Melinda Henneberger

McCaskill-Hawley attacks remind us that politicians do have families — and feelings

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s “Driven” commercial
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s “Driven” commercial

There is so much phony campaign stage outrage that we sometimes forget that politicians do have feelings, families and feelings about their families.

But in this final phase of the close, bitter and consistently, disappointingly petty contest between Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and her Republican challenger, Josh Hawley, both candidates have gotten emotional about how they see loved ones being misused by the other side.

In an interview with The Star’s editorial board on Monday, McCaskill cried while answering a question about her husband, St. Louis businessman Joseph Shepard, who has been inaccurately cast in campaign ads as someone who has profited financially from her decisions in Washington. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she said, wiping away tears. “I am so sorry.”

In a phone interview that same day, Hawley erupted in anger when discussing what he called McCaskill’s “pathetic” and “unconscionable” attacks on his 5-year-old son, who recently appeared with Hawley in a controversial campaign ad about pre-existing conditions. “You got me all worked up now,” by asking about it, he said as we hung up.

Nothing is more natural than his reaction — or hers. Public servants don’t forfeit all humanity when they run for office, and we make a mistake when we assume that every outburst is calculated.

The two situations are not parallel, though. McCaskill did not, as the Missouri attorney general has said, “belittle” his son or “ridicule” his family by retweeting a piece criticizing the commercial. Easy for me to say, of course, as he’s not my son.

But just as we who put our opinions out in the world can’t then complain when those who disagree say so, those who put members of their family in front of the public can’t then be wildly offended when not everyone reacts positively. Hawley’s boys campaigned with him again on Tuesday.

“Earlier this year,” Hawley says in the TV ad, “we learned our oldest has a rare chronic disease — a pre-existing condition. We know what that’s like. I support forcing insurance companies to cover all pre-existing conditions.” Wait, he does?

“In the TV ad,” says the blog post that McCaskill retweeted, by the author of her memoir, Terry Ganey, “Hawley claims he favors a requirement that health insurance companies cover pre-existing medical conditions. The Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate uses his son’s medical condition as a prop, even though everyone knows that Hawley was one of 20 Republican attorneys general from around the country who filed a lawsuit seeking to end Obamacare, including its popular guarantee of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. If the lawsuit is successful it would make millions of Americans uninsurable.”

Josh Hawley says one of Claire McCaskill's supporters crossed the line by bringing Hawley’s family into the discussion. McCaskill wants her supporters to talk about health care and pre-existing conditions.

Every word about Hawley’s suit and its probable effect is true, but it was Ganey’s use of the word “prop” that enraged Hawley, as did the fact that “a sitting U.S. senator blasted it out.” What Ganey calls Hawley’s “blatant lie” isn’t that his son is sick, but how insurance companies could possibly cover those with pre-existing conditions without the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate or some other way to force healthy people into the risk pool.

“She thinks my 5-year-old son’s medical condition is a lie and called him a prop,” Hawley tweeted. “Sick.”

When I told Hawley that I didn’t read the piece as calling his child’s hip and bone condition a lie, he said, “You’re making a fine distinction, but that’s not what the columnist said ... He says my kid is a prop to me! ... And a sitting U.S. senator blasted that out! If this is the new norm in civil discourse, then I don’t want any part of it. They’re just a prop to you? That’s pathetic — I also don’t want to hear any more from her on respecting people telling their stories” about sexual assault.

Though I do feel for him as a protective parent, Hawley is trying to have it both ways on his son’s role in his campaign, just as he is on pre-existing conditions.

I also feel for McCaskill as a protective wife. And all the more so because while campaign spouses are fair game, the attacks on her husband haven’t been either fair or accurate.

They mostly concern affordable housing projects Shepard invested in that have received $131 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development subsidies in the dozen years since McCaskill took office. Only, his investments in affordable housing predate both her election and their marriage. Most of the subsidies go into operating costs, and Shepard is now a limited partner in most of the projects.

The Star found “no evidence that McCaskill played any part in directing federal funds to businesses affiliated with her husband.” As Politifact noted, “McCaskill has voted for some omnibus spending bills that would have benefited affordable housing programs, but she has voted against others. She also does not sit on the Senate committees with jurisdiction over HUD and USDA, where she could have had more influence.”

Asked about her husband on Monday, she called Shepard “a brilliant, remarkable man who has created thousands of jobs and was wildly successful before I met him ... He finds it startling that I’m responsible for his success” all of a sudden. And “it’s hard for him because he thinks he’s” — and here her voice cracked — “hurting me, and on a personal basis, in our marriage, that’s hard.”

The good news, she said at the end of the interview, is that win or lose next month, “I get him no matter what, so all things are OK.”

Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star's editorial board.