Sketching a diagram on a scrap of notepad paper, Carol Moseley Braun makes her proposal for universal health coverage seem as clear as the view across Lake Michigan from the Chicago Athletic Club's eighth-floor dining room.
On this crisp fall afternoon, she speaks with passion and in great detail about her plan to help the uninsured. Then, with a closing flourish, she says that the country "would not spend a dime more" than it does now and all would be covered.
This, she concludes, is the substance driving her struggling campaign for the White House. This is what the media should be focusing on instead of rehashing her dramatic political demise after one historic term in the U.S. Senate.
"If I wanted to be a star, I would go to Hollywood or do what Oprah does and make money instead of getting kicked around," Braun says. "My campaign is about making a difference in people's lives."
The only hitch: There is no Braun health care plan.
Her campaign Web site, carolforpresident.org, lists only two pages of her quotes on the topic. No booklets are available, no position papers, not even a copy of a lengthy speech.
The gap between the ambitious, complicated goal embodied in her hand-drawn diagram -- complete with stick-figure doctor wearing surgical mask -- and a detail-rich program to realistically deal with the problem serves as a ready metaphor for Braun's public life.
It is the gulf between Carol the Real and Carol the Ideal.
Carol the Ideal is the politician with charisma, a megawatt smile and an articulate seriousness of purpose that made her the vessel of so many hopes when she became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992. Carol the Real has been different, a politician clouded by bad judgment, inattentiveness to detail and a lack of follow-through that has left a trail of disillusioned aides and supporters.
A long chain of controversies immediately followed Braun's elevation to national-heroine status. When she departed the public stage in 1998 after a single term and a humiliating loss to Peter Fitzgerald, she vowed "Not, never, nein, nyet" to ever run for public office again. Her bitterness was palpable. She felt she had been wronged.
And now she has chosen a presidential campaign -- the grandest, most complicated and demanding political stage -- to try to make things right.
She says that after serving in government on the local, state and national levels, capped by a tour as ambassador to New Zealand, she has qualifications that equal or exceed any of the eight men running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
That, however, is where most similarities end. She has only the tiniest force of political retainers and volunteers -- no pollsters, nothing approaching an entourage. Aides accounted for her light schedule of campaign events by explaining that Braun instead needed to spend time on the phone raising money.
But that hasn't worked either as she has pulled in only about $340,000. She had accumulated a debt of almost $114,000 as of the end of September, raising barely $125,000 during the year's third quarter, or about 120 times less than the fundraising leader, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
The only time she is on equal footing with the others is at all-come candidate debates and forums.
Hers seems more a personal crusade for rehabilitating her image than a substantive campaign for the public office.
And that, too, will be difficult. Even today, many who believed most deeply in her and worked for her 1992 campaign still feel the painof the unbounded promise that was broken.
"When you have that kind of charisma, people fall in love, and that's why the fall was harder," said Sue Purrington, a former Braun aide.
"I was never involved with anyone who had as much charisma and could connect with others like her," said Bill Mattea, her former chief of staff who also worked for Sens. Alan Dixon and Adlai Stevenson. "She has the gift."
Many of her former aides and supporters think that she squandered that gift, and the skeleton campaign staff and limited financial support that her presidential campaign has received hints strongly they might be right.
To be sure, a credible campaign could recast her as a more serious player in politics and help to erase the impression of wasted potential. This is, after all, an era of second chances.
"She always had the heart and soul to be where she is today," said Thom Serafin, a political consultant who helped Braun's 1992 Senate campaign. "She can be so good on the stump, so good with people, so formidable. She went to Washington with so much promise."
Serafin's wistful tone finds echoes in the many who wanted Braun to succeed.
A lonely road
So she is reaching out to new potential supporters, with limited though sometimes poignant success. At a fundraiser in Washington last month, Braun's speech about pay inequality between men and women so moved two bartenders that they made their first political donations -- $20 each -- to Braun's campaign.
"She has a genuine sense of what is real and what affects women's lives," said Rebecca Farmer, 27, after pulling her checkbook from a furry, leopard-pattern purse. In all, about 20 supporters -- all women -- came to the fundraiser.
Braun's campaign trail frequently is a lonely road. Only one man, a friend from law school, braved a February snowstorm to attend her first speech in Des Moines.
Even at her chosen venue to formally announce her candidacy on Sept. 22, Howard University in Washington, she is recognized but not really known. One Howard student yelled into her cell phone that she had spotted the "lady who is running for president" on campus.
"Carol Moseley Braun!" the candidate's brother and bodyguard for the day, Joe Moseley, shouted to the student.
The campaign began with two Washington-based staffers, though both left within months of joining. Posted above one Braun staffer's desk in her South Loop office is a quote that could sum up the campaign's true impetus: "The greatest victories are not won at the polls. They are won in human hearts."
The handful of staffers are intensely aware of the baggage their candidate must unload to have any success. After lunch in Chinatown, campaign director Patrick Botterman jokes about the message on his fortune cookie that reads "any rough times are now behind you."
"I think I got Carol's cookie," Botterman says.
No clear plan
She did receive a rare endorsement from the National Organization for Women, but there is scant evidence that it has measurably helped her campaign.
"For someone who has been in politics for 20-plus years to have so few if any supporters is remarkable," said veteran political consultant Don Rose. "Her candidacy has more to do with psychology than politics. It's just inexplicable."
Braun supporters have pointed out that the exposure of her presidential campaign could lead to another high-profile position. "I don't know of any poor or homeless former presidential candidates," said Springfield lobbyist Billy Paige, Braun's best friend.
Others who have worked closely with Braun say she is running a campaign to restore her reputation. While staffers say they are still working on a detailed health-care plan, she readily provides extensive documentation that she contends exonerates her of the allegations leveled against her as long as 11 years ago. The packet given to reporters concludes with a list of payments from Fitzgerald to Karl Rove, now President Bush's chief political strategist.
"She firmly believes she was wronged," said Eric Adelstein, media consultant to her 1998 campaign."
Stanley Renshon, a political psychoanalyst at the City University of New York, said, "A lot of campaigns are about people's views of themselves, and this one seems particularly self-motivated."
Braun most assuredly doesn't see it that way. Rather, she said she was maligned unfairly for foibles that are commonly accepted in male and white politicians.
Nothing seems to aggravate her more -- and nothing makes her appear more determined to stay in the race -- than the suggestion that she does not belong in the field.
Besides her vow to "take the `men only' sign off the White House door," Braun opposed the war in Iraq and called for a balanced-budget amendment, an approach she dubbed "peace dove and budget hawk."
Until her defeat in 1998, Braun's political career had been an unbroken chain of successes, which is why she says she is as qualified to run for president as any of her opponents.
"I am running for the Democratic nomination because I believe this party ought to stand for inclusion and hope," Braun said in formally announcing her candidacy Sept. 22.
Most candidates try to craft their version of a log cabin story when they seek the presidency. Braun says her version would be about "a girl who follows her dreams, climbs every mountain . . . or tries to."
The story begins on Aug. 16, 1947, on the South Side where Braun grew up as the oldest of four children born to a mother who worked as a medical technician and a police officer father. Braun made her first run for elective office, a successful bid for student government secretary, as an undergraduate political science major at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While Braun says she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Gage Park in 1966, classmates do not remember her as a firebrand.
Braun went on to earn a law degree at the University of Chicago, a gilded credential that helped propel her political career. She met her former husband, classmate Michael Braun, in Hyde Park. The marriage lasted until 1986 and, by all accounts, whatever bitterness emerged at that time dissipated long ago. Her former husband attended her announcement of her exploratory campaign earlier this year.
She worked for four years as an assistant U.S. attorney but quit her job as a prosecutor after her only child, Matthew, was born in 1977. Braun says she was ready to stay home permanently to raise her son.
In 1978, a politically active neighbor approached her about running to succeed a retiring state representative. Braun invited a group of progressive activists to her home and soon had a solid core of support from the liberal lakefront precincts.
A rising star
Braun finished first in a field of 10 and quickly established herself as a rising star in the General Assembly's black caucus. Excluded from the cigar-chomping, steak-eating, backroom-dealing Springfield milieu of that era, the few black women in the legislature formed their own club.
She rose to become an assistant majority leader and was Mayor Harold Washington's spokeswoman in Springfield. She also was a mentor to younger black legislators. "I was in awe of her," said State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), who shared an apartment with her across from the Capitol. "I was like, `I can't believe I'm living with Carol Moseley Braun.'"
Braun says she had decided to quit politics after she did not receive the party leadership's support for lieutenant governor. She changed her mind when Washington asked her to run for Cook County recorder of deeds in 1988 on his multiracial "dream ticket," giving her a chance to become the first African-American elected to countywide executive office.
But Braun was looking for an even bigger prize. As her term as recorder was ending, the Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination changed her plans to run for U.S. representative.
Women's rights groups pressed Illinois' Democratic senior Sen. Dixon to vote against confirming Thomas because of sexual harassment allegations against him from University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill. When Dixon sided with the Republicans in the narrow majority to confirm Thomas, activists were outraged and they urged Braun to challenge Dixon.
Protest gains momentum
What began as a protest candidacy evolved into one with a realistic chance of winning with the surprise entry of a wealthy personal injury lawyer, Al Hofeld, who would spend millions of dollars to bash Dixon.
Braun avoided the fray and, fueled by a huge turnout among white suburban women, she won the three-way race with a 38 percent plurality. For a moment, Carol the Real and Carol the Ideal were one in the same.
Braun catapulted to celebrity, the leading light in what would develop into "The Year of the Woman" in U.S. politics. The campaign had more volunteers than it had work for them.
Braun was expected to trounce her general election opponent, Republican lawyer Richard Williamson, but she did not cruise to victory.
Controversy over her relationship with campaign manager and then-fiance Kgosie Matthews and allegations that she had pocketed money that belonged to her mother from timber rights while Medicaid paid her mother's nursing care bills dragged her down. (The Medicaid revelations forced Braun to repay $15,000 to the state.)
Braun refuses to talk much about Matthews today because, she said, the topic was part of her personal life and irrelevant to her political future.
But even some of her most loyal supporters see her association with Matthews as central to her political demise. "She should have separated her personal life from her professional life," said Chicago Ald. William Beavers (7th), who is on Braun's presidential campaign committee.
While Braun was lauded on the national level after her election, at home more public-relations problems emerged before she was sworn into her Senate seat.
The people's champion acquired a reputation for demanding royal treatment. There was a vacation trip on the Concorde to Africa during a 28-day stretch when other freshman legislators were busy setting up their offices. Then there was her move to a penthouse apartment at Lake Point Tower, which she had to give up because she had improperly accepted a sweetheart deal on the rent.
"She had a chance to make a difference and blew it," said Paul Stilp, a former Braun aide in Washington.
And yet there were moments when it did seem that Braun could live up to the expectation that she would make a difference in the largely male, otherwise all-white Senate simply by being in the room. She famously took on Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), persuading the Senate to reject the patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy with a moving speech.
Using blunt language
Braun also recalled a closed-door meeting in the Senate where she again used blunt language to block a male colleague's proposal to add a patient co-payment for publicly funded mammograms. "I yelled, `Hey fellas, I know none of you have breasts to speak of, but this is going to affect a lot of your constituents,'" she said.
She pushed hard to rebuild the nation's crumbling schools and looked out for Downstate agricultural interests, earning the nickname "ethanol queen."
"She was a very effective legislator, but there was always something happening at the worst times, just when we were starting to get things done," said former aide Todd Atkinson. "It was like turning the hourglass over again and again."
The biggest blowup was over her visits to Nigeria with Matthews, then a registered lobbyist in Washington for the military dictatorship that ruled the African nation. News of Braun's unauthorized meeting with Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha broke just before the 1996 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Her actions drew criticism from the State Department and human-rights activists.
Braun was reduced to a marginal role at her hometown convention when she was given a poor speaking slot, a sharp contrast to her 1992 Democratic Convention appearance in New York, where she looked almost otherworldly as she took the stage dressed completely in white.
Though Braun previously has called her visits with Abacha a mistake, she recently has reverted to her original explanation, that she went to visit the Abacha family on a personal trip. She said a double standard is evident, as white male politicians do not receive similar rebuke for visiting authoritarian states such as China or Cuba.
The probes from the Federal Election Commission and the IRS eventually were dropped. "There's no statement here: no exoneration, no Good Housekeeping seal of approval, just no action," an election commission spokeswoman said at the time. "The commission dismissed it for a lack of manpower, a lack of time."
Approval ratings dropped
Politically, the toll was mounting. Her approval ratings plummeted and Republicans smelled vulnerability.
Braun's troubles drew a deep-pocketed opponent, Fitzgerald, an independently wealthy and highly conservative Republican from Inverness. Fitzgerald outspent her by about a 3-to-1 margin and went on to narrowly defeat her. The same suburban women who had fueled her election six years before had abandoned her in the only election she had ever lost.
President Clinton then offered Braun an ambassadorship in New Zealand, a posting that Braun now characterizes as "ambassador to paradise."
"Going to New Zealand was a way of healing her spirit," said her son, Matthew, now 26. "She still felt in the mix but was removed from the ugliness that pervades politics here."
Still, the top career diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand was reassigned to Washington after accusing Braun of ethics violations in hiring, procurement and acceptance of gifts. An investigation by the State Department's inspector general cleared her of ethics charges.
Returning from New Zealand when George W. Bush became president, Braun again swore off politics and planned to raise pecans on her family's ancestral farm in Alabama. But friends joked that they found it unlikely that Braun would become a full-fledged farmer.
"I told her, `I somehow do not see you wearing overalls and shopping at Wal-Mart,'" Paige recalled.
In fact, Braun moved to Atlanta's Peachtree Street, where she still owns a two-bedroom condo valued at $510,000, and did consulting work with former Atlanta Mayor and UNambassador Andrew Young. The nature of her work is unclear since Young did not return calls seeking comment. Braun also taught business law briefly at DePaul University.
Braun began talking privately about a presidential run more than a year ago. Even those who now support her presidential bid, including U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago) and Paige, encouraged her to try to regain her Senate seat in 2004.
And despite no evidence of a White House campaign that has caught on with voters, indeed little evidence of a conventional campaign at all, she remains outwardly buoyant.
"I won't have the biggest funded campaign war chest, but I do have and I always have relied on the support of ordinary people," Braun said. "Out of 14 elections, I've won all but one of them."
She has almost no chance to win this one. She has a better chance to be redeemed.