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Government, Politics & Issues

Remembering Mel Carnahan and the day Missouri's political landscape shook

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 16, 2010 - During Thursday's U.S. Senate debate in Kansas City, former Sen. Jean Carnahan -- the mother of Democratic nominee Robin Carnahan -- was overcome with memories about the last time she witnessed such a face-off in Kansas City.

It was held almost exactly 10 years ago, on Oct. 15, 2000. The U.S. Senate candidates on stage that year: her husband, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat challenging the Republican incumbent, then-Sen. John Ashcroft, in one of the most combative contests in the country.

Twenty-four hours later, shortly before 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, Mel Carnahan, 66, was killed in a plane crash in Jefferson County along with the pilot -- son Roger Carnahan, 44, (known as Randy) -- and Carnahan's closest aide, communications chief Chris Sifford, 37. The trio had been on their way to a campaign event in the Bootheel, when a storm prompted Randy Carnahan to try to return to St. Louis.

This Saturday evening, members of the Carnahan family -- arguably Missouri's best-known Democratic dynasty -- will gather with friends in St. Louis to mark the 10th anniversary of a family tragedy that was played out in public. Sifford's relatives also are gathering in his home town of Puxico, Mo., with the two groups converging via conference call. The Siffords will also announce college scholarships funded with donations, including some from the Carnahan family, to honor the victims.

Saturday's gatherings will be low-key and personal, nothing like the nationally recorded funerals.

President Bill Clinton delivered the eulogy at the governor's memorial service on the steps of the state Capitol, before thousands filling the streets and countless others watching on television. The tragic event also unofficially and unexpectedly launched a most unusual new chapter in Mel Carnahan's posthumous candidacy.

On Nov. 2, 2000, Mel Carnahan became the first -- and so far, only -- deceased candidate to win election to the U.S. Senate. His interim successor as governor, Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson, appointed Jean Carnahan to serve as interim senator until the election in November 2002, which she lost to Republican Jim Talent.

The plane crash launched Missouri's elected officials, political parties, the press and the public on an emotional three-week odyssey that altered the state's political climate.

Since then, most of the major figures have moved on or out of politics. That's also true for all but a handful of the state's journalists.

Among those still around are me, Jo Mannies, now a political writer for the Beacon, and independent journalist Terry Ganey. At the time of the crash, Ganey was the Jefferson City bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and I was the regional political correspondent.

What follows are some of our recollections of the sad, but unforgettable proceedings.

The night of Oct. 16, 2000 and the aftermath

I got the word shortly before 8 p.m. on Mon., Oct. 16, 2000. I had just returned home -- exhausted over covering that Kansas City debate. I had rushed back to St. Louis to confer with editors and colleagues about the presidential debate slated to be held the next day at Washington University. I was to co-write the main story with a member of the Post-Dispatch's Washington bureau, Deirdre Shesgreen.

(Shesgreen had covered Carnahan that afternoon at the Chase-Park Plaza and had entertained a proposal to join him, Sifford and his son on the plane to cover their evening event in New Madrid. She didn't go because of the presidential debate.)

I was sitting at my home computer when an editor called to inquire if Randy Carnahan owned a plane. Chatter on the police scanner indicated that an aircraft registered to him had just crashed in Jefferson County. A night police reporter was heading out.

My stomach lurched. "If it's Randy Carnahan's plane, the governor is on it,'' I said. The editor paused. "Are you sure?" "Yes." "Can you confirm it?" "I'll try."

I numbly dialed the cell phone of Roy Temple, one of Carnahan's top campaign consultants and a boyhood friend of Sifford. Temple answered, and his emotional response told me everything. Our brief and painful conversation will stick with me forever.

After calling in my confirmation to the editor in charge, I went to the Carnahan headquarters, where I camped out in the parking lot -- talking at times with his press aides -- until my office told me to go home and get some sleep.

Within minutes of my call, an editor called Ganey in Jefferson City. Ganey was the first news reporter to arrive in the governor's office in the state Capitol the night of the crash.

As Ganey recalls:

"While there was no official announcement that Gov. Mel Carnahan had been killed, the grief written on the faces of the governor's office staff confirmed the worst. Sharon Schreiber, one of the secretaries to the governor's press aide, burst out crying while a nearby CNN reporter recounted Carnahan's career. Outside the governor's office, a red-eyed Rob Crouse, the governor's speechwriter, hugged Phil Tate, a former state representative who was then an official of the state Department of Economic Development.

"At about midnight, statewide elected officials began arriving: Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson, Secretary of State Rebecca Cook, Auditor Claire McCaskill, Attorney General Jay Nixon, House Speaker Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, and Senate President Pro Tem Ed Quick, D-Liberty.

"The group made up six members of the nine-member 'disability board.' Under the state Constitution, the disability board is empowered to declare when the governor is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. In that event, the lieutenant governor, assumes power.

"At 2:24 a.m. state history was in the making. The six officials gathered in a side office adjacent to the governor's reception room. It was clear many of them had been weeping. The six had signed a statement saying that pursuant to the Constitution 'a majority of a disability board transmits our written declaration that Gov. Mel Carnahan is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.'

"The voice of Jerry Nachtigal, the governor's spokesman, wavered emotionally as he read the statement."

But it took almost 24 hours more before Wilson was officially sworn in as the new governor, at 1:08 a.m. on Wed., Oct. 18, in a somber ceremony. The proceedings had been delayed until the Jefferson County medical examiner's office announced that it had identified Carnahan's remains. Joe Bednar, the governor's legal counsel, said the confirmation from the medical examiner was "legally sufficient" to allow for Wilson to become governor.

The next three weeks were marathons for Ganey and me. The Post-Dispatch put out a special edition on the morning of Oct. 17. National officials briefly discussed the possibility of delaying the presidential debate, but held it anyway. Shesgreen covered it alone.

The presidential event was incidental compared to the massive, front-page, wall-to-wall coverage of the crash and its aftermath -- first of the funerals, then of the strange, strained campaigns that continued for the final two weeks.

Ganey was the chief reporter for the governor's public funeral service. I was in the press pool assigned to accompany Clinton and his entourage when they flew in for the funeral. They included the president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and his then-wife, Tipper Gore.

The four had arrived in Columbia in separate presidential planes because all had been campaigning elsewhere in the country. The vision of the four planes -- Air Force One, Air Force Two and their backups -- parked facing each other on the tarmac at the Columbia airport still sticks with me.

In Jefferson City, the presidential motorcade parked beneath the Capitol after dropping off the dignitaries and the army of journalists so they could join the funeral procession from the Governor's Mansion to the Capitol, led by the governor's widow, Jean Carnahan. Ashcroft and Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo. -- both former governors -- also were part of the procession.

I sat on the Capitol steps to the side of the president, as he delivered his remarks. But arguably the most noteworthy address came from Robin Carnahan, who tearfully eulogized her father and beseeched the crowd, "Don't let the fire go out!"

The next day, Ganey covered the burial services for the governor and his son.

"My last news assignment connected to these events brought me to the Carson Hill Cemetery, nestled on a hillside among golden-leafed hardwoods near Ellsinore in southern Missouri," Ganey recalls. "There, on the evening of Sat., Oct. 21, the governor and his son were buried as the sun began to sink behind the ancient Ozark mountains.

"I wrote the story on a portable computer while standing up in a convenience store down there. I paid the clerk $10 to let me use the telephone to send the story by computer to the paper."

I covered Sifford's funeral, held Sunday in Puxico. The town packed the school gym. The speakers included Jean Carnahan, who made her first public remarks since the plane crash.

Ashcroft had put his campaign on hold for a week, until after all the funerals were over. He then found his every move publicly scrutinized. At one point, he told reporters, "I don't know who my opponent is. Or if I even have an opponent."

After Wilson announced his intention to appoint Jean Carnahan, should her deceased husband win, the widow waited several days before she announced at a news conference that she would accept the post, if her late husband won. Campaign buttons circulated with Robin Carnahan's declaration from the memorial service, "Don't let the fire go out!"

Some Republicans raised questions as to whether Mel Carnahan could legally remain on the ballot. The controversy was gaining some momentum when retired U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo., held a news conference downtown. A lawyer known for sometimes outrageous statements, Eagleton waved documents and pointedly shouted that any live candidate -- meaning Ashcroft -- who "loses to a dead man doesn't deserve to sit in the U.S. Senate."

The argument was over.

The Democrats' election-eve rally, in the America's Center as storms raged outside, featured their presidential nominee, Al Gore. But tensions rose when an announcer said that the weather had delayed the arrival of the nominee for governor, Bob Holden, who had been flying in. When Holden walked unannounced on stage, the crowd roared -- mainly in relief.

Emotions ran high election night, with Bond pounding the lectern in anger amid the controversy over polling-place problems in St. Louis. Democrats had vainly sought to extend voting for three hours. Lawyers for both national presidential tickets were battling it out in federal courts downtown.

But when the totals were in, Ashcroft graciously conceded. (A few weeks later, new President-elect George W. Bush announced that Ashcroft would be his new attorney general).

Jean Carnahan was sworn in as the state's new senator. Controversy arose when she declined to confirm Ashcroft's appointment.

Amid all the new precedents, there also was the emotional backdrop for the reporters, including Ganey and me, of covering the deaths of people we knew.

Ganey, in particular, recalls his many dealings with Sifford, a former reporter with the Springfield News-Leader.

"Sifford helped me report an exclusive story for the Post-Dispatch during the Jan. 27, 1999, visit of Pope John Paul II to St. Louis. Sifford confirmed a tip I received that the pontiff had asked Carnahan to spare the life of Darrell Mease, a convicted murder," Ganey said. "The next day, Carnahan made the politically unpopular decision of commuting Mease's death sentence to life without parole.

"On Oct. 5, less than two weeks before the crash, I lunched with Sifford at the Madison Cafe in Jefferson City where we discussed Carnahan's bid for the U.S. Senate. For a press spokesman, I considered Sifford to be a general straight-shooter, probably the best at his craft for any governor before or since. He didn't hold grudges and kept his sense of humor despite the pressures of his job."

Ganey attended Sifford's funeral, spending the night at a motel in southern Missouri after covering the Carnahans' services. Explained Ganey: "I didn't go to cover it; I just wanted to be there."

I had covered Mel Carnahan's campaigns for 10 years, riding a bus with him and other Democrats for days during a 1996 statewide tour (with a penchant for neatness, the governor was a one-man cleanup crew).

I also had visited the Carnahan's farm in Rolla, Mo., in 1999 for a campaign profile. Carnahan -- a very private man -- had never before allowed a reporter to visit the farm, and did so only because his campaign staff pressed him to do it after Ashcroft had gotten a three-part series in the Post-Dispatch. One of my most memorable images of that day is of Randy Carnahan standing on a horse to pick an apple off a tree, with his father watching with amusement.

But most of all, I will never forget my last conversation with Mel Carnahan, in Kansas City, right after that last debate with Ashcroft.

The governor was shaking his water bottle at me. "There you are," he said sternly, noting that I was late for his post-debate comments.

He playfully chided me for covering Ashcroft's post-debate remarks first. (I'd covered Carnahan's first at their earlier debate, I replied.) Carnahan then complained, in part in jest, about a front-page Post-Dispatch story that day about Social Security -- not written by me -- that he had disliked. He then detailed his objections.

I wondered aloud when he had found the time to read the story because I sure hadn't.

He said he had read it on the plane.

Epilogue

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, was a city state legislator at the time of the crash. Carnahan recalls being home in his kitchen when he got a call from his sister, Robin, alerting him of the tragic news. Russ Carnahan had to swiftly get in touch with his wife, Debra Carnahan, who was delivering a campaign speech for his father.

Now, 10 years later, Russ Carnahan says his elder brother and his father remain alive in his thoughts -- in part because so many other people remember them as well.

"Not a week goes by when someone doesn't mention it to me,'' he said. Aside from their condolences, people often have some fond story to tell about his father or brother. Russ Carnahan said he doesn't mind such remembrances: "It's a way to keep them very much alive in our thoughts."

Jean Carnahan, now 76, says a handful of former staffers will join the family at Saturday's evening gathering. She recently visited the graves of her husband and eldest son and was pleased to see that many visitors have continued the family's tradition of placing stones by the tombstones.

But Saturday won't be just to mark the deaths of her husband and eldest son. The family also will celebrate the recent birthdays of two grandchildren: a 3-year-old granddaughter who's the child of Jean Carnahan's youngest son, Tom, and a 17-year-old grandson, one of Russ Carnahan's children.

"It will be a good balance,'' she said. "We remember Mel, Randy and Chris, but we will also celebrate life."

For herself, Jean Carnahan noted that she has written several books and now regularly blogs about her political views. "As Shakespeare said,'' Jean Carnahan added softly, "In one's lifetime, you have many parts."

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