Claire McCaskill had me by the end of Page 3.
In her new memoir, “Plenty Ladylike,” coming out on Aug. 11, McCaskill recalls her school days, when she was known as “Motor-mouth McCaskill.” In the ninth grade she entered an American Legion speech contest for the third time and screwed up her courage to speak on something she “felt strongly about” — the Ku Klux Klan. Her father, an insurance salesman, helped her decide that the KKK’s “offensive and repugnant oath would be a dramatic beginning to the speech.”
Well, to make a short story shorter, she wowed the crowd, won the contest, caused her father to cry and put a little emotional choke in the throat of this reader. Oh, yeah, and imagined herself eventually becoming Missouri’s first female governor.
This wouldn’t be the only time that the U.S. Senator from Missouri touched an emotional chord in what turns out to be a highly readable, relatively fast moving and surprisingly frank political autobiography.
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It’s hard to know exactly how much McCaskill’s narrative was shaped by her co-author, Terry Ganey, a longtime and highly regarded St. Louis political writer. But in general, her familiar, straight-shooting voice, along with a penchant for folksy cliches, dominates her story of personal achievement, stunning missteps and failures, heartbreak, political education and hard-won insight.
To hear McCaskill tell it, she is who she is because of her family. Her parents had political connections and her mother, Betty Anne McCaskill, gave her the gift of speaking up, speaking out and not shying away from or compromising her identity or her principles. Her mother also notably became her political sidekick and adviser, helping her especially to warm up voters in rural Missouri, who were less inclined to cotton to McCaskill’s tough-talking, all-business demeanor.
McCaskill’s book serves as something of a primer on Missouri and Kansas City Democratic politics of the last four decades, especially as she entered the arena herself, beginning with a stint in the Jackson County prosecutor’s office, in the late 1970s. State legislator, county prosecutor, Missouri auditor, and then the failed run for Missouri governor in 2004 preceded her first election to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
But “Plenty Ladylike” (published by Simon & Schuster) is more than a dry recounting of election results. The subtext, as the title implies, has to do with the special challenges faced by women in politics or any woman who is regarded by others, often in a demeaning way, as assertive or ambitious. “We must redefine the adjective ladylike,” she writes, “to mean ‘speaking out, being strong, taking risks, taking charge, and changing the world.’”
McCaskill has weighed in on the recent news out of Jefferson City involving female interns and men in power. As has been previously reported, she recalls her own introduction to creepy Capitol doings in 1974 when she interned for state Rep. Sue Shear of Clayton. Shear was a crusader, but her mostly male colleagues marginalized her. And McCaskill had to suffer the lecherous language and the “inappropriate behaviors that made me very uneasy.”
Balancing life and career is the modern dilemma for women. McCaskill’s experience as a mother and officeholder is not unlike what she found among the growing ranks of women in the U.S. Senate. The missed events, the guilt, the double standard for women who are expected more than men to actively participate in maximum parental bonding. Readers can ride on her emotional roller coaster through one failed marriage, the political consequences of her second and traveling through personal and political crises with sleepy children in the back seat.
And then there’s McCaskill’s 2012 re-election campaign. Pegged as a Democratic incumbent most likely to lose, McCaskill was handed the gift of Rep. Todd Akin. His ignorant observation about how a woman’s body would reject pregnancy in the case of a “legitimate rape” turbo-charged McCaskill’s campaign. She systematically exploited the matter, worked to keep him in the running — when the Republican establishment called for him to drop out — then trounced him at the polls, even in rural Missouri, where her mother would have been proud. Her late mother, who was memorialized just two days before her daughter’s most impressive victory.