ballpark frankness

Drinking Beer and Watching Baseball With Senator Claire McCaskill — the Most Candid Woman in the U.S. Senate

Senator Claire McCaskill.
Senator Claire McCaskill. Photo: Grant Lamos IV/FilmMagic/Getty Images


Senator Claire McCaskill is shouting to no one in particular, though she is not alone: It’s the middle of July in St. Louis’s Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals are taking on the New York Mets. It’s hotter outside than the inside of a dog’s mouth. This has not deterred Missouri senator McCaskill, her husband, and her sister from coming out to support their beloved hometown team. The first batter up for the Mets has just sent a ball sailing out of the stadium — a home run. “That is not good,” McCaskill’s sister Anne, a silver-haired woman wearing electric-blue frames, interjects from our seats just behind home plate. The next batter lofts another ball high into the air. “Oh JESUS!” McCaskill shouts, then relaxes when a Cardinals outfielder catches the deep fly. Spying a waitress waiting to take orders at the end of the row, she leans over and calls for a Bud Select.

The senator is wearing a sleeveless, mid-length black dress with a red cardigan — which she peels off in the 94-degree heat — tortoiseshell glasses, and Cardinals flip-flops with little gemstones in the center. There is a school of feminist thought that argues that my even mentioning this is sexist, but I’m saying it anyway — both because I think there’s a way to describe what a politician looks like neutrally and because, let’s be honest, Claire McCaskill has heard much worse.

This is the essential thing you should know about the first woman ever elected to the Senate from Missouri: For her entire political career, her male colleagues have been unable to prevent themselves from saying absolutely bonkers things to, about, and around her. She was called a “whore” by the Senate minority leader at the beginning of her career as a state legislator. When she was a state auditor, the spokesman of the state GOP likened her to a “cheap hooker.” When she first ran for Senate in 2006, Rush Limbaugh took issue with an ad Michael J. Fox made endorsing her and mocked his Parkinson’s disease, wiggling around in his seat and slurring his words. And in 2012, as she was running against him for Senate, her opponent Todd Akin told the world that “if it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole [pregnancy] thing down,” doing kamikaze on his own candidacy and damaging those of who knows how many others.

McCaskill has often been the target of these comments, but it wouldn’t be fair to call her the victim of them: She’s also a shrewd politician, and her new book, Plenty Ladylike, a memoir of her time in politics, outlines how she was able to turn some of those stupidities into opportunities. When Missouri State Senate Minority Leader Richard Webster called her a whore, McCaskill took to the Senate floor with a dignified and devastating takedown of his crude remark that impressed her colleagues. The GOP spokesman who called her a cheap hooker had to resign. The Limbaugh outburst raised her national profile and gave her campaign a much-needed fund-raising boost. The Akin blunder gave her the opportunity to respond, convincingly and without much effort, in a way that convinced voters she had to be reelected.

The magnitude of Akin’s screwup was partly the result of canny campaign strategy on McCaskill’s part — she had almost engineered him into being her opponent. In her book, McCaskill reveals for the first time what some who watched the race closely suspected but couldn’t prove: Her team actually lured GOP primary voters into picking him by running a million dollars in advertising warning that Akin was too extreme for Missouri — using reverse psychology to make GOP voters race to his campaign. She even dispatched a pollster to offer campaign advice. You could call this tactic incredibly cynical, or just being a savvy politician. McCaskill thinks it’s the latter, and she has no regrets. “The reason I wrote about all the stuff behind the scenes with Akin is I wanted women to see the strategy that they should embrace in order to achieve their goals,” she says. “I’m not saying do anything unethical or illegal, but if you can figure out a way to really out-strategize in a situation — that’s what that was all about. It was about getting the opponent I needed to have to win. I’m comfortable saying this now: It was a lot of fun. It really was fun.” She remembers a story that one of the many Republicans who tried to get Akin to drop out told her. “[Akin] said, ‘You know I won the primary because this is in God’s plan and I can’t go against … God’s plan for me,’” she recounts. “So this acquaintance of mine said, ‘Todd, you won the primary because Claire McCaskill elevated you at a crucial moment and helped you win the primary.’ And Akin looked at him and said, ‘You know, sometimes God uses the devil in his plan.’” McCaskill starts cracking up as she recounts this. “I’m like, Oh my God! That is CLASSIC Todd Akin.”

McCaskill isn’t sure why she (literally) seems to drive some men crazy. “It was probably exacerbated when I was in the legislature because I was young and single and it was a place steeped in a tradition of marginalizing women. That was the culture.” A powerful political opponent once moved to block the rest of her bills for the session; the House Speaker jokingly asked her if she brought her knee pads to help advance a bill. She endured the bad behavior in a number of ways: making jokes, laughing it off, doubling down and resolving to work harder than ever. She’s not sure she should be lauded for this strategy. “I try to fess up in the book to the fact that I’m not sure I handled it the right way. I tried to deflect with humor and not be confrontational because I was so worried about the impact that would have on my career,” she explains. “I’m not ashamed of it, but I’m not proud of it. For young women today, I don’t want to send a signal to them that they should just take it and work around it.” Part of the problem, she notes, is that sexism is often expressed as a joke, and responding leaves you at risk of looking like “you’re some kind of hard-nosed bitch.” So she found a different way to respond, at least back then. “I internalized it and just was determined to show that person that I was not to be marginalized, you know? I was going to blow past them in terms of my ability to do the task in front of me. It really motivated me more than anything else.”

McCaskill’s path to the Senate isn’t an unlikely one — her father was a local Democratic Party leader and her mother was the first woman to serve on the City Council in Columbia, Missouri. When I ask her sister Anne whether she expected Claire would go into politics, the response is an instant “Oh, yeah.” This is, after all, the woman who once waged a successful stealth campaign for homecoming queen when she failed to make the cheerleading squad; who later went knocking on doors to ask for votes as an unmarried 28-year-old and didn’t get discouraged when doors were slammed in her face.

By her own admission, the roots of her ambition may run even deeper. “I think I wanted attention as a child and when I was doing really well I got copious amounts of it and I think I got addicted to it,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I mean, most of us that run for office are attention junkies. Some worse than others. But I think most people who run for office want to be liked and want to be admired and want to get positive attention. Why else? I mean, you do want to change things, and you want to impact policy, but you’re also putting yourself out there for acceptance or rejection, and that’s a painful process to go through unless the attention you get on a positive side doesn’t overcome all the negative stuff you have to put up with.”

This is the other thing that’s essential to know about Claire McCaskill — for a politician, she’s incredibly candid. It’s hard not to like, but it’s gotten her into trouble. In 2006, when she was first running for the U.S. Senate, she remarked on a morning show that she wouldn’t want Bill Clinton around her daughters. The Clintons promptly canceled a fund-raiser with her scheduled for the following week. The relationship has since been repaired, and McCaskill describes building a rapport with Hillary over the course of their time in the Senate together. And she’s bullish on Clinton as a candidate. “I think she’s going to do great here,” says McCaskill of Clinton’s chances in the bellwether state, explaining that Missouri voters, especially the independents who often decide the elections there, want someone who exudes strength and calm. “I mean, she’s gotta work on young people — they have got to be inspired. I think young women are not as connected to this notion that this would be amazing for many Americans to see a woman in the Oval Office, but I think she’s running a really smart campaign, and it’s a much different campaign than they ran in ‘08.”

More recently, it’s her comments on Bernie Sanders that have gotten her into trouble. Politico quoted McCaskill saying she wasn’t sure how Sanders, a self-described socialist, could have any hope of being elected president. It was splashed as a critique of the surprisingly successful challenger candidate, but she swears she didn’t mean it like that. “I love him! I mean, he’s a great old guy. How can you not love Bernie Sanders? The interesting thing that happened was — it’s not like I’m complaining — but what I said was not attacking him, I was trying to say the obvious, which is what he is: He’s a self-described socialist. Nobody else is calling him that, he calls himself that. It’s really tough to get elected president of the United States if that’s your chosen viewpoint. In the media, all of a sudden I became the Bernie hater, it was ridiculous! I was like, guys! … So I’m kind of swearing off talking about Bernie until the media frenzy dies down a bit because they’re so excited to have a race.”

The media, I point out from my esteemed position as a card-carrying member, is always desperate for controversy.

“Yeah, they are,” McCaskill says, before breaking into a throaty laugh. “And I usually cooperate!”

In keeping with form, she has some thoughts on the other candidates running for president. “You watch the stuff they do up close and they are so desperate for attention,” she says of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. “Ted Cruz filibusters the Export-Import Bank, then Rand Paul decides to go one better and filibuster on Planned Parenthood!” Just as she says it, the Cards hit a home run. Fireworks blast through the air, and McCaskill breaks her train of thought to stand up and scream.

When she’s finished she sits back down and runs through her thoughts on the other candidates. “Did you see that video Carly Fiorina did for BuzzFeed?” she asks — referring to this feminist-y viral video the GOP candidate made. “I thought it was very interesting,” she said, adding, “She must just be desperate for any sort of attention to separate herself from the pack.” She thinks Marco Rubio is talented but can’t understand why he backed away from immigration reform. Of Lindsey Graham, she reports that “I asked Lindsey [why he was running] and he said, ‘You know the price of admission is so low.’” I venture that I still don’t entirely get why he’s doing it. “I don’t know,” she says. “You think it’s McCain? You think it’s his buddy-dad, dad-buddy, McCain? I don’t know.”

I’m about to ask her what she thinks of Scott Walker, but McCaskill has a question of her own. “What’s Scott Brown up to these days?” I tell her that the last I heard he was appearing as a guest on a celebrity cruise and pushing diet pills.

“No! Who goes on a celebrity cruise ship to see Scott Brown?” she scoffs. “Do people even know who he is? Wow. He will do anything to show his body. It was so surreal, all of the women in the Senate used to talk about how he would figure out some way, every time he had a conversation, to work in something about his body. Like, ‘I was on the treadmill in the gym this morning and I saw you on MSNBC,’ or ‘You know, I was running at lunch today and’ — and he did it to all of us! We all compared notes.”

It’s the bottom of the sixth inning and the Cards on their way to beating the Mets, 3-2. The sun’s gone down but the heat hasn’t broken. McCaskill orders another Bud Select while Silentó’s “Watch Me” blares through the stadium sound system. “My grandson who’s 2 does this. It’s so cute!” she says, chanting the lyrics atonally, the way a child might: “Watch me whip. Watch me nae nae. Do the stanky leg.”

Between McCaskill and her second husband, Joe, who’s been sitting quietly beside her for most of the game, focusing on the play, McCaskill has seven kids and eight grandkids who help her keep current with pop culture. But even here, her opinions have not been without controversy. Earlier this year, after the rape of Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones, McCaskill took to Twitter (as she often does) to weigh in, saying, “Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones. Water Garden, stupid. Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable. It was a rocky ride that just ended.” The denizens of the internet were not happy with her for this. McCaskill can’t believe the response. “It was one of those moments where I realized people care more about Game of Thrones than they care about immigration reform! I mean I can tweet all of this substantive stuff about contract oversight, and it’s 14 retweets and 32 likes. I do ‘I’m done with Game of Thrones’ and ho-ly shit. It’s a conflagration! I mean it was unbelievable!”

“And the interesting thing is, I am so used to trollers that are so mean to me, who are like, ‘You’ve got a face like a diaper,’ all of this horrible stuff. But I have never seen vitriol like these people. They wanted to convince me that I had no right to be done [with the show] if I wasn’t done immediately after the first rape. They were like, ‘You cannot tell us that you’re done now because you weren’t done in the first episode with the first rape. So you don’t really hate rape. You’re pretending you hate rape because if you really hated rape you would have been done in the first episode.’ I mean hundreds, hundreds of tweets, giving me shit.”

McCaskill is a big Amy Schumer fan and was excited recently when both of them appeared in Glamour (Schumer on the cover, McCaskill in a short inside feature about the sexism she faced as a young woman in politics because of her blonde hair). “One part of her show makes me tremendously uncomfortable and the other part of it makes me laugh so hard I cry,” she says. “I go, ‘I can’t believe she’s saying this, I can’t believe she’s saying this!’ But I really respect it. I’m a big believer in …” she pauses for a second to consider what she’s about to say. “I get in trouble all the time for saying what I think. All. The. Time. So I respect her humor because you can tell how it is absolutely authentic. She’s not bullshitting about her experiences.” And neither, it seems, is the senator from Missouri.

Drinking Beer With Senator Claire McCaskill