Jeannie Morris’ new book, “Behind the Smile,” tells the story of Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

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‘Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Moseley Braun’s Historic Senate Campaign’

by Jeannie Morris

Agate Midway, 384 pp., $27

In 1992, the election of four women — including Washington’s Patty Murray — to the U.S. Senate was historic enough to prompt the slogan, Year of the Woman.

Among that group, one stood out: Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman to serve in the Senate.

In her book, “Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Moseley Braun’s Historic Senate Campaign,” author Jeannie Morris delivers a behind-the-scenes view of the inner workings of one very erratic and problematic, but ultimately successful, run for office.

The tale would’ve been gripping enough as one of an unlikely candidate beating the odds. But instead, it twists into one of a brilliant career dimmed because of poor personal choices. In this case, Moseley Braun let a romantic relationship with her campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews, thwart her promise.

Moseley Braun, a longtime Illinois state politician, leapt onto the national scene as feminist voters exerted political muscle. Many women were enraged by the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court despite Anita Hill’s damning testimony of his sexual harassment. Some male lawmakers brushed off Hill’s claims as inconsequential, inciting women to fight back — at the ballot box.

Moseley Braun’s charisma galvanized voters of all backgrounds and inspired new hope in American politics. She upset incumbent Alan Dixon in the Democratic primary and went on to win the election. Her campaign served as a harbinger for another black rising star from the rough side of Chicago: President Obama.

“Behind the Smile,” however, carries a tragic undertone. After 1992, Moseley Braun has never won another election.

During her first Senate campaign, Moseley Braun faced accusations of helping her mother commit Medicaid fraud and avoiding taxes on a financial windfall. Toward the end of the campaign, staffers compiled a report detailing sexual harassment of campaign workers by Matthews.

As a Senator, Moseley Braun made trips with Matthews to Nigeria without notifying the State Department or the U.S. ambassador at a time when the United States had issued sanctions against that nation. Those trips garnered enough backlash to cost Moseley Braun re-election in 1998.

Morris, an accomplished journalist who now lives in Seattle, published the book more than two decades after the 1992 election, because for years Moseley Braun resisted airing the story.

The delay in publication allows for some retrospection. At times, the writing is a notebook-style recounting of Morris’ time embedded with the candidate and her own insights as a supporter. Other times, she uses documents, press clippings and interviews to round out the story.

Morris, however, fails to dish out the juiciest material. She makes numerous references to Moseley Braun and Matthews’ relationship, but sidesteps the details of how that romance materialized and later dissolved. Perhaps Morris never learned those details from the two people involved. That omission left a glaring hole in the storytelling.

The campaign narrative provides enough of an engine to be engaging, but leaves the reader wishing for more of Moseley Braun the woman, not just the magnetic candidate.

“Behind the Smile” nonetheless offers a fascinating look at how personality, gender, race, and personal relationships mix in American politics through the story of a remarkable woman — who could’ve gone much farther than she did.