After a wrenching night full of hope and sorrow, Gov. Mary Fallin was functioning on three hours’ sleep Tuesday when she visited First Baptist Church in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. The church—one of those fortunate buildings that wasn’t blown to smithereens by Monday’s monster tornado—had been turned into a makeshift Red Cross facility offering food and shelter to victims and helping relatives separated in the lethal storm to reunite.
“When I was in the church,” the governor recounted in an interview with The Daily Beast, “I heard several ladies wailing really loud, because they’d just been told that they’d lost a loved one. It was a very emotional, hard experience to listen to utter grief—the dimensions of the tragedy and the voices of those ladies. One of them had just found out she had lost her husband. I don’t know about the other ones. But I never heard people scream and cry that loud.”
It was a challenge, but the 58-year-old Fallin—a supremely successful politician, but also a wife and mother—managed to keep her composure. The day before, the goal of simply not losing it was equally difficult as she picked her away across a debris field at midnight and watched dozens of first responders dig for trapped children in a pulverized pile that had once been Plaza Towers Elementary School.
“I was walking through deep mud up to the debris itself with the firefighters and watching them with their chain saws cutting through the debris and using jackhammers on the concrete to get under the debris to see if there were any children or schoolteachers who might have been there,” Fallin said by phone from the disaster area, shortly before rushing off to meet with Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a fervent fiscal hawk, and register her polite disagreement with her fellow Republican’s pronouncement Tuesday that emergency federal tornado aid should be offset by budget cuts. “My husband [lawyer Wade Christensen] and I have six children between us. My heart was breaking for other mothers and fathers who were wondering if their children were going to be all right and for those that lost family members. It’s a terrible and emotional time, and yet I had great pride and comfort in seeing our first responders, firefighters, and emergency personnel—well over 100 of them—digging last night in the rubble, just getting down and working very hard in very tough circumstances.”
The governor added: “I draw from my faith. I have a pretty strong faith, and I trust that God will make all things work together ... I have to show courage and strength during this time, because people are depending upon me.”
By all accounts, Fallin is doing just that. A previously little-known officeholder, she is suddenly a household name. In her debut on the national stage this week, the blonde, pantsuited governor is emerging as the sort of political star that Sarah Palin was once widely believed to be.
“Those of us who know Mary are not surprised,” said two-term Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, now a Washington lobbyist. He has been friendly with Fallin, a former member of the Oklahoma Legislature, since her days as lieutenant governor in the mid-1990s, when Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee. She went on to serve in Washington as a Republican member of Congress and was elected as the Sooner State’s first female governor in 2010.
“She is such an attractive, upbeat woman, but you also see her strength and toughness,” Barbour added. “At the same time, you can tell it’s all heartfelt. One of my [BGR Group] partners who doesn’t know her said that her heart jumps out at you when you see her on television. Even though she’s levelheaded, she’s calm, she’s reassuring and serious, you can also see how much she cares.”
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, who was elected to Congress with Fallin amid the Democratic sweep of 2006, recalls that she quickly “became a leader of the freshman class. It was a pretty small class. She was very popular, not just with Republicans, but also with Democrats. She has strong philosophical positions, but she could still talk and work with other people who held different positions.”
Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, a Republican elected in 1994, the same year Fallin won the lieutenant governorship in a separate race, saw her capacity for grace under pressure at close range during two catastrophes: the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing and, four years later, the deadly May 3 tornado that also descended on the ill-fated town of Moore.
“She and her staff weren’t waiting for me to tell them what to do—they naturally knew what vacuum to fill to be there as a source of strength and consolation and solace,” said Keating, noting that in Oklahoma it’s not unusual for the governor and lieutenant governor to come from different parties and to be at cross-purposes. “I never had to worry about what Mary Fallin was doing or saying. It would always be consistent with what I felt.”
Fallin, in other words, is experienced at facing calamity. “I have been prepared for this kind of event. When the April 19th bombing happened, I had been in office for 101 days with Frank Keating, and Oklahoma was thrust into the worldwide news because of that tragedy. We came out of that a stronger people with a strong resolve—what we call ‘the Oklahoma standard.’ We jump in and do what needs to be done and do it quickly and keep in mind that people need our help. And then we do everything we can to make it happen.”