Jeannie Morris Unravels Life 'Behind the Smile' of Carol Moseley Braun

Jeannie Morris might be better known for her groundbreaking career as one of the first female sports journalists, but in her new book "Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Moseley Braun's Historic Senate Campaign," Morris tackles national politics and unveils the ups and downs of Moseley Braun’s personal life and her fall from the Senate.

Trailblazing can be a tricky proposition, as Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina can attest as each strives to be the first female presidential nominee of their party in 2016.

But in 1992, Illinois had it's own trailblazer narrative. That's when Carol Moseley Braun's metoeric rise took her to the U.S. Senate, making her the first African-American woman to do so.

More than two decades later, her rise and subsequent fall is chronicled in "Behind the Smile."

Morris joins us tonight to discuss her new book.

Read an excerpt from the book below.

"Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Moseley Braun's Historic Senate Campaign," 

By Jeannie Morris

June 4, 1992. Washington, DC.

The single purpose on this day was to raise money. “After that primary,” Carol laughed, “I’m like Scarlett O’Hara. ‘As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!’”

This would be the first full day Carol and I would spend together, and I was to learn a great deal about money and politics and about the multilayered individual that is Carol Moseley Braun.

I arrived ahead of Carol at La Colline, a Capitol Hill restaurant where she was scheduled to meet a dozen or so representatives of federal employees’ unions in a private dining room. Their political action committee (PAC) was called the Fair Coalition.

The room held a somewhat uneasy assortment of people who were sipping juice and struggling to make conversation. But the atmosphere shifted immediately when Carol walked in. Sensing that no one was really in charge here, she seemed to naturally assume the role of hostess.

Seating ourselves around a large table, Carol suggested that everyone introduce themselves. Then, unlike so many featured guests who tend to disdain food (making others, who just might be hungry, uncomfortable), Carol attacked her meal with gusto, all the while telling us about her background, explaining how her positions on various issues grew from her experience, and inviting comments and questions—which she got. Rather than simply attending a lunch to hear yet another candidate, these people got to know Carol, and, I’m sure, most left feeling that she learned about them and their concerns as well.

In terms of age, gender, and race, these union reps from the government’s crazy-quilt bureaucracy were an unusually mixed group, and when Carol said, “I see my candidacy as the maturing of democracy,” there was an appreciative assent: Yes, indeed. And about time.

Carol had demonstrated the intimate, informal, and inclusive style that is natural to her but that frequently catches people off guard. I was to see this again and again: first surprise, then pleasure, and then they were hers. In this case, by the end of lunch, it was clear that the check would be in the mail.

When we left the restaurant, a light rain was falling, and Tina Stoll, the Washington political fundraising consultant who had organized this visit, apologized for not having brought an umbrella. Carol was apparently unfazed by the rain. I was to learn that, while Carol was meticulous about her appearance, she was never overtly fussy. Her hair was in a weatherproof bun, her white linen suit fashionably wrinkled. She’d been on the run since a dawn appearance on Good Morning America in New York. The question to Tina was: where to next?

The answer was that we needed a taxi or we were not going anywhere. And standing between our little group and the taxi stand was the cowboy senator from Wyoming who had so arrogantly belittled Anita Hill during the Thomas hearings—Alan Simpson. Tina asked Carol if she’d like to meet Senator Simpson. Now, you might think that as an aspirant to that exclusive club up the avenue, Carol would have chosen to be introduced to one of its senior members. But, no. Carol just looked at Tina with a raised eyebrow that said, “What? And unmake my day?”

In the cab, Tina commenced to brief Carol on our next stop, an appointment with a PAC man who represented a group of the country’s independent insurance companies. Tina got a few words past her introductory sentence when Carol exploded. “Tina, I read the material you gave me. I don’t want to see him. I’m against virtually all the positions these guys hold. We had constant trouble with them in the Illinois legislature. They want health care to be expensive….” The candidate was on a tear.

Tina had been trying to interrupt. Clearly, she thought Carol had something to learn about PAC money. “Just hear me out,” she said. “As an individual, this guy is a Democrat at heart. Richard Williamson’s been in to see him, has courted him on the issues, but he thinks you’re gonna win. He doesn’t want to be on your bad side. And if he possibly can, if he can find a way, he’ll support you.”

Grudgingly willing but unconvinced, Carol entered the offices of the Independent Insurance Agents of America.

Women have some choices that men do not, or think they do not have, when it comes to meetings of this kind. Most men tend to grab the conversational lead, and Carol let that happen when it served her purpose. She could then assume the initiative whenever she wished—or not at all.

So the fact was, while Carol was supposed to be going into this meeting to sell herself, she assumed the attitude that he was the one who had to do the selling. Although Carol complained, and legitimately so, about the “presumption of incompetence,” her advantage was that people who met her for the first time were burdened with a whole portfolio of assumptions, and her reality inevitably knocked them off balance. This was to be one of those times.

This PAC man demonstrated several attitudes we were often to see. First, he was at pains to let Carol know that he grew up in a big city and a poor neighborhood—“almost a ghetto,” he said.

I’m sure that would not have been part of his opening remarks to Senator Simpson.

When he asked Carol how her race was going, she responded by telling him about her opponent’s first series of radio ads that were both racist and sexist—“$147,000 worth,” she said, throwing in a number because, of course, numbers attach to most everything in Washington. “The ads are totally irresponsible,” Carol added.

“Irresponsible?” countered the PAC man, who was, by now, at least talking like a Democrat. “This game can get vicious. Are there any pictures of you with Winnie Mandela? These guys are going to have you connected with those beatings in South Africa before they’re through!”

PAC man then went on to lecture Carol about the Senate, which, he said, lately had not been displaying the comity that had once been its hallmark. “When you come to the Senate,” he said, “you are going to have to climb a mountain of condescension.”

I was glad no one was paying any attention to me because I couldn’t suppress a smile. Condescension? So far, this conversation had been rife with it! Of course, Washington itself is the Capital of Condescension, a city that condescends to its own country—to a whole world, for that matter.

But Carol had her own way of dealing with this, so accustomed was she. Laughing, she said, “Oh, I know all about condescension.” And she launched into a story about her freshman year in the Illinois legislature and her dealings with an old-time downstate rep named Webber Borges.

“I’d written a bill that had to do with family support services, and, not yet understanding how the system worked, I did all my research, then created an analysis for each member of the House demonstrating the individual benefits for his district. It was a huge job, and when I was finished, I put each individual report in an envelope and personally visited every member.”

“When I delivered his,” Carol continued, “Webber Borges patted me on the hand and said, ‘Very good, honey, but this don’t have a chance.’”

PAC man laughed. Carol was a perfect mimic.

“Well, my bill passed. And some time later, the old gentleman came by my desk and said he’d voted ‘no’ as he’d promised, but he’d almost changed his mind because, he said, I was ‘the second-nicest colored lady he’d ever met. I would say you’re the first,’ he went on, ‘but the first nicest has been working for my family for 40 years!’” Now Carol laughed heartily.

This had been her longest contribution to the conversation, and she’d worked up quite a twinkle by this time. “Oh, yes,” she concluded, “I know all about condescension.”

PAC man laughed, too, but I don’t think he really got it.

As we stood to leave, he said, “You noticed, Carol, that we didn’t get into specifics here?”

“I noticed,” Carol replied.

“May I say your door will always be open?”

“That you may,” Carol smiled.

It was an interesting meeting, but as we left, I couldn’t help thinking: Is this the way it starts—money baits the trap—the incestuous, ravenous maw defined by the Washington Beltway? Is this the way those who had lived so firmly outside its influence are gradually sucked in?

Reprinted with permission from Behind the Smile by Jeannie Morris, Agate Midway, 2015.


In 2014, Jeannie Morris joined "Chicago Tonight" to discuss becoming the first woman to win the Ring Lardner Award and how she paved the way for women in sports journalism. Revisit our discussion.


In 2010, "Chicago Tonight's" Eddie Arruza spoke with Carol Moseley Braun about why she came out of political retirement to join Chicago's mayoral race. Revisit the discussion.