The day the blind senator cried

The word that former Senator Harold Caskey, who sat  less than fifteen feet away from my chair at the Senate press table for many years, had died didn’t reach this scribe until a couple of days later.  I think I was on the Inca Trail above Machu Picchu that day and in a situation where checking e-mail was not a daily thing.

Those of us who covered much of his 28-year career in the Senate have been left with memories of a unique character in Missouri politics.  Hard as nails sometimes—there were some lawmakers who had reason to consider him “mean” sometimes—bitingly funny at times (he once said the most dangerous place to be in the world was between a school superintendent and a dollar bill), and passionate about his bills and about being a Senator.

One night, during debate on the bill lowering the drunk driving blood-alcohol content threshold to .08, he claimed that he was the only member of the Senate with a perfect driving record, a claim that brought laughter to the chamber in a time when some of his colleagues were arguing that Missouri government should not join the national movement to reduce the BAC for drunk driving–because Caskey was legally blind and didn’t drive at all.

There are many memories of Caskey and we’ll recall some of them in what might be a long entry.  But for some reason, the first memory that came to me when I got the news he had died was the day he was reduced to tears.

Because Caskey was legally blind, he always had an aide in the Senate with him who would read him the amendments offered during debate on the bills.  For his last several years, he had permission to have a chair beside his desk for aide Kim Green.   Kim, and Marie Gladbach before him, had filled an important role in Caskey’s work away from the floor as well.  Caskey was one of those few lawmakers who actually knew what was in each bill.  Staff members such as Kim and Marie would read the bills to him in his office and his incredible recall capabilities made him more ready to discuss the issues on the floor than many of the sponsors of legislation.  Caskey could be an intimidating figure because he knew the rules and he knew the legislation so well.

When Peter Kinder became the President pro Tem of the Senate, he dramatically announced that he was going to slash the chamber’s operating expenses.  That meant getting rid of several staff members.  One of those he planned to axe was Kim, Caskey’s aide.  I think my story about that event referred to “taking away a blind senator’s eyes.”

The perceived callousness of that announcement by Democrats (and some of Kinder’s fellow Republicans) provoked instant reactions. Nobody, of course, felt the pain more than Caskey.  His anger, his hurt, his surprise that such a thing would be proposed left him in tears as I interviewed him.  It was a short interview that is still somewhere in the Missourinet archives because Caskey struggled through his emotions to find a few words to respond to Kinder’s plan.

The reaction within the membership of the Senate was so strong that Kinder backtracked on his proposal to let Kim go.

There are other memories that are more pleasant.   One year, a proposal was introduced the let the pizza chain Chuck E. Cheese let children playing the games that were (maybe still are) part of the chain’s attractions for customers win tokens that could be traded for prizes.  Caskey immediately branded the chain “Chuck E. Sleaze,” and accused supporters of the bill of trying to create a “kiddie casino.”

Many of his colleagues recall that Caskey was critical of bureaucrats who sought more state funding, sometimes likening them to the large dinosaurs that were so large they had two brains, a small one in the head and a second one near the tail.  Caskey would note that the tail brain was so far from the dinosaur’s mouth that it would demand more food, and the little brain in the head would respond by eating more.  “The tail would demand more green,” he would say, so the head brain would respond by going “chomp, chomp, chomp” and consuming more green.  Caskey would make hand gestures to dramatize the dinosaur eating, the dinosaur symbolizing a state agency that wanted bigger bites of the state budget.

Caskey did not hesitate to use his position as a committee chairman or his position as a hard-nosed Senator to kill legislation.  It would be a mistake to say he was universally popular, it being more likely to say he was widely respected during his seven terms in the Senate—an indication of the hypocrisy of term limits that forced him out.  Although voters had approved limiting senators to two terms, the voters in his district sent Caskey back to Jefferson City twice after term limits went into effect.

The State  Historical Society has had an oral history project for several years.  Several of those interviews include memories of Caskey’s legislative contemporaries.  Kaye Steinmetz, who served in the House from 1977-1995 said that a lot of people were surprised at how well she and Senator Caskey worked together.  Governor Bond once referred to them as the “dynamic duo” after signing six bills in one day that Steinmetz and Caskey had handled in their respective chambers.  “I guess Harold was Batman and I was Robin,” Steinmetz said.

“He goes about the law making process as if it’s a game,” she told the society interviewer. “He likes the challenge of a fight. He likes to hold a bill up in committee until he gets one out of the committee in the House, just for the sake of fighting. His approach is just different. Lots of times folks would say to me; other legislators would say to me, ‘Why are you having Caskey handle your bill?’ Or, ‘Why are you doing Caskey’s bill?’ But we got along great. Harold and I got along great. Sometimes we’d work together late in his office at night…He was the most amazing man. He‟d take a legal pad in, and I’d go to the Senate when he was debating my bills and watch him. And he’d have in great big letters the bill number. That’s all he’d have. Now he had to have staff people read him the bill. And of course he picked my brain about the legislation, but he did a great job of knowing what that legislation was all about and defeating back the bad amendments. We’d get into it once in a while and go into conference committee and have to have a knock-down, drag-out to get it ironed out the right way. I’d give a little and he’d give a little. But I enjoyed working with Harold Caskey. I have great respect for him.”

Representative Annette Morgan, who served 1981-1997, recalled that she and Caskey started out “like oil and water.”  She said, “It just took us forever to learn to get along with each other. But we did, and became really good friends now, and it was over the (school) finance formula. We sat down and we pretty much talked through our differences, or somehow at least got to know each other well enough to quit fighting, or quit reacting to the other person. Then the battle became so tough to get that through even with Mel Carnahan and a great Speaker, Bob Griffin and his experience, and Jim Mathewson — I mean, we had the cumulative experience of probably over a hundred years of legislative power right there, and couldn’t have done it without that. But we were so embattled getting it through, by the time it was finished that all of us who were on the same side felt a real close bond to each other.”  She was referring to the bill changing the way state money was distributed to public schools, a major proposal in Governor Carnahan’s first year.

Senator Frank Bild, a Republican who was in the House and Senate 1973-1991, called Caskey a “phenomenon.”  He told the society interviewer Caskey had “a brilliant mind, but you got to watch him” because Casekey would begin “consolidating various bills, so that before you know it, you’d have a bill a hundred pages long” that sometimes had extraneous matter included.  Bild recalled, “He had one bill there, and I had an amendment to delete a section of his bill, and he thought that I was taking advantage of him, so I told him, I said, ‘Fine, you go ahead and pass the bill with that particular provision in it, and I think you’ve got two subject matters, and I thought I was doing you a favor. If you don’t want the favor, forget about it.’ So I withdrew my objection. So after consulting — he always had somebody on the side to keep him abreast of what’s going on — came over finally, ‘Frank, I think you’re right. Why don’t you introduce your amendment again?’ And I said, ‘No, I think you ought to introduce it and take it out yourself.’ Which he did do. He’s a very brilliant person.”

When legislation was introduced in 1995 to change the name of Northeast Missouri State University to Truman State University, Caskey opposed it, saying that he felt the name change would hurt a few of his constituents who were proud to have diplomas from Northeast Missouri State University. “To change the name makes them lose their university,” he argued.  He didn’t mention, although most us knew, that one of those constituents was his wife, Kay, an NMSU graduate.  Plus, he and other critics pointed out, the school is in Adair County, a place Truman had visited only once and a county he never carried in any election.  When the name change was approved, Caskey supported a bill letting graduates trade their NMSU diplomas for new ones reading Truman State university.

When Caskey was a new Senator and was renovating his office, workers found a picket door that separated the two rooms.  The door had been opened and then sealed within its pocket at some distant time.  So Caskey had the office remodeled to make that door operable again.  Abut that same time, the W. F. Norman Company of Nevada, which had been a national leader in the manufacture of tin ceilings until the 1930s when they went out of style, gained new owners who discovered the original stamping dies still in the building and decided to start making tin ceiling panels again.  One of the first places they installed their new tin ceiling was in Caskey’s office.

When the Senate considered replacing the historic 1917 desks, it had a couple of samples made of new style desks.  Thankfully, the Senate decided not to make a change.  One of those proposed new desks was in Caskey’s office throughout his career.  The desks now are in Senate staff offices.

Another lasting legacy of Harold and Kay Caskey is “pie day.”  For several years, the Caskeys would bring dozens of pies to the Capitol a few days before legislative adjournment and during one of the lunch breaks, long lines would snake through the Senate hallways of people waiting to get a piece of pie.  Other Senators have continued the tradition.

This has been a long entry because Harold Caskey was such a memorable figure in the Senate and because, to be brutal, there are no Senators in this generation of lawmakers who come close to matching him.  And when we left the Senate press table for the last time, we had the impression that few of today’s lawmakers had aspirations to do so.  But we also understand that nostalgia sometimes clouds contemporary assessments.   It does seem, however, to be a rather widely-held feeling among the diminishing number of people at the capitol who recall him and his generation.

Two of Caskey’s Senate colleagues jointly issued a remembrance a few days after his death.  Roger Wilson was a Senator from Columbia before he became Lieutenant Governor (the President of the Senate) and then Governor on Mel Carnahan’s death.  Jim Mathewson was a Senator from Sedalia and served 28 years in the House and Senate, eight of those years as President pro Tem.  We’ll close with their thoughts:


As former elected officials now long retired from politics and policymaking, we have no delusions of being remembered forever. The Capitol corridors are full of portraits of men and women who served their terms, made marks of varying distinctions, and departed the building and ultimately, this Earth.   But Missouri State Senator Harold Caskey, who died October 1, deserves more recognition than most because he did more to impact laws and the lives of the people of Missouri. Harold did more by confronting and conquering the major life challenge of being legally blind since childhood due to a genetic condition.   Although he lacked sight, Harold never lacked a personal vision for the potential of Missouri. Blindness instilled in Harold a tenacity which could at times be called stubbornness. This was especially true when it came to educating our children. No legislator better understood the mechanics and complexities of school finance. No legislator was a stronger advocate for rural schools since Harold recognized they are the lifeblood of rural communities.   Harold was a lead sponsor of the Excellence In Education Act, which led to smaller class sizes and set minimum pay for teachers to keep smaller schools competitive in hiring and retaining great educators. He also was a strong backer of Senate Bill 380, which provided the largest infusion of funding for public schools in generations while setting high standards.   Harold’s mind and its workings could be a beautiful process or a fearsome experience. That is because Harold never stood up on the Senate floor with less than total preparedness. He accomplished this with loyal and dedicated staff members who read the text of bills into tape recorders, texts which Harold then memorized late into the night. Senators lived in apprehension of being publicly corrected by Harold, sometimes in regard to their own bills.   Harold was what we call an old-school Missouri Democrat – pro-life, pro-gun, pro-public education and especially pro-people when it came to taking care of constituents. We may not have agreed on all issues, but we would rather have Harold for us than against us. Many times Harold was preceded into the president pro tem’s office by the sound of his heavy cowboy boots stomping on the marble. He would arrive lecturing in the most colorful terms, to which the president pro tem would repeatedly reply, “Harold, I love you!” Eventually Harold would turn back to his office, still lecturing.   He wasn’t all hard-charging negotiator. For example, Harold would ply senators with a vast array of homemade pies from bakeries in his district. He had a quiet personal manner, and as U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill eulogized, he was “secretly a sweet softie.” Nowhere was this quality proven as much as when Harold welcomed to his office and advocated for the blind and people with disabilities.   As Harold would tell you, his secret to success was his adored wife Kay, who gave the taxpayers free service by tirelessly taking care of constituents back home. She was Harold’s eyes and his ears in the district. Our prayers for comfort go out to Kay, Kyle and the family.   Term limits took Harold out of the Senate after 28 years. But the proportional loss of wisdom with his Jefferson City exit was far greater than can be measured by a calendar.   This is our personal remembrance of a colleague from our shared Missouri Senate service, which, for the three of us, totaled some 65 years in the chamber. We mourn the passing of a great man, and a great friend. But Harold Caskey’s life will be remembered as one of service and positive inspiration that will stand for years to come.




It’s always a surprise

—to return from a trip that is incredibly stirring to find that nothing has changed when you get home.   When we rolled into Jefferson City about 1:30 a.m. today (Saturday, October 9), the businesses we drove past were the same as they had been two weeks earlier. The Jefferson City Oil Cartel was still charging twenty cents more a gallon for gasoline than the people in Fulton were paying. McDonald’s drive-through window was still open, serving the McMuffin that was a welcome bit to eat for travelers who hadn’t had anything since lunch at the Miami airport after our flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador that morning. American Airlines didn’t even drop its usual paltry package of pretzels on our drop-down tray tables on the flight from Miami to St. Louis. And if you expect to find any place to grab a quick bite at Lambert-St. Louis airport when your flight arrives sometime after 10 p.m., forget it. Lambert is a ghost town after 6.

Our day that started in Guayaquil ended in our own bed in Jefferson City about 2:30 this morning. We don’t know if today’s younger generation finds nothing remarkable about that. But our generation, or many in our generation, still have a “Gee Whiz”–a phrase of our generation–feeling about this sort of thing. We started our day on the south side of the equator trying to sort out what the Spanish-speaking airport attendant was saying over the loudspeaker in our gate area (among other things, I was summoned to the TSA security office downstairs because my checked bag had been randomly selected for a search—I have great sympathy for those people who have to search through bags of rank clothing that had clothed travelers for two weeks.). We finished it in our home in Jefferson City.

We might post some pictures from these two weeks some time later. Nancy already has been sharing some things on her Facebook page. But your correspondent doesn’t do Facebook or LinkedIn, or other internet stuff like that. Too much going on in the real world. And the “what I did on my autumn vacation” slide show isn’t what this series of observations is for.

The big bags have been unpacked. The two remaining clean shirts and one pair of clean socks are back in the drawers. The new washing machine will be getting a big workout this weekend. Sometime in the next few days, Nancy and I will go through the hundreds of pictures we took, considering how we have been changed by these last two weeks.

We met someone whose parents likely were alive during the French and Indian War. I hiked an ancient trail 9,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains to look down on a mysterious village. Nancy stood with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. We both explored a unique ecosystem populated by hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world, a place where studies done almost two centuries ago continue to produce massive angst among those who believe understanding of our world should be limited to the words written by the author of Genesis.

We were among our fellow creatures of brown skin, yellow skin, white skin, red feet, yellow feet, blue feet, claws, and scales. We walked among the living and the dead. We heard the music of man and the music of nature. We walked on modern and ancient paths. We spent two weeks eating only things that had been cooked or peeled, washing our teeth with bottled water, and throwing toilet tissue in wastebaskets because leaving it in the toilet would damage the sewage system. We rode planes, trains, boats, and buses. And we drove a car to start the whole thing. We wandered in societies that seek God through the sun, the puma, the crucifix, and through being one with nature’s god. We lived with a country that uses currency requiring calculation of value with purchases that often involve bargaining and in a country that imports United States currency to use as its own money and gives back coins in change that are a mix of United States coins and the local country’s coins. We stayed in rooms that were unlocked with cards that fit into slots, or unlocked doors with a wave of the card, or with great big skeleton keys. Some restaurant menus listed various forms of beef, pork, chicken, or guinea pig. Some of our group sampled dozens of beers you won’t find in the liquor section of the grocery store. I was in a place that didn’t have any Coke or Pepsi products, so I had had a bottle of Inka Cola which was kind of a light cream soda.

Peru and Ecuador. Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. And other places.

We didn’t talk to a single person in any of those places who gave a tinker’s dam about Donald Trump or John Boehner, Obamacare, Governor Nixon’s veto of a right to work bill, and the insane pursuit of millionaire campaign donors by people thirsting for power.

And then we came home, changed people returning to a seemingly unchanged community where “Gee Whiz” experiences are unlikely. Travel once again has made us realize that the comfort of sleeping in one’s own bed has its value. But travel makes sure that sleeping in one’s own bed does not turn into living in a rut.

The villain’s censure is extorted praise

We’ve read a lot of histories that include biographies of families and founders and most of them are pretty, well truthfully, either dull or so full of platitudes that we don’t stay with them very long.  But one we have enjoyed for many years was published in 1878 by W. V. N. Bay (William Van Ness Bay), a tome that needed 611 pages to live up to its title:

Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Missouri: With an Appendix, Containing Biographical Sketches of Nearly All of the Judges and Lawyers who Have Passed Away, Together with Many Interesting and Valuable Letters Never Before Published of Washington, Jefferson, Burr, Granger, Clinton, and Others, Some of which Throw Additional Light Upon the Famous Burr Conspiracy.

Bay’s writing style is graceful, respectful, and honest.  While most books of the era were often written in a stilted or flowery language, his was conversational and genteel.

Here’s an example from Bay’s book.  As I read it, I was reminded of a recent conversation with an acquaintance who is considering whether to get into politics but has had trouble dealing with some of the things said about him in his business.  I’ve suggested that thinking of entering the political realm will expose him to much worse. Bay’s story addresses that and also has a certain resonance with contemporary events.  Bay has a couple of quotes, too, that respond to a part of the world of politics that never seems to get better.  Here’s Bay:

Thomas Reynolds.

Many of our readers will recollect the deep sensation produced upon the public mind by the announcement of the tragic death of this gentleman, who took his own life while governor of the state. He was not only one of the profoundest jurists of the West, but possessed a versatility of talent that would enable him to adorn any position to which he might be called.

Governor Reynolds was born March 12, 1796, in Bracken County, Kentucky. But very little is known respecting his early education, but it was, no doubt, as good as could be obtained in the schools where he resided. He certainly was not a classical scholar, though he had some knowledge of Latin. He was admitted to the bar in Kentucky, about the time he became of age, but in early life he removed to Illinois, where he filled the several offices of clerk of the House of Representatives, speaker of the House, attorney-general, and chief justice of the Supreme Court.

In 1829 he moved to Missouri, and located at Fayette, Howard County. He brought with him a high reputation as a jurist, and soon secured a good practice. It was not long before he was chosen to represent Howard County in the Legislature, and became speaker of the House. After leaving the Legislature he was appointed judge of the judicial circuit comprising the counties of Howard, Boone, Callaway, et al.

In 1840 the Democratic party met in convention at Jefferson City, to nominate a ticket for state officers, and Judge Reynolds was nominated for governor almost by acclamation.

It was at this time we made his acquaintance, and formed a very high estimate of him as not only a man of ability, but of undoubted integrity and honesty of purpose. As a delegate in the Convention we gave him our support, and had occasion frequently afterwards to meet and transact business with him, as we were in the Legislature during most of the time he was governor. He was elected over J. B. Clark by a handsome majority.

No very important event transpired during his administration. He was the first governor who strongly urged the abolition of imprisonment for debt, and probably to him more than any other person are we indebted for this humane enactment.

Governor Reynolds had few superiors as a jurist, and hence it is that most of his life was spent on the bench. There was nothing superficial in his law learning. He drank from the lowest depths of the legal well, and there secured the gems which can be nowhere else found.

“Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow; He who would search for pearls must dive below.”

He studied the law as a science, and we have heard him say on several occasions that he had read Coke, Bacon, and Blackstone a dozen times. His mind was as clear as a bell, and his power of analysis very great. As a forensic speaker few excelled him, and in canvassing the state for governor but few were willing to encounter him.

At the time of his death his prospects for distinction were greater than those of any man in the state, for his genial habits, pleasant demeanor, and unquestioned integrity had made him exceedingly popular, and it was a mere question of time as to his elevation to the Federal Senate. He had a dread of being thought disloyal to his party, which often induced him to appoint men to office unfit for the position. A noted instance of this will be found in our memoir of James Evans.

Shortly after breakfast, on February 9, 1844, the report of a gun was heard from the executive mansion in Jefferson City, and some persons passing by at the time went into the governor’s office to ascertain the cause of it, and there found the governor weltering in his blood, with the top of his head blown entirely off, and of course dead. He had just before sent for a rifle, the muzzle of which he placed against his forehead, and by the aid of a strong twine tied to the trigger, with one end wrapped around his thumb, he discharged it. On the table near where he fell was found a letter addressed to his most intimate friend, Colonel William G. Minor, in the following words:

“In every situation in which I have been placed, I have labored to discharge my duty faithfully to the public; but this has not protected me for the last twelve months from the slanders and abuse of my enemies, which has rendered my life a burden to me. I pray God to forgive them, and teach them more charity. My will is in the hands of James L. Minor, Esq. Farewell.

“TH. Reynolds.

“Col. W. G. Minor.”

Here we might stop, and throw a mantle over this mysterious and tragic event, but truth and candor force us to state that many of Governor Reynolds’ friends attributed the suicide to a very different cause from that designated in his letter to Colonel Minor. To be more explicit, they believed it grew out of his domestic troubles. It is certainly a very great draft upon our credulity to suppose that a man who had been a quarter of a century in public life, and who was an old and experienced politician, would take his own life because of the ill-natured squibs of the opposition press, which every public man has to encounter. No greater truism was ever uttered by man, than was uttered by Dean Swift when he said, “Censure is the tax a man pays for being eminent.”

That he may have been more than ordinarily sensitive in this respect is not improbable, but the comments of the press respecting his administration were no more uncharitable than those which had been aimed at the governor who preceded him. He should have found some consolation in the words of Pope:

“The villain’s censure is extorted praise.”

If the letter to Colonel Minor was worded with the view of drawing the attention of the public from the true cause of the suicide, he had a motive which others can conjecture as well as ourselves. We express no opinion in relation to it.

—In months to come, we shall wade thigh-deep through censure, “the tax a man pays for being eminent.”  It is most often the product of those with little to offer for themselves or those they support and is, when you think of it, a form of “extorted praise.”

February, 1844 and February 2015.  Tragedy comes when the “villain’s censure” seems to be the only part of the equation that is recognized and the tax paid for eminence becomes unbearable.

Let’s see in the election year of 2016 whether our lawmakers will do anything about cutting this tax.

It’s in the mail

Suppose you sat down, say fifteen years ago, to write a letter and you didn’t mail it because stuff kept happening that you wanted to tell your friend about.   Suppose the letter got so big that you decided only half of it would fit in an envelope. So you sent that half but you kept getting the second half to the point where you could finally say, “Well, that’s enough for now” and you finally stuffed it into an envelope and dripped it in a street-side box late at night so it wouldn’t stick around and invite you to write more.

Except you will write some more because you know you left out some stuff that you want to put in and eventually you’ll mail the new version of the second half of this long letter.

A friend told me many years ago, “The trouble with historians is they never want to write. They just want to research.”   He had it right. But sooner or later historians have to put all of that research into some kind of narrative so it is meaningful to others. A historian who doesn’t share his story is not a storian. He or she is just a hiss.

Last Thursday night I emailed 703 pages of mostly accurate typing to the University of Missouri Press. It’s called (for now) Statehouse; the Biography of Missouri’s Capitol. It will be a while before anybody but the editors and I see it. It won’t be filled with a lot of color photographs as the Capitol Art book is. Some, but compared to the Capitol Art book, not many. Lots of black and white archival stuff, though.

One of the problems of writing history is that the story changes as you go along.   This book was supposed to be done well before now. But this summer I got to digging around and came up with about three bunches of stuff that completely changed the orientation of the first 175-or so pages.

Remember groaning in high school when we learned that our themes were increased from 100 words to 250?   The new stuff added about fifty pages to the manuscript. And it changed the beginning of the story from starting with the Capitol fire in 1911 to starting with the story of an Illiterate Frenchman living in Spanish southeast Missouri who got a land grant in 1802.

We won’t tell you more. Just start saving your money to buy the story of the capital and the capitol in a couple of years.

Is it a relief to finally send off a manuscript? No. It’s kind of like letting your kid cross the street for the first time. You’ve told the child to look both ways but you know as you watch your loin-fruit step off the curb that there are other things you want to say.

Well, isn’t it exciting when you have the final product in your hands? Yeah, kinda. But gestation periods are also likely to produce feelings of relief as much as anything.

So the offspring has left the nest. But not forever. For a while. And this loft/office won’t become an empty nest when the book is in the stores. There are a couple of other eggs already incubating.