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By John Ashcroft
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
CRASH IN THE NIGHT
A Nightmare While Awake
I'm a country boy at heart. Few activities are more enjoyable to me
than getting out in the country, working on a tractor, or fixing up
an old shed on the edge of a green pasture. That's why my wife,
Janet, and I hung on to our property near Springfield, Missouri, at
the northern base of the Ozark hill country when I was elected to
the U.S. Senate in 1994. By 2000, even though we now lived at least
half our year in Washington, D.C., I relished every opportunity to
spend time at our traditional, two-story, white farmhouse located
near a gently rippling river.
Ten miles from town, the serenity of the farm with its bucolic
beauty beckoned me away from the stark severity of city life.
Something about returning to the farm, a sanctuary amid the hustle
and bustle of the workaday world, refreshed me, restored my spirit,
and reminded me that life is more than the latest opinion poll or
The old farmhouse provided a welcomed respite for me, especially
when the weather turned ugly, as it had earlier on this mid-October
night. The sturdy construction offered a place of warmth and
security, impervious to the pelting rain and the flashing lightning.
Eventually, the booming thunderstorm moved offeastward, leaving
behind a persistent drizzle and a dense fog that painted a thick
gray mist across the hillsides, shrouding the valleys, and casting
an eerie pall over the area. I glanced out the window at the soupy
sky and shook my head. I'm glad I'm not traveling in that mess
I tossed a stack of papers aside and moved to my favorite chair in
the TV room, kicked off my shoes, and reached for the remote
control. I wasn't really interested in watching any more news
coverage, and it was still too early in the year for a basketball
game, but it was nice to have a bit of background noise in the
house. Janet was in Washington, D.C., attending to her teaching
responsibilities at Howard University, so I had returned alone to
our Springfield home following a televised Sunday night debate in
Kansas City against Mel Carnahan, the governor of Missouri, my
opponent in the upcoming election for U.S. senator.
The jangling of the farmhouse phone jolted me out of my silent
reflections. I pulled myself out of the chair and ambled over to the
telephone. David Ayres, my former Senate office chief of staff and
my current campaign manager, was on the line. David had worked with
me for years and was one of my most trusted advisers. It was not
unusual for him to call me after office hours, but late night calls
were rarely ever good, and this call was no exception. I could tell
quickly from the tone of David's voice that this was no ordinary
"John, there's a problem."
"What kind of problem?" I asked, still relatively at ease. Problems
go with the territory when running for office or serving in office,
so I was not surprised or alarmed to learn that another issue had
popped up three weeks prior to election day.
"I just received a call about a press report that Governor
Carnahan's plane is missing ... apparently, it has disappeared
from the radar."
"Word is that Carnahan and his campaign aide Chris Sifford were
attempting to fly from St. Louis to New Madrid tonight, and the air
traffic controllers lost contact with the plane sometime around
seven-thirty or eight o'clock. Carnahan's son, Randy, was flying the
plane, and they can't raise him on the radio."
"No ..." I was stunned as the full realization of David's words
began to sink in. "You don't mean ..."
"We don't know," David anticipated my question. "But the weather
here in St. Louis has been awful tonight, and there's fear that the
plane may have crashed in the woods south of the city, in Jefferson
County. We're checking with local authorities and all the news
services right now, but it does not look good. We also need to start
thinking about what we're going to do if the reports are accurate."
"Do? There's only one thing to do. Pull down the campaign ... put
everything on hold until we find out what's going on here."
"That's what I thought, too," David concurred. "Try to settle
yourself. I'll call you back as soon as I hear anything."
I had no sooner hung up the telephone and turned the television to a
local station for news when the phone began ringing, one call after
another. "John? Have you heard? Is it true? Is Carnahan okay? Have
they found the plane yet? Is Mel dead or alive?"
My mind was racing. How could this be? Just a few weeks ago we had
accepted an invitation for a debate to be held on Monday, October
16, in southeast Missouri at Cape Girardeau, but the Carnahan camp
had declined the invitation, opting instead for a fund-raiser in St.
Louis that day, and then a trip to the boot heel of the state later
that evening. Now I couldn't help but wonder how the events of the
evening might have been different had we still been on the debate
platform in southern Missouri.
Mel Carnahan and I had served together in Missouri politics for a
couple of decades. Mel had been the state treasurer during my first
term as governor of Missouri, and the lieutenant governor during my
second term. Missouri's term limits allow for only two consecutive
terms of office, so after serving eight years as governor, I stepped
aside and planned on retiring from politics.
But when the Missouri seat in the U.S. Senate opened, my friends and
family encouraged me to run for office. I won the Senate seat in
1994. Meanwhile, Mel had won the governor's job in 1992. He went on
to serve two four-year terms as governor, although he quickly let it
be known that he wanted a broader sphere of influence. He publicly
announced his intention to run for my U.S. Senate seat the day after
the 1998 midterm elections, a full two years before he would
complete his second term as governor.
I had no animosity toward Mel; our dealings were properly cordial,
but tension filled our relationship from the early days of our
working together, when he was the lieutenant governor and I was
governor. At that time, Missouri had a law that allowed the
lieutenant governor to assume the position of governor whenever the
chief executive was absent from the state.
The whole idea was based on an antiquated notion that remained when
I took office. Clearly, a modern governor continued in office when
outside the state conducting state business. Nevertheless, whenever
I traveled outside Missouri's boundaries for an extended period of
time, I'd sign a document designating Mel Carnahan as governor until
On one such occasion, I was traveling in Japan when a reporter back
home asked Mel about his pro-abortion stance. Mel unabashedly stated
that if legislation modifying the state's abortion laws came across
his desk while he was the acting governor, he would sign it. This
was totally contrary to, and inconsistent with, my publicly stated
beliefs and positions regarding abortion. I was stunned that Mel
would suggest such a thing. Historically, lieutenant governors
handled the acting governor's responsibilities in a manner
consistent with the governor's views. They understood that it was
not the intent of the constitution of the state to change the
philosophy and law of the state during temporary absences of the
After Mel's statements, I never again relinquished my role as
governor. To clarify the legal situation, while in Washington, D.C.,
on official state business, I signed some documents as governor of
Missouri and sent them back to the state capital for formal
registration. This evoked a challenge as to whether the Missouri
constitution's "absent from the state" clause stripped me of my
office as governor when outside the state's boundaries. The Supreme
Court of Missouri ruled in a way that allowed the governor of
Missouri to remain governor as long as he was able to carry out his
duties, even when temporarily performing official functions outside
The state was better served by the clarification, but my
relationship with Mel Carnahan was damaged by the decision. It was
an unfortunate consequence that I regret, but it was a fact.
Missouri being traditionally a moderate state, its local and state
officials elected from the time of the Civil War to Harry Truman had
been Democrats. During my lifetime, only one other Republican had
been elected governor of Missouri-Christopher "Kit" Bond. Moreover,
I had been the only Republican in Missouri history elected to
consecutive terms as governor, and amazingly, I had won big. In
1988, I won all 114 Missouri counties and garnered more than 66
percent of the vote in the gubernatorial race, the largest margin
for governor ever received in Missouri. In 1994, I was elected to
the U.S. Senate by capturing more than 60 percent of the vote.
Decades earlier, I had served as the state auditor of Missouri, then
eight years as its attorney general, then eight years as governor
and six years as a U.S. Senator. Few candidates had held three
high-profile state offices, as well as a seat in the U.S. Senate. As
the incumbent senator in the 2000 race, it was natural that I was
considered the front-runner by many political pundits.
Nevertheless, Mel Carnahan was a formidable candidate. Our battle
for the U.S. Senate in 2000 was Missouri politics at its best ...
and at its most intense. At its best, it was an important race with
national ramifications, since the seat was regarded as a potential
pivot on which the majority of the U.S. Senate might turn. On the
state level, it was a clash of the titans, two popular two-term
governors vying for a seat in Washington's senatorial club. At its
worst, it was a no-holds-barred, political bare-knuckled bout.
The campaign turned tough early on, and it never eased up. Public
Broadcasting's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer characterized the vitriolic
campaign as "downright ugly," noting that the two longtime rivals
clashing on classic hot-button issues such as abortion and the
death penalty, in a race that some observers say is becoming
downright ugly ...
Carnahan announced his Senate candidacy just one day after the
November 1998 election and criticized Ashcroft ever since ...
Ashcroft's ads reminded voters that Carnahan accepted money from
abortion-rights groups and vetoed a ban on "partial birth"
The race became increasingly negative this year as Carnahan
countered by painting Ashcroft as a member of the extreme right.
It was a grueling battle and I tried as best I could to keep our
campaign efforts focused. The opposition continually sought to
vilify me as an ultraconservative, racist, insensitive, heartless
pol. Some of those themes even found their way into the mid-October
"Carnahan, Ashcroft Use First Debate to Rip Each Other's Records,"
the St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline read following the first debate
between Mel and me, held ironically on Friday the 13th, and
broadcast live on KMOX radio in St. Louis. The newspaper reported
... was particularly combative during Friday's one-hour joint
session. Ashcroft returned fire in a milder manner, reflecting his
promise at the beginning of the debate to "raise the level of
discourse" ... Ashcroft's strongest criticism arose during their
exchanges over abortion. Ashcroft, who opposes abortion, began by
observing, "I do understand that good people can disagree." He
then called Carnahan "extreme on the issue" because he has vetoed
measures to outlaw a mid-to-late-term procedure that critics call
"partial birth abortion."
Two evenings later, Mel and I debated again, this time at the Gem
Theater in Kansas City. The debate was broadcast live on television
throughout the state. National media including reporters from the
New York Times, Washington Post, and others traveled to Kansas City
to see the bloodletting. But it didn't happen. Mel and I engaged in
a vigorous but dignified debate. Mel was actually more animated than
usual, taking off his suit coat, sitting down occasionally during
the debate, and appearing quite comfortable. At the close of the
telecast, we shook hands. "Well, John, it looks as though we're
going to survive this," Carnahan said.
Bill McClellan, a reporter who covered the campaign, wrote that he
was disappointed at the "remarkably civil" debate: "Ashcroft had
gone into a nice-guy mode ... the very image of good cheer and
"That meant the burden was on Carnahan. If there was going to be a
fight, he'd have to start it. He didn't seem so inclined. The men
disagreed on almost all the issues, but they did so with little
rancor ... a strange stance to take in a campaign noted mostly for
The debate over, I left the Gem Theater that night with no
reservations about whether I had won, but I was especially pleased
that I had resisted engaging in acrimonious statements about my
opponent. Besides, as we entered the final month of the campaign, I
felt confident that I was on the way to victory.
Throughout the summer, most pollsters reported that Mel and I were
running neck and neck, as every public poll gave me a slight lead. A
month earlier, the Zogby poll taken for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
in the first week of September had found me running ahead of
Carnahan, 45 percent to 43 percent, with a 4 percent margin of
error. Although the race was by no means a runaway, going into the
mid-October debate, a new public poll indicated we were ahead by ten
points and stretching our lead over the Carnahan camp. My campaign
team emphasized that our own polling research revealed a much
stronger position and growing. We were breaking away finally after a
twenty-three-month-long pitched battle. Our advertising campaign was
working well, and we had just locked in a huge advertising buy for
the homestretch. We were not on autopilot, but with only three weeks
before the election, barring any unforeseen circumstances, we were
on a clear track to win. I was exhausted but encouraged.
And now, suddenly, winning or losing an election seemed not to
matter. Mel's plane was down and nobody knew whether he was alive or
The farmhouse phone continued to ring. More calls poured in from
frantic people, posing questions I could not answer.
Memories flooded my mind as I recalled an incident in which I had
been flying a small plane during a turbulent storm. It was one of
the most frightening experiences of my life. I could picture all too
well what the men aboard the Carnahan plane may have experienced,
and it caused chills to run down my spine.
Rrrrriiing! The phone rang again. It was David again.
"John, we're still not absolutely certain, but it looks as though
the reports are accurate. The plane has gone down, and by all
indications, there are no survivors."
I stood holding the phone in my hand, unable to speak, feeling as
though someone had suddenly punched me in the stomach, knocking the
wind out of me. Finally, I mustered the wherewithal to respond.
"Pull down the campaign, David," I whispered. "No advertisements, no
public appearances, nothing. Put out a release to the press letting
them know that we are on hold."
David went to work attempting to stop a large campaign machine that
was energized with momentum, rolling under its own power. He issued
a press release, before midnight on Monday, October 16, reflecting
that we were still uncertain about many of the details regarding the
Carnahan crash. David's statement read simply:
We hope and pray that this tragedy has not occurred. Out of
respect for Governor Carnahan and his family we've suspended the
campaign indefinitely. We're suspending all campaign advertising
and canceling Senator Ashcroft's appearances, effective
The moment I placed the phone back on the receiver, it seemed to
ring again ... and again ... and again. Instead of answering,
dazed, I wandered to the couch. Waves of emotion overwhelmed me, and
large tears coursed down my face as I held my head in my hands.
"God, help us ... please help the Carnahan family." I thought of
Jean, Mel's wife. Not only had she lost her husband, but her son,
Randy, as well. I prayed for our state and for our country. And I
prayed for myself, as well. "Please, God, give me wisdom, that I
might respond with compassion and be a unifying force in the midst
of this heartrending tragedy."
Excerpted from Never Again
by John Ashcroft
Copyright © 2006 by John Ashcroft.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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