When the Christmas tree arrives on Capitol Hill and the large wreaths are hung at Union Station, the senators who remain from the 2006 elections know it is time for a book party at Sen. Claire McCaskill's place.
Each December since 2007, the Missouri Democrat has hosted the entire group of members with whom she was elected in 2006 — a group that began with eight Democrats, Vermont independent Bernard Sanders and Tennessee Republican Bob Corker — for dinner and a secret book exchange. "They pick out one of the favorite books they read that year, wrap it without a label, and when they arrive they put it in basket by the front door," McCaskill said. “The fun part of the evening is you have to guess who brought that book.”
In addition to the list of Democrats — which has included ones from red states like McCaskill, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana or Jim Webb of Virginia – Corker's participation makes the event a bipartisan affair. Still, sometimes partisan leanings blow a senator's cover in the book swap.
"One year, I cannot remember what book Bernie brought, but on its face it was fairly obvious because it was very liberal," McCaskill said. "The same year, someone brought the book by Alan Greenspan and we all said, 'Corker!'"
Each year, McCaskill picks out a favorite book as the party gift and has them personally inscribed for each senator by the author. She has given away books written and signed by presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin and Caroline Kennedy, and had former St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial inscribe a book about himself.
When the senators gathered at McCaskill's apartment at City Center on Tuesday evening, she had copies of St. Louis-born author Jonathan Frazen's latest book, "Purity" , the same book that topped President Barack Obama's list when he shopped at Upshur Street Books in Washington over the weekend. For the book swap, McCaskill chose Susan Backer's "The Incarnations" .
"I love books. It is my stress reliever. I read every night before I go to bed. Not that I don’t read some biographies and autobiographies and actual nonfiction, but I love fiction," she said. “Most of my colleagues are the same way — they’re intellectually curious. I think book readers are by nature.”
Along with the books, McCaskill offers up a simple menu at this senators-only event: A red and a white chili, chips and guacamole, and a spread of beer — "some pale ale, winter white, some Anheuser-Busch products in the house, but nothing fancy."
For lawmakers in this hyper-partisan town where they always have to look over their shoulder and question others' motivations, McCaskill said her annual book party is a "free-zone in terms of trust."
“Let’s make sure once a year that nine of us, now, have a good excuse to get together, laugh and drink some beer,” she said. “That’s one of the ways you get things done around here.”