RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

She'll Run the Show

The Y2K election has provided the nation with a political conversation we all can enjoy. Indeed, even though 50% of us didn't bother to vote, polls show that 100% have opinions about what should happen next.

Fresh fodder for the pundits, bards, and stand-up comics, it's spawning so much good material that we don't want to turn off the TV. Still, with the good comes bad and one line must be forgotten. That's the oft-repeated "Missourians are so disgusted with the system that, on election day, they elected a dead man to the Senate."

It's true that our senatorial candidate, Governor Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash two weeks before the election, and that the Secretary of State felt there was too little time to reprint ballots. But Missourians had many choices on election day. If we wanted to show our disgust with the US Senate, we could vote for Reform, Libertarian, Green, or Natural Law candidates. We voted for Democrat Mel Carnahan because we knew what he stood for and we believe that Jean Carnahan, an accomplished professional woman, will carry the legacy forward.

Which brings up the second-worst oft-repeated punditry of the season: Jean Carnahan won because she got the "widow vote." This vile little ditty has been repeated even by people who otherwise appear to have brains in their heads. Please note: The Show-Me state is sending Washington a woman of accomplishment and wisdom, who will serve our state well. "I knew it was what my husband would want me to do," she told Oprah Winfrey in an interview due to air Dec. 28, "We had fought so much for the things he believed in and I didn't want to see them die with that plane crash."

Jean Carnahan is a familiar person to Missourians. She appeared with Mel at government ceremonies and celebrations at the capitol. Cars lined up for miles on the holidays, bringing families to visit the Governor's mansion, decorated all spooky and Halloween and all festive for the winter holidays. Jean insisted that the mansion belongs to all Missourians.

So many Missourians have met Jean, or know someone who worked for her, that she's like a friend whose career we follow, even though we're not seeing much of each other. And, as my daughter Heather Roberson points out, Missourians have for years seen our leaders as half the picture and their families as the completion. Heather is working on a literacy project book about Missouri women, and points to the legacy of President Harry Truman and wife Bess, whom he called "The Boss." As their daughter Margaret Truman told Look Magazine in 1949: "She's far more than The Boss. She's everything in this outfit ... She runs the show wherever she goes ..."

Bess Truman edited speeches and reports and conferred on policy. She had her own office in the capitol and was paid a salary, and that brought criticism from some quarters. The Trumans made it clear that they were a team.

On Nov. 7, Missourians cast votes for Mel Carnahan as votes for the team, not votes for a widow. With maybe five or ten exceptions, Missourians aren't so dull-witted that we'll throw away our vote for sympathy. Many Missourians split their ballots -- putting the state Presidential R column and replacing the R senator with a D.

Farmers had a good guide. On Oct. 25, Missouri Rural Crisis Center and Missouri Farmers Union released a candidate's survey, a list of questions which had gone to all political candidates.

Senatorial candidates Carnahan, and Hugh Foley for the Reform party and Evaline Taylor of the Greens responded to all the farm groups' questions. Republican incumbent John Ashcroft didn't respond, despite repeated phone calls to his office. Little wonder: Senator Ashcroft had already demonstrated his disdain for family farmers, and had co-sponsored the Freedom-to-Farm act, which has been devastating to family farms.

Mel Carnahan answered the questions thoroughly. He supported a moratorium on agribusiness mergers, supported changing the Freedom to Farm Act, and supported the notion that tax dollars spent on food, through our schools and prison system for example, are spent on food that comes from American family farms. He supported country-of-origin labeling on agricultural products so that you'll know if the broccoli you buy was raised in China, Mexico, or by one of your neighbors. If Carnahan had lived, he would have concluded his term by presiding in December 2000 over Missouri's annual Governor's Conference on Agriculture, the first to focus on sustainability.

Environmentalists liked Carnahan, too. When two chip mills set up shop in the Ozarks, chewing away hundreds of acres per day, Carnahan set up a committee to study the situation and answer questions like, "Do chip mills clear-cut, thereby creating erosion?" "Do chip mills create jobs?" "Do chip mills threaten tourism?" The answers to their questions has paved the way for a joint effort between sustainable loggers and environmentalists, and might even force the chip mills out of the state.

Not that enviros and farmers thought the Carnahan record was perfect. He was one of 13 governors in a "pro-biotech" consortium. In 1996, he signed the bill that allowed corporations to own farmland in three counties of our state, a bill that was illegal because it singled out certain counties as exempt from state law. The bill also paved the way for giant hog factory Premium Standard Farms to set up business. Kicked out of Iowa because of disdain for the law, PSF's Missouri record has been one of devastation, worker exploitation, and market manipulation.

To Carnahan's credit, he began refusing campaign contributions from PSF when he realized that the corporation was determined to break laws and manipulate regulators. Carnahan returned $1,500 in 1996 and $500 in 2000. Ashcroft received $5,100 from PSF, and initially refused to return it even though PSF was costing taxpayers money in cleanup costs and tying up our court system with lawsuits from neighbors, environmentalists and employees.

When Mel Carnahan's plane went down, we felt like our hopes went with it. I'll remember forever where I was when I heard the news. It was 6 a.m. Our houseguests, Nick Palumbo and Granny D, walking across Missouri in support of campaign finance reform, had gotten up and turned on the TV, which roused my husband, who poked me into consciousness. Maybe they needed some breakfast?

I pulled on a bathrobe and went into the living room. Nick said, "Your Governor's dead." I went into denial. Nick's from Chicago. What does he know about my governor? "No," I said.

"Plane crash," said Nick. He'd heard the night before, when he checked his e-mail. We watched the TV for a minute, a live feed from the crash site. With the early-morning light, the scene might as well have been in black and white -- white-suited guys on a grey hill poking around a small, white, caved-in airplane.

Slowly, the questions came to me: How would it be to lose a husband, a son, and a friend, in one unexpected instant? One of my neighbors did research for Jean Carnahan's book about Missouri first families -- how was my neighbor getting along?

The day of the funeral, business stopped in mid-Missouri. The streets of Jefferson City were impassable with mourners lined up to see the procession. Flags flew at half-mast for a month.

The appearances by Jean Carnahan after the plane crash have shown her to be as well-composed in her grieving as we've seen in good times. When Acting Governor Roger Wilson announced that he would appoint her to the Senate seat if we elected Mel, we anxiously awaited her response.

When Jean Carnahan accepted, with a gracious statement from the living room of the family farmhouse, we were delighted. We will send Washington one of our best.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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