Senator Claire McCaskill on Her 36-Year Political Career and What's Next
What keeps the fire in my belly after almost four decades in government? Well, I’m intellectually curious—and in the job I have now as a senator, I find something that enrages me every day. Something that’s not right that needs to get fixed. Uncovering wrongdoing in government can be kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. And I’m blessed or cursed with a personality that when I see those situations, I just focus, get more information, and figure out what we can do about it.
I’ve always been that way. As a little girl, what I mostly wanted in every situation was to be the boss. I’m so grateful I had parents who lifted me up rather than squashing me. Both my mother and my father never ever did anything
but encourage me to be more opinionated, bossy, and outspoken, which I know was really unusual for the ’50s and ’60s. That got me through the times in my life when I thought, “Gosh, Claire, maybe you really need to tone it down and not have this kind of personality.”
My three children have always seen me as “mom in charge,” so they were surprised when they read my 2016 memoir [Plenty Ladylike] and learned of all the instances of sexual harassment and bullying I faced when I was coming up in the Missouri state legislature in the ’80s. But the truth is that I had moments in my career when I had very little power or at least felt as if I had very little power to change a culture and environment that was disrespectful to women.
What I hope for now is that the millions and millions of women who have swallowed indignities are going to say, “No, that’s not acceptable,” or actually make that trip to human resources to file a complaint. Women finally have permission to step out of the shadows. Many women, and I am one of them, stayed in the shadows because they thought it was the best for their careers. For me, some of that was rationalization because, frankly, I was just afraid of the consequences.
This moment is giving all of us a big dose of courage. Women all across the country will square their shoulders, decide what they want in terms of their career or their life, and pursue it without being hesitant about being ambitious, strong, and outspoken.
I’ve always been a fangirl of Harry Truman’s. He made his reputation in the Senate by cracking down on profiteering during World War II. I’m interested in the same things. I’m animated by those in-the-weeds hearings where I’m finally finding the person who’s responsible for a contract to build a gas station in Afghanistan to fuel cars with natural gas, knowing full well that there are no cars in Afghanistan that run on natural gas and that hardly anybody even has a car. Getting that person and saying, “What the hell were you thinking?” That’s what’s fun.
My background allows me to really try to make the government behave better when it comes to spending money. I was elected Jackson County prosecutor in 1992 and then ran for state auditor in 1998 and won. I liked being a prosecutor a lot. But I went for auditor anyway and found it very rewarding—it taught me how to look in the nooks and crannies of government. The auditor can determine where we should be looking to fix problems and do the most good.
One of the frustrating things about today’s political climate is that having experience is frowned upon. What’s really cool right now is to be an “outsider.” What I’ve learned along the way is discounted. People are so cynical about our government; they think anybody who’s chosen this career is somehow flawed or not worthy.
My parents believed in government and in the value of participating. They had the four of us stuffing envelopes and going to political rallies when we were children because they felt that getting involved in your government was a patriotic thing to do. We were never taught that politicians were crooks; we learned that the men and women in both parties were honorable people who had made a sometimes selfless decision to help run our government.
In terms of affiliation, I’m a Democrat, but I’m a moderate. I am not somebody who sees everything from a left or a right perspective. There are a lot of haters on my Twitter feed. They’re very angry at me because I’m not pure enough on some of the issues they think are important. It’s a polarized atmosphere right now.
But every important moment in our history reflects compromise—the Constitution was designed that way. Ultimately, I’m a very pragmatic person and want to get things done, and my decisions reflect that. There have been times in my career when I’ve demonstrated independence—and that independent streak feels like a really good friend to me now. I’m not going to throw it over for today’s partisan politics. I’m going to hug it close.
What’s next for me politically? I’m in a state that Donald Trump won by 19 points, and most of my party was wiped out in Missouri in the last election. So I’m focused on what’s going to happen in November 2018. It’s going to be the toughest race of my career, and I’m certainly the underdog. But I feel like a marathon runner who has been in training for this one for many, many years.
—As told to Leigh Belz Ray
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Feb. 9.