As we approach 2016, the nation turns its attention to the long, arduous path to the White House, now occupied by an African-American and sought by female candidates. Not much more than a couple of decades ago, the thought of a Barack Obama or a Hillary Clinton as president seemed more fantasy than reality.
In the past 25 years, however, political barriers have fallen. Many of those barriers were shattered by Carol Moseley Braun, the first (and to date, only) African-American woman to serve in the United States Senate.
The historical importance of Moseley Braun’s election from the politically vital state of Illinois (the state has voted for the candidate who would win nearly every presidential election) still reverberates today. Obama credits Moseley Braun with showing him the way to his Illinois Senate seat. And sexism has already become and promises to remain an issue in the 2016 campaign.
Just in time for the new political season, Emmy-winning journalist Jeannie Morris is releasing Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Moseley Braun’s Historic Senate Campaign (Agate Midway; September 8, 2015), an inside recounting of Moseley Braun’s meteoric rise—and fall—from the national political scene. Morris worked at the center of the Moseley Braun campaign, with unlimited access to staff and the candidate herself. The book details not only Moseley Braun’s triumphant senate run, but the personal relationship with her campaign manager that led to her political undoing.
Morris recently gave BookTrib an inside look at the book, her time on the Moseley Braun campaign, and her views on the roles of race and gender in politics.
BookTrib: What was behind your decision to publish this story now, more than 20 years after the end of the Carol Moseley Braun campaign ended?
Jeannie Morris: I’ve been harboring a vast amount of material: countless interviews—including with Moseley Braun herself—press reports, my own extensive notes and journals, and the first draft of a manuscript that I chose not to publish after the election. But someone someday was going to write about this complicated, fascinating and talented woman, and I thought this real-time material should be a part of the historical record.
I have a second motive, as well. I want readers to relive the days in October 1991 that led to Carol’s eventual election—that is, the hearings in which Professor Anita Hill testified before an all-white, all-male Senate panel, explaining to them how Clarence Thomas, whom they were poised to confirm as a Supreme Court Justice, had sexually harassed her years before when she had been his assistant. The senators were not hearing Professor Hill, but female America was, and the contempt shown by that panel kicked off what was to become 1992’s Year of the Woman.
The Carol Moseley Braun story is published as our first African American president finishes his second term and our first viable woman candidate seeks to follow him in the oval office. And all of the issues—notably around race and gender—that stirred the electorate in 1992 are still with us today. Hopefully, Carol’s story will contribute some understanding of the deeply ingrained prejudices that still bind our increasingly diverse country. My admittedly cynical guess is that the covert—even overt—sexism Hillary Clinton will face will trump the more subtle racism Barack Obama has had to struggle with.
BT: What were your expectations when you first decided to join the Moseley Braun campaign to record it for a book?
JM: I thought Carol would do what she said she would do: that is, let me ride along with the campaign, be accessible, sit for interviews when she had time, etc. In fact, by the time I joined up at the beginning of the general election campaign our relationship was influenced—as were virtually all of her relationships—by her romantic involvement with her young South African campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews. Interestingly, until the very end when he himself was accused of sexual harassment, Matthews was on board with the ultimate aim of getting a book out of the campaign experience. I’m not sure he understood that I was interested in the truth.
BT: Moseley Braun’s political career was essentially ruined by her choice of romantic partner. Today, people still discuss what Hillary Clinton’s decision to stay with her husband “says” about her. Why do female politicians face so much more scrutiny than their male counterparts?
JM: Hillary Clinton and her husband have a powerful, mutually beneficial partnership—not to mention huge shared interests and ambitions. There was no way Hillary was going to give into the patriarchy and let herself be called a “scorned woman.” She controlled what had to be great emotional distress in the interest of a stable family and her personal vision for a future. Hillary has defied stereotype all her life. And she has paid—and will continue to pay—a high price for that defiance.