a declaration.

But Carnahan has started raising funds for next year. A recent fund-raising letter to supporters asked them to help her decide whether to run. “Make no mistake: I’m not afraid of this race,” Carnahan says in the letter. “But it simply doesn’t make sense for me to make it if I can’t count on the support of people like you. That’s why I hope you’ll fill out the enclosed card and give me your frank and honest advice on whether I should run in 2002.”

In Missouri, both the Democratic and Republican state parties are gearing up for next year’s contest, which they expect will feature a battle between Carnahan and former GOP Rep. Jim Talent, who lost a bid for governor last year. “We are certainly hoping that she’s running,” said Beage Atwater, executive director of the Missouri Democratic party, stating that Carnahan is meeting with a very positive reaction in Missouri. “We really want to keep her.” Atwater described Carnahan as a “very gracious, humble” person who will quote from Scripture and read poems from Mother Teresa during speeches, and who likes to send handwritten thank-you notes. “She doesn’t rush in and out” during events, preferring instead to spend time talking with constituents, Atwater said. “Word is certainly spreading.”

“She is beatable,” countered Scott Baker, communications director for the Missouri Republican party. Baker assumed that Carnahan would run, and that the race would receive “big-time attention” around the country. Carnahan, he said, would be hurt by the Democrats’ takeover of the Senate. “She’s been trying to paint herself as a moderate,” Baker said, adding that with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts taking more power, the agenda would move farther left. A likely 2002 campaign message would be that if voters want Ted Kennedy in control, they should send Carnahan back to the Senate, he said.

Both Atwater and Baker agreed that gun control—always a tricky issue in Missouri, which boasts both large cities and rural expanses—is apt to be a key issue in a possible Carnahan race next year. Carnahan, who recalls getting a marksmanship badge during her years at GW and says she once outshot her security man at skeet shooting while Missouri’s first lady, enjoys the hunting and sporting activities her family has engaged in over the years. But, she said, “My main concern is to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals.”

Even in her status as potential candidate, Carnahan has picked up the support of a key women’s organization, the powerhouse fundraising group EMILY’s List, which backs women Democrats who support abortion rights. “Sen. Carnahan knew that her vote against Ashcroft, along with her defense of choice and opposition to Bush’s budget, would make her a GOP target,” EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm (MBA ’84) wrote in the group’s June newsletter, which featured a full page about Carnahan. “But like her late husband did so often, she took a courageous stand and remained true to her convictions. When she announces her bid for a full term, EMILY’s List will be more than eager to help.” Carnahan supports abortion rights. She says she opposes so-called “partial-birth” abortion, but would want an exception to any ban on the procedure in order to protect the life and health of the mother. Women’s issues—including breast cancer research, child care, immunizations, and education—are a focus for Carnahan. “Those sort of things I think are particularly attractive to me by virtue of being a woman,” she said.

One of 13 women senators—10 Democrats and three Republicans—Carnahan meets monthly with her female colleagues for dinner, usually at a restaurant. “It’s very social in nature,” she said. “We talk the way women would talk at a bridge game. And so we kind of put politics aside and just think of each other as friends.” Carnahan was one of four women to join the Senate this year, along with fellow Democrats Maria Cantwell of Washington, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

She also has found common bonds with others who relate to the tragedy that brought her to the Senate. On the day of her swearing-in, for example, Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, told her about losing his wife and daughter in a car crash just after being elected to the Senate in 1972. “People do this to me all the time,” Carnahan said in the recent interview. “I’m in a mall, or in an airport, and they’ll come up and give me a hug, strangers will, and they’ll share with me something from their own lives and seem to be able to connect with me at the level of grief. So I’m grateful for that.”

After her swearing-in, Carnahan also spoke of the support she had received from people around the country, and of the importance of turning tragedy to triumph. “We’ve gotten 10,000 letters from all over the United States,” she said. “Many of them including original music, poetry, books, gifts of all sorts, and people telling me their own story, their own loss. And I’ve just seen some just wonderful triumphs of the human spirit—people who have overcome great tragedies in their lives. And they’ve been inspirational to me. And I’ve appreciated receiving those stories. And so that’s the sort of thing that makes you really feel that something good can come out of all this, because other people have triumphed over tragedy and made worthwhile things come out of their lives.”

Deborah Kalb is a Washington writer.