Golden Heart

The late Gov. Mel Carnahan was a political warrior who had the right priorities in life

There were just 27 days remaining in the toughest campaign of his life, and 52,000-plus exuberant folks -- mostly potential voters -- rocked Busch Stadium for the opening game of the National League Championship Series.But Mel Carnahan wasn't working the crowd.

On his left was daughter Robin. On his right was son Tom. I watched from afar -- with a touch of amazement, really -- as the governor of Missouri sat with his arm draped around his son, slumped down a little in that front-row seat as if to avoid notice, just being a dad.

Tom Carnahan is a good buddy of mine, and he told me before the game that he and his father and sister were looking forward to sharing some quality time there. I haven't talked to Tom about this, and I hope he doesn't mind my sharing it, but I knew where they were sitting, and I watched through the binoculars.

This isn't mushy hindsight but what I thought at the time: Mel Carnahan was a man perfectly capable of not being a politician in a crowded stadium.

I didn't follow the governor that night, and for all I know he shook every hand and kissed every baby in the place, coming and going. But I know what I saw in the seats, and it wasn't a fellow looking for attention in the front row.

Now, through the numbness and the tears over the tragic plane crash that took his life Monday night, I can't get out of my mind that mental imagery of an ordinary dad, arm draped around his grown son as they shared a ballgame.

Mel Carnahan was a wonderful person, a real guy with the right priorities when it came to his life and family, all politics aside.

I'm sure of it.


To be honest, it was seldom "all politics aside" for the governor. There's never been a more tireless campaigner for public office in Missouri, nor a more successful one.The legacy he leaves behind at 66 is stunning. The son of a couple of public-school teachers from a little town called Birch Tree, Carnahan squeezed into a four-decade career his service as a municipal judge, school-board president, prominent lawyer and church deacon in Rolla, two terms as a state representative, one term each as state treasurer and lieutenant governor and -- where he'll be remembered most -- just under eight years as the best governor Missouri ever had.

Carnahan's proudest single achievement may well have been his earliest: the "Outstanding Schools Act" of 1993, through which he was able to pour $315 million into decreasing class size and improving teacher performance in the state's woefully underfunded school system. He did many other things in many other areas, but nothing seemed to float his boat more than to be with kids and work for better schools.

It is fitting for another reason that his boosting of education be his defining accomplishment, because it was also perhaps his most controversial, thanks to the tax increase that made it possible. And if there was a single characteristic that set Carnahan apart from the pack -- from Democrats and Republicans alike -- it was his courage in taking on the hot issues, the hotter the better.

As governor, Carnahan fought epic battles in his defense of abortion rights and gun control, in advancing the concerns of minorities and against further "Hancock" tax-limitation schemes. He never blinked in taking a stance out of personal conscience -- his unpopular pardon of a death-row inmate at the behest of the pope last year stands out -- even when it was clear that a steep political price would be paid.

Then again, Carnahan's landslide election and re-election victories -- with margins of 18 and 17 percent in 1992 and 1996, respectively -- suggest that standing for principles served him pretty well.


If Carnahan stood apart from today's politicians by refusing to govern by opinion poll, he really shattered the mold in the area of personal demeanor. A man of great integrity, he had only one aspect that was deceiving: a mild-mannered, even self-effacing exterior, one that masked the heart of a ferocious political warrior.Even in discussing his own achievements, Carnahan would deflect credit to others, and he rarely spoke of himself or his family in public. Whereas so many other office-seekers, of both parties, exploit their private lives for public advantage, he did just the opposite.

You won't find a more wonderful public family than the Carnahans. Throughout Mel Carnahan's career, the heart and soul of the governor's political team was his beloved wife of 46 years, Jean, along with their four children: Randy (who, along with loyal adviser Chris Sifford, died with his father in the tragedy), Russ (a candidate for the Missouri House of Representatives), Tom and Robin.

They all share their patriarch's traits: warmth, compassion and competence, underscored by a sense of simple decency. But even when sitting in the front row, it's as if they'd rather we didn't see.

That's why I'm haunted right now by that mental imagery of Mel Carnahan at the ballpark, oblivious to the world, arm around his son Tom.

Haunted, yes.

And inspired.

 
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