She took me to lunch at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, one of Canada’s historic castles. It was enchanting, and I was as enamored with the place as I was Jeannie and her résumé, which she downplayed, wanting to hear more about me and mine. The one thing of her own that she did want to talk about was a passion book project — the story of Carol Moseley Braun’s 1992 election to the United States Senate. Jeannie had been embedded with the campaign from the very beginning, and for two years worked closely with Moseley Braun, interviewing key staff and gaining nearly free access to the candidate — and a front row seat into the political theater that ensued. She wrote the book, but it was never published. At the time she didn’t say why. She, however, vowed one day to get the story out there — or held out hope that maybe someday someone else would.
Some years later, around 2011, Jeannie emailed me that her “CMB” book project, as she called it, was back on track, and she really wanted me to read it when it was done. When the uncorrected proofs for Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Moseley Braun’s Historic Senate Campaign arrived from Agate Publishing last fall, it took me a couple of days before I could sit down with it. I was a little afraid of what to tell Jeannie — now a trusted friend and confidante — if it felt irrelevant. I mean, it had been more than 20 years.
The story begins in 1991 — a crucial period in women’s history: a bold, courageous African-American woman takes the reigns of US politics with her bid for senate following Anita Hill’s dramatic revelation of sexual harassment against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Carol Moseley Braun, Cook County Recorder of Deeds, was angry and vocal about Thomas’s confirmation, saying on Chicago Tonight the things women across America, like Jeannie, were grumbling in their living rooms.
“I mean the issue here is one of attitude, the attitudes of Senate members, whether or not they value the whole question of sexual harassment sufficiently to make that an attitude they will discuss,” said Braun on her first appearance on the show.
Race, gender, power, and politics had been dumped into the shaker of that hearing room in October 1991, and when the ingredients were tossed on the table, new alliances and new constituencies were born. Between October 9 and October 15, when Carol Moseley Braun again appeared on Chicago Tonight to express dismay over Illinois Democratic senator Alan Dixon’s vote to confirm Clarence Thomas, Americans sat down together to watch a televised spectacle that for each individual became quintessentially personal. Black men, white women, black women, white men — each of us brought some very personal experience to this drama and took something else away. In many cases, this was an altered consciousness. Importantly for what was about to happen, individual women became aware that they were not the only ones who had suffered these kinds of indignities. Gene gathered into cells, and cells sought an organism that might have the power to effect real social change.
By November 19, 1991, Moseley Braun announces her candidacy, “the cheeky black lady from the South Side with her million-dollar smile and a big bucketful of brains and guts, set out to seriously disturb the political comfort zones,” Jeannie writes.
What might have started as a valiant David and Goliath tale then envelopes into a political soap opera, complete with Moseley Braun’s misplaced trust in a dashing, dangerously controlling lover (her young South African campaign manager Kgosie Matthews); of secrets (allegations of Matthews’s own sexual harassment within the campaign), and lies (a Medicaid scandal that threatened to end Moseley Braun’s election).
In between on-the-scene reporting, journal entries, and interviews — including candid discussions with Moseley Braun, Jeannie shares her own frustrations over the shortcomings of her political shero — a charismatic trailblazer who allowed her personal relationship with her campaign manager to undermine her next election, and, ultimately her political career.
The reason the book took more than two decades to publish was, for me, now obvious: black folks of a certain generation don’t air their dirty laundry out in public — even though it been hanging on the line for a couple of years. Moseley Braun was of that mind.
After sending Moseley Braun the first draft of the book in January 1994, Jeannie concedes that she knew the backstage saga of her ultimate victory would be too hard for the senator to confront — not to mention Matthews’s insistence that if it were ever published, Moseley Braun “would live to regret it.”
“For me, Carol’s weaknesses were understandable and her strengths phenomenal,” Jeannie writes:
How many white guys had we resurrected from much worse scandals? For God’s sake, we’d just forgiven Bill Clinton for Gennifer Flowers and elected him president of the United States! Carol Moseley Braun could spawn a whole new political paradigm. Powerful people were picking up the phone when she called. She could accomplish great things.
I use the word “forgiven” in regard to Clinton’s dalliance with Gennifer Flowers. But that’s probably the wrong word. It was more like “acceptance.”
In her correspondences with Moseley Braun in the following months, they had set up several potential appointments but the two never really spoke again.
“It became clear that she did not want the book published,” Jeannie writes, “and I did not want to go ahead without her. Her success was important to me. But so was the truth.”
As I read through the pages of the manuscript, the story revealed important connections of this past to our present — featuring many who would eventually become players to the senatorial and presidential campaigns of Barack Obama — addressing issues that continue to be paramount in our current election landscape. Race, gender, power, politics — it’s all still front and center, and not much has changed significantly. Honestly, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: After all these years, why was now the right time for you to tell this story?
JEANNIE MORRIS: The main reason is because if you Google Carol and search the public records and so on, it doesn’t talk about her great skills, or the fact that she was a good senator. It talks about all the scandals. I couldn’t ignore those things. I wanted the historical record to be more balanced — and it’s just part of the record because it’s my point-of-view and that of the people I interviewed. I felt very compelled to do that because there’s just so damn much crap going around now.
I did ask her if she wanted to revisit it. Originally it was going to be a co-produced thing, but she didn’t want to, and I kind of understand why she just wanted to forget it. She just wanted to bury it. I think that’s a shame because the racial discussions we’re having now, she would be an important voice. She’s got plenty of experience and has a pretty darn balanced view of things. I wish she would be part of the conversation, but I respect her need not to.
I recently had an opportunity to attend an engagement with Anita Hill here in Los Angeles, and it was very interesting how openly she talks about the hearings; what happened to her, the reactions from not only the country in general, but comments she received from black women and black men. Those hearings, as you lay out in the book, became the catalyst to Carol’s run. And while you’ve mentioned you understand why Carol has decided ultimately not to participate in sharing her story, it struck me as an interesting juxtaposition where here you have these two black women who really were at the forefront of change in the early 1990s, and Anita is now more than happy to discuss her ordeal publicly, while Carol retreated to obscurity. Why do you think that is?
Yes, that’s true, and I guess that it’s understandable [given] her personality. She feels like she was abused, and in the book it talks about how she was abused as a child, and that changes people’s point-of-view. I had this experience just recently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me. I read it because I’ve admired his writing for a long time, especially the piece he did on reparations in The Atlantic — a fabulously researched, long piece. So I read this book, which says it was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I was always inspired by James Baldwin, too, and so I read Coates’s book, and then I reread Baldwin’s Fire Next Time, and it was interesting to me. Coates’s father beat him when he did things that he thought put him in danger. In other words, his discipline — and Coates finally realized it came from love — was pretty brutal, and it was because he lived on the streets of Baltimore and he was afraid for his son.
So Coates, with all this brilliance, was brought up with real physical, real street-level fear, basically. Baldwin actually comes from a place of love, I think, in his writing. He had hope. Coates leaves you just hopeless. I mean, he says it’s a letter to his son, and his son is 15, and the picture his father is painting for him is kinda hopeless: your black body is a target and you can’t forget that. Baldwin, if you read him, was more hopeful about these things. I think that comes from who they are and how they grew up. They both have huge emotional intelligence, and these emotions are a part of who they are. It’s the same with Carol and Anita. Anita is an accomplished person from a very supportive family with a bunch of siblings [she had seven brothers and five sisters]. Carol came from a family that had a lot of grief attached to it, including physical abuse, and I think that affects her point-of-view of the world. And that’s the only thing that I could say, that I understand Carol because Carol doesn’t want to take any more crap. Getting herself out there, she might have to take it again. She doesn’t want to. So, I understand that.
It makes sense, that someone who has lived a life of emotional and even physical abuse wouldn’t want to put him or herself out there to be abused again.
Even though she doesn’t even see it racially. She’s really always said she gets much more grief because she’s a woman than because she’s black — always, in her whole career. She always made that point. But so have other black women politicians.
Like Shirley Chisholm, whom you mention in her 1997 presidential campaign, saw her bid as more of a power struggle between genders rather than races.
It is about just being a target, and Carol just thinks it’s the nature of politics. They’re piling on all the time.
Let’s talk about your approach to the material. You were initially planning to write it as a reported biography in cooperation with Carol. Now it’s more of a reported memoir. When did you come to terms with this being the way you’d have to tell this story?
When she said she didn’t want to go back and reflect on those times, and I decided that there was a responsibility for this material to get out there, including the very important real-time interviews with the staff. So really, the only honest way I could do it was say: “Hello, this is my point-of-view.”
But then you layer each chapter, revealing so much about Carol as a woman, as a black American woman, as a wife, a divorcée, a mother, as a mother of a bi-racial child, as a politician, and then as a candidate — and a historical candidate at that — as well as the many, many players involved. Sometimes I had to go back and reread chapters just to make sure I got it all. How were you able to wrap your head around the sheer organizing of the thing?
[Laughs] Well, I really just went back to my journals, and they have a lot more detail about conversations and things like that than I had in the original draft of this thing, and there were people who were close to her, conversations with people who were very close to Carol on a daily basis, and I wanted to get that feeling in there, and so I used the journals and highlighted everything that I thought was worthwhile. There’s a ton of stuff in those journals that’s just gossip, and you would hear it daily like any workplace, but there’s also some substantial material.
Then I went back to the interviews I’d done, and I’ll tell you, it was like being an archeologist. I did this original manuscript on a Mac Classic. It’s about the second generation of Macintoshes, and the first really popular one, and it’s a little tiny computer. All the material was on that in WordPerfect, and copies of it on floppy disc. So I had to excavate all this material in order to get back to reread it all.
After the excavation, which took quite a while, then I just started outlining and took out a lot of stuff that was in the original draft because there was a lot of campaign details in it that didn’t hold up over the years, but I went through it and got everything I thought was important and put it back together again. I guess that’s the only way you can do something like that.
So I started chronologically, because I thought it was really important to understand how the Thomas/Hill hearings created her campaign. That wasn’t in the original, with anywhere near the detail that it is in this book. The book is a little different from what you read. Almost all of the final notes I took out.
Well, I began to feel that it was a little self-indulgent. I don’t know if you remember, but I wrote about racial justice and quoted Baldwin and a couple of other people and discussed how Melissa Harris-Perry talked about recognition and stuff like that. I felt like it wasn’t my place to do that, and it felt a little self-indulgent; preachy. So I took it out.
But there was this wonderful quote that you noted at the end of your "One Last Note" that I thought was so poignant. It said:
So, as Americans we still have a race problem, and "just get over it" will not work. We need to confront this insidious threat to our democracy out loud — in our politics and policies — and starting in personal relationships. It would be so liberating if we all, whatever our ethnicity, could just do self-examination, think about our own fears and preconceptions, turn them over in our minds, dig out their origins, and then ask the question: Does my own life experience justify these fears, these ideas about the worthiness of others?
I thought that was such a poignant statement to make. Is that not in the final?
Those are my ideas. I mean, you can quote me, but it’s not in the final book.
That’s too bad, because I really appreciated the insight of it. It also allowed sort of a postscript on your feelings of everything that happened, which you’d touched upon throughout the book, where you acknowledge that — as a white woman — you might have a different perspective on the social and cultural mores within the African-American community, especially as they relate to Matthews, the black church, and Carol as a black woman — perspectives you may not be able to fully understand because they were not part of your racial or cultural understanding.
Right, exactly. And that’s so important to the understanding we need now. That’s why, in a way, even as brutal as the Coates book is — it’s not an entertainment, believe me — he does what Baldwin did do, which is actually make you feel what it’s like to be in his skin. I’m not sure that Carol experienced life that way. Sure, she was conscious of everything, but she had more of the Baldwin-ish view of humanity, that the hater is hurt as much as the hated — at least psychologically in terms of being crippled by it — and you don’t understand because you don’t open up to that understanding.
As you look back on it now, what do you believe was the most challenging thing about shadowing Carol, and covering that campaign with so much more access than even most journalists had?
I believe that it is more challenging for the press covering campaigns than it was then. Usually there were people trying to protect her all the time from being harassed by reporters, but reporters still had more personal access to candidates then than they do now. These things are much more controlled now than the way they used to be, I think. But, I don’t know, I didn’t look at it as a challenge. I worked the Obama campaign too. I was just one of the street workers and knocked on doors and things like that. With Carol, I was with her, and so I saw what she had to deal with, and I guess that’s the point-of-view that’s different.
One example: she’s being told by Matthews, constantly, that she doesn’t have to talk about issues because she’s riding this bubble of popularity. So she’s listening to him, but the reporters, after the honeymoon is over, want to know where she stands on issues so she gets a little more hesitant about talking about issues, even though she always has her entire career. She has a clear record on where she stands on just about everything. So she had that conflict going and I could see that conflict every day from where I sat. I thought: she can’t lose by talking about the issues, particularly at where she was at that time, and the same with Obama pretty much when he ran.
But Matthews was always cautioning her: don’t get into these things. You’ll just have to get into the weeds and that will be no good. So, I could see that conflict in her.
You really went after Matthews in this book, and made no bones about how much you personally disliked him. Were you ever hesitant about going after him, especially considering that you were so cognizant of saying you were not culturally connected to Carol — and here’s this guy from Nigeria, he was a prince, and he was someone that Carol obviously cared about and respected.
Yeah, I did worry about that. [Laughs] And I think that might be construed as being an overly militant feminist when it came to Matthews. I didn’t really talk enough about the fact that he came from a different culture, but, you know, he was just a bad ass. I’m telling you. He was bad. Even when people warned him to stand down with all his women, he just wouldn’t do it. He just couldn’t. That is what he enjoyed in life. He was part of another culture, but he was smart. He was a smart guy, and there wasn’t really an excuse in my opinion for him to not understand that his job required him to understand the culture he was in, you know? There was no question that he was bright. He was brilliant. But he was just determined to have things go his way, and he wasn’t going to have anything other than that. He knew that he had climbed on a winning pony.
I’m not sure if it’s in the final draft, but in the draft you read, there’s this one gal, Desiree Tate who I liked so much. She is now working as a consultant and basically probably a lobbyist — it’s just another word for lobbyist — in Chicago, but Des told me if I wrote the truth about Carol and Kgosie that I would be trashed in the black community. She told me that. Do you remember reading that? She said it wouldn’t be personal, it would be political, and I think that might have been true then. But I’m not so sure that it’s true now.
What’s changed between then and now that makes you believe that?
That despite what we’re seeing, on a certain level — a sometimes spiritual, sometimes intellectual level — there is just more understanding in thought leaders than there used to be. People who write about these things, like Professor Charles Ogletree, the Harvard professor — he was on Anita Hill’s team. Anyway, he’s an African American, and I saw him on Meet the Press not long ago, and he had a really interesting balanced view on whatever they were talking about. It was a racial issue — I can’t remember specifically what it was — but he’s the kind of person we’re hearing now, and Coates. And Charles Blow. Do you read Charles Blow?
Pretty religiously, actually.
He is another one. And Joy Reid on MSNBC, she’s really good. There’s a lot of people. And we didn’t have that back in the day, you know? We didn’t have the kind of folks out there, because these people didn’t have the opportunity to express the stuff we all need to know. So it’s better in that respect. And then we get the Donald Trumps of the world.
Considering how Carol challenged Senator Alan Dixon for confirming Clarence Thomas after the hearing and for dismissing the seriousness of sexual harassment in the workplace, it would be interesting to see her go toe-to-toe with Trump on some of his issues regarding the minimum wage, women, Mexicans, Muslims, blacks …
Carol would have taken him apart limb from limb. Every time I hear him I think of that, because she has this intellectual ability, too. She’s smart. She’s well-read, and she’s a great writer herself. She should write a book. That would be wonderful to have her voice out there.
That brings up another point of discussion that we’re now hearing come up a lot now that Hillary Clinton is running for president, and that’s being able to trust the decisions of women who choose to be with men that are less than upstanding men.
It does, it does.
In Carol’s case, you said in the book, "Someone once said: ‘Bad decisions makes good stories.’" And that everyone makes bad decisions. But in Carol’s case that bad decision was a very human one and many thought Mathews was ultimately her downfall in her bid for re-election. There are those who don’t believe in or trust Secretary Clinton for not having left President Clinton following all of his very public shenanigans. It seems that for smart, powerful women, their men and their actions become an Achilles’ heel for them, which seems, in my mind, a little unfair.
And it’s a little unfair. [Laughs] That’s an understatement by far. It’s really unfair.
But even you say in the book, Carol "made a really bad choice with this guy."
Yes, that was my opinion. She still doesn’t think that incidentally, I’m pretty sure. I haven’t had a lengthy conversation with her. She says she disagrees with me about Matthews, so you know, she’s not going to make a fuss about it, but it’s her position still today. I think. I don’t know. I think it’s really personal, and I don’t think it has anything to do with governing.
Hillary was always a political person, and Bill and Hill are a great team when you think about it. They’ve worked it out. They got together so young, it’s not quite the same with Carol and Matthews. Carol was 43 years old and had married and divorced. He was 34 and had had quite a bit of international experience in his life. I don’t think they’re comparable cases, and I don’t know that powerful women choose difficult men. I just think women who end up being perceived as powerful have pretty much had interesting lives and experiences, and some of those might have been romantic experiences, or sexual experiences, so they have a hard time.
I think Hillary would be having a hard time right now if she had the same cycle of sexual experiences as Bill had, and we wouldn’t be talking about her being president, I don’t think. I don’t think there’s a connection between being a powerful woman and having these problems — except for the fact that a woman who ends up with power has a pretty interesting life getting there.
Speaking of Hillary and Bill, and you mentioned Obama earlier, what was most interesting about the book is really seeing how deep the political roots run — in Chicago, and in Washington, DC. Certain players — like David Axelrod, who was part of Carol’s campaign and then led Obama’s presidential run — and so many others in Carol’s campaign are now playing major roles in American politics. There definitely seems to be a bridge of leadership from influencers that were just coming up in the 1990s to those on the political stage today.
Well, I think if I were you, I would look at that perspective: what in this story relates to today?
Everything! Yeah, everything — and that’s part of the problem. I mean, a lot of people have asked that first question you asked, which is: why did you go back to the book, this story, 20 years later and what about the timing? The first reason is because of what I told you: I wanted it to be part of the historical record, and I wanted to be fair to Carol, as I don’t think everybody’s been fair to her. The other thing is that all these issues are still alive today, and some of them are even worse. You know, I thought Obama would make things better, but in a way it’s made it worse, don’t you think?
I think what’s worse is the fact that we’re now a country too proud of being openly divisive in our attitudes, not only about race. I don’t know if this country has ever been so politically divided.
And I don’t know if Obama’s election, and re-election gave, as you’ve said — although I’m paraphrasing here —the haters a reason to just go more public with their hate.
Maybe. I think the media, Fox News in particular, has a lot to do with it. And these radio jabberheads, you know.
That’s the other thing. As we look back on the climate in which Carol was running, the kind of access that the press had to candidates is so much different now. The 24-hour news cycle and this kind of talking head, opinion rant media wasn’t so much a part of how people received and discussed news and politics.
I really appreciate that you think it’s relevant today, because one of the questions I had, as I talked to people about doing it again — before I started doing it, and I had different reactions about doing it — was, “Who would want to read about her?” This is from people who voted for her, black and white people both. That’s because she ended up at the end running for mayor in a fiasco of a thing, which turned people off. But I didn’t even get into that because it’s not related to the core of the story.
We’re not required to understand politicians. We really don’t have to understand them. We judge them by what they do and say, and we don’t have to understand where it all comes from. But in her case, where it all came from was really relevant to what happened to her, so that’s why I felt it should be out.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles–based journalist, author, and filmmaker. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @JaniceRhoshalle.