Mrs. Carnahan Goes To Washington

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When Hillary Rodham Clinton took the oath of office last Wednesday, she wasn't the only new Senator arriving by way of marital tragedy. As the President looked down from the gallery, Hillary was sworn in by Vice President Al Gore, in his role as president of the Senate. The last time President Clinton was before the Senate was on charges of impeachment, when many did not think he would come out with his presidency or marriage intact.

Minutes earlier, another Democratic Senator had taken the oath, one who came by way of a far more profound tragedy. Three months before, Jean Carnahan was working on a speech in her office at the Missouri Governor's mansion when she looked up to find a state trooper at the door. He dropped on one knee, took her hand and told her that her eldest son Randy and her husband, Governor Mel Carnahan, had just been killed when their small plane crashed. "I knew instantly what he was going to say. My world stopped." A few days later, on her way to the family cemetery for the burials, she "realized something was happening out there. At every town, people waited for hours holding candles. Farmers held their hats over their hearts. Children waved flags." More than 10,000 letters came in. She recalled one of her husband's favorite lines when he would leave the breakfast-room hearth, "Don't let the fire go out," and a week before the vote, she decided she would serve should Mel win. He did, 50% to 48%.

People are always stunned when widows arrive in Congress and know how to find the washroom, as if they hadn't been instrumental in getting their husbands elected in the first place. Carnahan may look like a grandmotherly Betty Crocker, but she has the steely resolve of Hillary Clinton coupled with the good sense not to have boasted about being a co-Governor. When her children were young and her husband was a municipal judge, she led drives for bond issues to raise money for parks and schools. As her husband worked his way up to Governor, she was his de facto campaign manager, writing speeches, honing campaign themes and building a political base by jotting on 3-by-5 cards the particulars of everyone they ever met, 100,000 names now. As time went on, she became less demure about being out front. She issued a mission statement focused on children's issues, helped lift Missouri to 10th place from 49th in child immunizations and lobbied the legislature ("Shamelessly," she says) for the Outstanding Schools Act, which resulted in smaller class size and more computers. It passed despite a tax increase. In her last conversation with her husband, who was calling from the plane to say he would be home in about 20 minutes, she told him, "I'll wait then to tell you about the five schools I visited today."

When reporters questioned her decision to serve in her husband's place, she says, "I told them that some people spent a lifetime underestimating my husband to their detriment. I suggest they not do it with me." She's waiting for committee assignments before choosing her issues but says she will run again in 2002 only if "I've made a difference. I'm not just here to warm a seat."

As she plowed through the chaos of her first day, Room 480 in the Russell Building came to resemble the stateroom in A Night at the Opera. Visitors poured into an office stacked with newly delivered furniture. As a third camera crew pushed its way in her face, Carnahan rolled a chair to position a rescue for a pregnant woman about to topple. There was barely space for the bouquet of lilies sent by Missouri's senior Senator, Kit Bond, or the senatorial documents already arriving. Her first headline event is the confirmation hearings of Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft, the Carnahan family's longtime political adversary, whom her husband beat for the Senate seat. About Ashcroft's hearings, she will only say she's open-minded, but it's doubtful he is counting on her vote.

Gore gamely administered all senatorial oaths twice, first in private, then in a room where cameras are allowed. Everyone had family around but him, everyone welcoming a new day but him. Each Senator then held a reception serving the same Swedish meatballs and cold cuts. The parties for Clinton and Carnahan were jammed. Carnahan expects to work well with Hillary, whom she knows, partly from staying twice in the Lincoln Bedroom ("And it didn't cost us a cent"). Carnahan celebrated with the family left to her: daughter Robin, 39, and son Tom, 31, who may move to Washington to be near her. Son Russ, 42, was just then being sworn in to the Missouri house of representatives. All day, people cried as they came up to her. She held steady. Only when taking the oath did she fill up with tears, feeling her husband's presence "flood my soul. I had to push it aside," she said, "or I would have been overwhelmed."

"Life," Carnahan says, "takes you where you didn't plan to go." Many in the building would say amen to that.