Podcast with Senator Claire McCaskill
December 6, 2021 | Kristen Chavez
Ahead of the Weil Lecture on American Citizenship, Director Patricia Parker talks with Senator Claire McCaskill about her political career, important figures in her life, and more.
Patricia Parker: Senator McCaskill, welcome.
Clare McCaskill: Thank you.
PP: We’re so delighted to have you here on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
CM: It is great to be here.
PP: Yes, and we’ve not really been formally introduced. I’m Pat Parker. I am Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. I was previously chair of the Department of Communication
CM: Oh, OK.
PP: Yes, and the College Arts & Sciences. And so it’s such a thrill to be able to interview you. I know that you’ve been interviewed by such heavyweights and but here you will get a chance to talk with a fellow — we’re both from the South. Let’s just say that.
CM: There we go.
PP: I was born and raised in Arkansas and in South as well.
CM: Oh, of course.
PP: So we’re neighbors.
CM: There we go.
PP: That’s right, so welcome.
PP: I’m so delighted that you’re here for the Weil Lecture. I have about five or six questions. I think you saw some of the questions in advance, so we’ll just jump right in.
CM: OK, sounds good.
PP: You’ve recently faced some scrutiny that comes along with being a woman in politics. I’m positive that our listening audience would love to learn from you in terms of what do you believe is important for women and why do you believe it’s important for women to be strategic and own it?
CM: You know one of the things that has always been a head scratcher to me was how uncomfortable women are with their ambition. You know, I guess I was just raised by a mother and father who told me every day almost that I was beyond perfect and that I could be anything I wanted to be and they expected me to be something big. And so I really was quite an ambitious young woman. And I never realized how bad it was seen how badly, it was seen by others.
CM: And I’ll never forget this, Pat. I was on stage — just off stage in New York for a giant gathering of women. And I was, you know, I had been asked to come and speak on a panel. And there were two women out on the stage with a moderator that were the event before my event. And these two women, if I said their names, you would know immediately. They have succeeded in the very top levels of media in this country. They are everyday names.
CM: And they were asked if they were ambitious. And it was “uh-uh—mm-unuh.”
CM: And I sitting backstage was going, “I mean this is crazy!” They’re in front of all these women.
Why aren’t they just saying, well, of course, I’m ambitious! But you know, one of them said, “ Well, I don’t think I’d like to look at it that way. I like to look at it that I’m a team player.” And I got out on stage and it was time for me to begin talking and I said,
“Listen, I know what I was planning on saying first, but I just wanna tell everybody here I’m really ambitious.”
I am like mega-ambitious. And I think it is really important that women… we have made a lot of progress as women in politics. There are many more women today that are running. There are more women holding office, still not enough. We are still way behind in corporate boardrooms. But I do believe that one of the things that holds us back is when we look in the mirror and we see our reflection and we don’t have a level of confidence and comfort with being more ambitious than the next guy.
It doesn’t mean that you are the “B-word” just because you’re ambitious.
PP: Well, I was going to ask you, what do you make of that? Especially the way you set that up in terms of – and you talk about this in your in your first chapter of your book. I mean, in terms of these women who also who should be exuding confidence and you know, proudly talking about that, what do you make of that ambivalence?
CM:I think there is…. I think women still even to some extent, even though we’ve overcome a lot of it, are still socialized that it is somehow not as attractive to want to elbow your way to the front of the room. Men don’t have that problem; I think men are born with sharp elbows.
CM: And I think for women who have come up, especially in fields that are dominated by men, they want almost to be seen as that their ascendancy was just because of hard work and effort and merit. By the way, that is absolutely true. That the women I referred to in the anecdote. They got there because of hard work, and because they were really good at what they did and because they deserved it.
CM: It was meritorious, but to say that like for example, to admit that I was strategically involved in getting myself elected homecoming queen. I couldn’t admit that until after I’d spent 40 years in politics. That I strategically decided what law school to go to based on which law school would be best for me, not in terms of academia, but rather in terms of helping me with my political campaigns.
CM: I think to be seen as that strategic seems, unfortunately, malevolent to too many women. And I think being strategic about where you’re going in your career is a huge part of it. Maybe not quite as in part important as working hard and being prepared, but it certainly is right up there.
PP: Yes, absolutely. You certainly have some role models that have demonstrated that for you and in your book, Plenty Ladylike and love that love the title, especially within the context of what you develop the themes that you develop there, you talk about your mother, you share about how both your mother, Betty Ann McCaskill and Harry S Truman were important figures in your life.
PP: What makes you most inspired by both of them? And start with your mother first, please.
CM: You know my mom was quite a character. She never met a stranger. She was wildly embarrassing to me growing up because of her outsized personality, you know we would back in the days when they used to pump your gas at gas stations. Are you old enough to remember those days?
PP: Yes, I am.
CM: You know we would always shrink down in the seat because by the time we pulled out of the gas station, she knew the gas station attendant’s name, how many children he had, where they went to school, where he went to church, what they had in common in terms of music and we would all just go.
But a lot of that rubbed off on me. You know this phrase she’s never met a stranger. I like to think that I… at least I tried to emulate that in my life, that everyone is somebody, is a treasure that you should meet and try to become friends with when if it’s for a brief moment in time. She also was very strong way before her time. She was a political science major back when most people that were going to college that were women, were either nurses or educators. She went over to the law school and my younger brother, my youngest sibling went to kindergarten. We lived in Columbia, MO, and at the University of Missouri and she went over to the law school that I later attended, and the dean of the law school listened to her talk about how she wanted to go to law school at that point. And he wrote down the name and phone number of a psychiatrist to refer her to.
So I you know… she was opinionated and strong and taught me about politics. She and my dad both. They weren’t big political deals, but you know I was stuffing envelopes and saying “trick or treat and vote for JFK” when I was seven years old and that wasn’t because I really knew why I was saying “trick or treat and vote for JFK,” but I knew Mom and Dad wanted me to say it.
That’s really, you know… and frankly, the thing she probably taught me more than anything was not to look past someone. Whether it’s the person who’s serving you dinner at a banquet or whether it’s an elevator operator or whether it’s a parking lot attendant or whether it’s somebody you’re talking to and you see somebody more important over their shoulder. She taught me very much that respect and dignity is something you give everyone you meet, not just the people you think you need to give it to. And I think that was an incredibly valuable lesson.
CM: Now Harry Truman I admired him for a different reason. I used to watch Meet the Press when I was growing up and I always was just kind of shaking my head because the folks that were from the United States Senate could talk for about three paragraphs and say absolutely nothing. They’d wool it around, right? They’d go this way, well, on the other hand, and then therefore, and you know – they never really say it.
Harry Truman never had that problem. I began reading about Harry Truman and his career in high school and I became just a fangirl because he was way before his time in terms of being plain spoken and using a quarter word when he could, instead of a $5 word. And speaking his mind, even when it was unpopular. And while I understand people who, when I profess my fandom of Harry Truman, there are those in my party that have pushed back and said, but you know the bomb. You know he dropped the bomb. I say, yeah, but he also integrated the military, and I guarantee a polling support for integrating the military when he did it was probably somewhere around 10% of the country. He also recognized Israel. He did some things that were very controversial in its time, and he left Washington as a very unpopular guy. He only became popular after everybody figured out what a straight shooter he was and how what a breath of fresh air he really was in our American political system. So I tried to answer questions and not beat around the bush because I know that’s what Harry would have done.
PP: Yeah, so I want to thank you so much for sharing your reflections on these two influential people in our life and I want to go back to some of the things that you mentioned, starting back with your mother. Some of the things that you mentioned that you know her personality, and you said that she never met a stranger and one of the lessons your said you learned was that you know not to look down at somewhere or to preserve their dignity. How does that shape your political career? How does that shape you, you know, as you’re starting to get into this game, knowing the challenges that are there. How does that knowledge shape you and how did it, and how does it continue to shape you?
CM: Well, first of all, there were several times early in my career that my mom lessons to me paid off. When I was Assistant DA in Kansas City and I was really the only woman in the office and I was trying felony cases. And we had elevator operators. And I befriended the elevator operators. And one of them was uhm, you know, I know Precious was elderly. But I have no idea how old she was because gosh darn it, older Black women skin is just amazing. I just have to say it, OK? She may have been 80, but she sure didn’t look it. And she operated this elevator and she and I became buddies. And one day I was known for at times getting in trouble with judges because I spoke my mind maybe when I shouldn’t have, and I think that word had kind of gotten out through the courthouse. And so I got in the elevator one day and I was supposed to be in court in on another floor in the building. And the elevator was jammed, I mean it was full and I got in and I looked over at Precious and I said, “Precious, I’m in trouble. I’m supposed to be in Division 10 like in five minutes ago,” and with that she just looked at me and winked. And she did e she did this [gestures] on the elevator, express to my floor and got out and I ended up getting there on time. And so that was one of many lessons. I mean getting an endorsement of a group where the big leaders of the group had thrown in with my opponent in a very difficult primary when I was running early in my career. And I decided I would go to person by person through the membership.
Nobody did that nobody called each individual member of the group and said can I come have coffee with you?
So working the group instead of the leadership that was already predisposed to be for the guy that I was running against and the night of the endorsement meeting, there was an uprising. And the membership rose up against their leaders and endorsed me.
And it was another moment when I realized that if you treat people and give them the power they deserve, it’s way more likely that they’re going to trust you with their support. And I think that helped me, and I could name lots of other examples besides Precious in the elevator. But you know, they told me to knock on doors in certain neighborhoods because they said other neighborhoods in your district, they’re all going to vote for you anyway. Well, that’s a good example of what I’m talking about. That’s called taking people for granted the people they were referring to, by and large were African American people. They were Black people. And so I said, I’m gonna start there. So I started knocking doors and the black parts of my the Black communities within my district. And it was great. I learned a lot and it made me stronger and better as an elected official.
PP: Right. So relationships are so key to having a successful political career and engaging with the communities that are going to impact you.
CM: If you don’t like people. One thing, if you like money don’t go into politics. And if you don’t like people, don’t go into politics because it is a people business at the end of the day.
PP: Yeah. Well, the second person he mentioned and expounded on was Harry Truman and I’d like to take some of your examples that you gave and with this into this next question, which is, what would you say was the biggest challenge in their political career and why?
And before you answer again, you mentioned this contradiction of President Truman being the President who is associated with the atom bomb with the bomb dropping. He’s also the president who’s accomplished the integration of the military as something that really influenced the Civil Rights Movement there. So those contradictory things and you talked about how that was most likely a challenge and it wasn’t polling very well when he made those decisions. So I’d like for you to think about challenges that you’ve had in your political career, in that context. And you said that you know, “what would Harry do?”
CM: I honestly Harry… Harry had a lot of growth on issues. When Harry Truman was a young politician and a younger man in Jackson County and growing up in Independence, Missouri.
I would not say, you wouldn’t call Harry woke. Harry was about as far from woke as you could possibly be.
PP: And by woke, just to clarify?
CM: Well, I mean he was… I think he had a lot of bias about Black people growing up.
PP: And to be woke is to be conscious of how racism or bias can be detrimental?
CM: Exactly exactly.
CM: I think he was not someone who was sensitive to the unfairness and the inequities in the American life when it came to Black Americans and how they were being treated. And I think he grew to understand how unfair it was. And there was a number of examples. Another example that is one of my favorites is there was a Native American that was being buried with honors. And as the burial was about to occur and this was somewhere in the South – they stopped the burial when they realized it was a Native American and said — this was a decorated war hero — they wouldn’t bury this man because he wasn’t white in this particular military cemetery.
Well, Harry Truman had the body flown to Arlington and buried that man with full honors – and his family, had them all flown to Washington. I think he arrived at that. He learned.
And I can think of issues in my career. I mean, I come from a very conservative state. You understand if you’re from Arkansas. Missouri is not a place… I mean there’s a reason why we couldn’t make up our mind in the Civil War. Frankly, it has gone way more red now. It’s very much more conservative and Republican now than it was back when I was running.
But at the time, there were many issues that were very difficult for me in Missouri. Some things I believed in very deeply. Like a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. That was never a majority position in my state, but I held it and I won with it because there were other things I think I brought to those campaigns that voters, that appealed to voters.
But I certainly made a transition, for example, on gay marriage. I mean that would be a Harry Truman transition, from me as a younger woman, not really understanding the depth of discrimination, that you couldn’t marry someone you love. And how really, if you think about it, that’s kind of weird. And so that was a transition I went through.
Immigration had parts of it that were hard for me. It’s a hard state because most people in Missouri, they were in denial that most of our crops, a lot of our crops, in Missouri were actually being processed with people from Mexico that were coming up either with work visas or illegally, and the farmers that were railing against immigration were also the ones that were paying them on the side to get all the cotton out of the ground and down in the boot heel.
So I’d say there were a number of issues where I grew over time. There were also issues that I just had to buck up and take votes that were not popular at home. And hope that I could emphasize the parts of my record that would appeal to more voters, and they’d overlook that part.
But at the end of the day, you gotta… As my mother told me when before she passed away, she said, “what’s the point of having the job if you don’t make somebody mad?” I mean, you can’t really get anything done if you don’t make somebody mad, right?
You don’t have to have every vote, you just have one more than the other guy. So try to stay true to yourself, and even if you only get one more vote than the other guy, you don’t have to have everybody like you.
And I think that that’s part of the problem what’s going on now is people are trying so hard to please the base of their party that they are unwilling to make those votes that are “politically risky.”
PP: I was going to ask you about that. It’s really interesting to hear you talk about growth and the growth that you had all these issues. You know we – and when I say we, I’m talking about citizens of our democracy, engaged citizens of our democracy – we want to hear our elected officials talk about growth and so I appreciate your candor in sharing that. At the same time, I wonder how you square this philosophy of being true to yourself, being willing to grow and learn issues with the current political climate, even within your own party where you have to make these political calculations.
I just want to hear you to speak to that. And for someone who might be thinking about getting into politics, what advice would you give them in terms of trying to square that?
CM: Well, I think you need to be honest with the voters first. I never tried to pretend that I was not, for example, in favor of women reproductive freedom. I never tried to pretend that I thought everybody carrying a concealed weapon was a good idea. I didn’t hide the views that many Missourians might have disagreed with during campaigns. I mean it’s very hard to do that unless you’re just going to outright lie about it.
And so I had that comfort that Missourians knew they elected a pro-choice United States senator. That wasn’t a secret. I’d had a pro-choice record for many, many years when I went to the United States Senate.
It doesn’t keep it from being difficult when they’re all up in your grill about, when the people that disagree with you on that issue, because that’s one that really divides people.
I really… I mean, and I’m going to speak about that tonight at this event.
PP: The lecture.
CM: Yeah, I’m going to speak about this in the lecture about bipartisanship and compromise and what has happened and why the wheels come off and can we get them back on? It is complicated, howthis has happened. And by the way it is really happened fairly quickly, because when I came to the United States Senate in 2007, the first amendment I passed on the floor of the Senate was an amendment giving collective bargaining to TSA agents. And I passed that amendment by a vote of 51 to 49. Now no one would allow that to happen today because they would require 60 votes. That was back before this rigid partisanship kind of gripped the Senate, and I’m sure if my friends that are – and I have many of them that are Republican Senators – were here, they would want to blame Harry Reid.
I kind of want to blame Mitch McConnell. But I think part of the problem is that our media today is so segmented and people now can go to a source for affirmation rather than information. No one is getting the straight news and getting the facts. Everyone going – the people who are most active and making the most noise in the system are in these calcified bubbles where they feed off each other.
Aren’t we right? Oh yeah, we’re right. Oh yes, a horse wormer is OK for COVID. Oh, the vaccine is going to kill you. Or oh, anybody who’s not taking the vaccine is an idiot — you know, and depending on which side you’re on.
That’s what really has shown me how political this has become, when you are politicizing a pandemic. Where whether you wear a mask tells you who you voted for president. Something is really wrong. I mean it is.. something’s hinky. And we have got to really begin thinking about the fact that my Republican friends and frankly all my Democratic friends that are in office, they all revere the Constitution and everybody needs to take a look at it because they drafted that thing to make us compromise.
CM: I mean, the reason is checks and balances is because they wanted everybody to compromise. The reason that one party can control the presidency and another party can control the legislative branch. Most democracies don’t have that. Most democracies, whatever party wins the legislative race controls the executive branch. Oh, no no no. Not our Founding Fathers. They wanted there to be compromise.
And the fact that that has become such a dirty word is really sad to me, and it means our country is less stable because the changes in our laws maybe won’t stick around as long. They’re going to swing back and forth with the vicissitudes of those swing voters and I think the last six years have shown, those swing voters can be pretty fickle.
PP: Yeah, yeah, well, I think we’ve just got a few minutes left. My goodness, this has gone by so fast. I’m going to ask you a few questions that I wanted to know about. Well first, what would listeners be surprised to hear is your greatest accomplishment? You’ve had many accomplishments, but tell us something that might be surprising in terms of your greatest accomplishment.
CM: I think my biggest accomplishment was drug courts. When I came into the prosecutor’s office, as the elected DA in Kansas City, we were housing low level drug offenders in jails and huge cost taxpayers, and none of them had ever hurt anyone. They had a public health addition… I mean, addiction is a disease and most of them were committing property crimes because they were addicted or nuisance crimes because they were addicted. And there were a few drug courts when I took over in 1992 but only like one or two and most of them had been created by judges trying to alleviate crowded dockets.
I was really one of the first prosecutors in the country to say we’re going to do a drug court. The police didn’t want it. My staff didn’t want it. The neighborhoods weren’t sure why it was a good thing. And basically it’s a treatment module that is run by a court. So there is accountability. There is praise when someone does well. You could relapse and not get kicked out of the program as long as you were still trying.
That was the beginning of a real movement in this country. Now, drug courts are everywhere. They are all across the world. I have traveled to other countries to talk about them and help start them and it is… I know we have a problem in this country with incarceration but drug courts have made a difference.
They’ve taken a lot of people out of a prison bed and put them in a treatment program where they really belong. And the moment that I knew that it worked is when we had a graduation about two years after we started the program. And the SWAT team that was so against it – ’cause they’re the ones that knocked down the doors of drug houses – I looked in the back of the room at graduation and there were a bunch of guys from the SWAT team that knocked down doors that was called Street Narcotics Unit, it was not really a SWAT team, it was a street narcotics unit. There was this new unit in uniform in the back of the courtroom for the graduation, standing and applauding the graduates. And I thought OK, this is how you would do good public policy around the problem of crime and drugs.
So that’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of, and then of course my family.
PP: Well that’s wonderful. Last question. I think that we’ll have quite a few of our undergraduate students listening. Can you briefly tell us what was your favorite undergraduate course and or graduate course? Either one of those.
CM: There was no course in law school that was my favorite.
PP: [laughs] OK.
CM: So undergraduate was probably, “The American Political Party,” duh. I had a professor that was wonderful. Dr. David Leuthold at the University of Missouri. He figured out that I was into it and was really good about encouraging me. In fact, he wrote a letter of reference for me for a summer program in Washington and said – and I still have it – “she’ll hold political office someday.”
So I say the “American Political Party,” that was my jam.
PP: Well that’s great. At the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, we support faculty and so I love that you remembered your professor because that’s what it’s all about. Coming to a university and having great teachers, and then going out and doing great things, which is just what you have done. Senator McCaskill, thank you so much for joining us today.
CM: Same – thank you, it’s been my pleasure.
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