September 17 is Constitution Day—good time to check in with Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie, who are dedicated to educating young people (and older ones, too) about the U.S. Constitution. Traditionally, Constitution Day is the deadline for the contest for which their organization, Constituting America, is known.
An Emmy-and Golden Globe-nominated actress Turner, whom you may recognize as Maggie O’Connell from Northern Exposure, or Katie McCoy in Friday Night Lights, is the founder and co-president of the nonpartisan, educational foundation, Constituting America. Janine’s daughter, Juliette Turner-Jones, the organization’s first National Youth Director and now a member of their board, is the author of the bestselling book Our Constitution Rocks, the title of which perfectly captures the mission of the nonprofit Constituting America, over which Turner and Gillespie preside as co-presidents.
Constituting America aims to make the U.S. Constitution rock for a new generation of Americans, who previously may have had only the vaguest notion what our founding document is.
Gillespie and Turner constitute a highly effective team: the consummate Washington insider, and the glam actress whom you may remember as Maggie O’Connell on Northern Exposure.
Turner talks about Constituting America with enthusiasm. “We launched Constituting America on President’s Day 2010 and within weeks we had our multi-tiered programs in production,” Turner says. “These programs included our ‘We the Future Contest’ and our ‘90 Essays in 90 Days,’ scholastic study which in 2010 was on the Federalist Papers. Along with scholars, Cathy and I also, published individual essays on the Federalist Papers every day for 90 days. A few months later we embarked on a 6,000-mile road trip, in a dilapidated RV, across America, to film a documentary with our contest winning students in their home states, and by Constitution Day, September 17, we had distributed the documentary into schools! Later, it won an award at a film festival. I look back on this now and wonder how we did it. I mean, where did we get the energy? We have subsequently built more programs including our Constitutional Chats national Zoom show where Cathy and I interview Constitutional scholars along with two of our contest-winning student ambassadors who have been with our organization for three years, Tova Love Kaplan and Dakare Chatman. The program that is the closest to my heart, however, is our George Washington Speaking Initiative. I speak to students all across the country either in person or via live feed via the internet. I have given over 500 of these speeches. I adore working with these students, many in Title 1 schools. I educate with the Socratic method and our interchanges are fascinating. I teach them how to actually utilize the tools in their tool box, their First Amendment Rights, which the non-partisan Constitution’s checks and balances protect. I ask them what they would like to change about their country or their neighborhood and teach them how to write a petition. They learn by application that the Constitution protects and empowers them and then the lightbulb goes off in their heads as to why the Constitution matters. Most schools teach how their government works but not about how they, the students, can work the government, or about how the government is accountable to them. Our government after all, ‘derives their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ Constituting America’s goal is to educate about how the Constitution is relevant and no better way than to make it applicable to their own individual lives. Working with these students is a passion of mine that challenges my passion for show biz!”
Constituting America uses multi-media platforms to educate students and adults about the U.S. Constitution. It features contests, speaking programs, forums and even an annual Mentor trip. There are contests to write essays, PSAs, poems or songs with a constitutional theme. Young people work with such mentors as Fox’s Bret Baier, Gary Sinise, Burgess Owens, former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman the late Bruce Cole, and—talk about rocking—country music songwriter and singer John Rich.
“Our contests are open to all ages, kindergarten all the way up through graduate school,” explains Gillespie. “We even have a category for senior citizens and a category for adults. There are a lot of different categories that the different age groups can compete in. We have artwork and poems for the younger kids. We have essays–we even have a STEM contest where kids can design something like an app that has to do with the Constitution or perhaps a website or do a survey of their friends and tabulate what percentage of kids know this or that about the Constitution. We have song. We have short film. We have public service announcement. For the college kids, we also have speech. What we’re trying to do is get our kids who are going to be the next cultural leaders of this country to know more about the Constitution.”
“What is really unique is the way we promote contest winners,” says Gillespie. Because of Turner and Gillespie’s connections and promotion savvy, winners get to hear their songs and PSAs played on the radio, see their PSA’s shown on TV and witness their films shown at film festivals. “The songs have had 145 million impressions via 81 radio stations and the PSAs have been aired on television in 15.6 million households via 275 stations” says Gillespie. Fifty-two different film festivals have accepted Constituting America films where Constituting America’s documentaries (directed by Janine and produced by Cathy) have won awards as well as the contest students unique works have won awards. Constituting America STEM winners starred in a Constituting America produced documentary, directed and scripted by Janine, released in movie theatres. And we have now given out over $210,740 in scholarships!”
The high point of the year is a Mentor Trip that highlights some facet of American governance or culture. “We’ve taken these kids to Los Angeles, to Nashville, to New York City, to Philadelphia. Last year we took them all to Washington, D.C., where they had a 45-minute question and answer session with Chief Justice Roberts. They had a private tour and lunch at the State Department and another private tour of the Capitol. They got to go on the House floor. They got to speak before the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, the commission that’s planning our country’s 250th birthday. And they got to give the commission a young person’s view of what our 250th birthday should look like in the year 2026. And, of course, they went to the National Archives and saw the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.”
The two women now leading this impressive organization met in 2004 when Gillespie was heading up W Stands for Women, part of the George W. Bush re-election campaign. Turner wanted to help. “There were definitely not many celebrities calling and offering to help President Bush’s campaign, and so we were very, very excited,” Gillespie says.
“One day in 2009 Janine called me,” Gillespie says. “She said ‘I want to start a foundation.’ She was worried that her daughter, who was in the fifth or sixth grade, was not learning about the Constitution, as she had at the same age. Janine thought back to when she was in fifth grade, and a teacher named Mr. Ingram had the kids do a musical, ‘1776.’ That’s when Janine fell in love with the Founding Fathers and probably with acting, too. When she pitched this idea to me, I was very interested in co-chairing it with her.”
The revelation that Janine was once engaged to be married to famously liberal, Trump-impersonating actor Alec Baldwin prompts a little “shock and awe” in conservative circles.
“Janine is the heart and soul of Constituting America, and brings her vision to life every day through her creativity, conviction and business acumen,” says Gillespie. “Cathy is a powerhouse,” says Turner. “I like to say that it takes two wings for a bird to fly, and Cathy is one wing and I’m the other. Together we have propelled and flown with this project now for over 10 years.”
Bringing different styles and skill sets to the endeavor, Gillespie and Turner constitute a highly effective team: the consummate Washington insider, whose first important job in town was chief of staff for a Texas congressman, known for savvy and follow-through, and the glam actress who appeared on Dallas but who at one time was best known as Laura Templeton on the day time drama General Hospital. Gillespie, who served on the President’s Commission on White House Fellows and is a member of the United States Semiquincentennial Commission, is married to former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, while Turner, who is not married, was once engaged to Trump-impersonating actor Alec Baldwin.
When Turner mentions the Baldwin thing to conservative audiences, she says that the revelation prompts a little “shock and awe.” “I had the dress, the invitations had been addressed, stamped, and sealed, and we were about 30 days out from the wedding,” Janine recalls. The engagement took place in what was apparently a razzle dazzle time for Turner and Baldwin, both of whom have since publicly embraced sobriety. As she was exiting the relationship, Janine did think to mention her politics to the famously liberal Baldwin. “I’d read this inspiring column by William Safire that morning, and I was going to start volunteering for Republican causes,” she says. “When I told Alec, there was a long pause on the other end of the line. Then he said, ‘You are a Republican?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ And there was another long pause, and he said, ‘Well, I guess I won’t hold it against you.’”
Meanwhile, Gillespie, one of the most prominent conservative women in Washington, has probably never been mistaken for a liberal. She grew up in the affluent Highland Park section of Dallas in a Republican-leaning but not terribly political family. Her father was an electrical engineer. She remembers herself as a little girl in 1971 or ’72 sitting on the floor of her family’s living room, penning a letter of support to President Nixon. She told Nixon she was sorry for “all the trouble he was having.”
Nixon needed all the support he could get. “I got back a little postcard from the White House,” Gillespie recalls, “and the family was so proud. I think it’s still probably in my parent’s china cabinet or something. It was a big deal.” The next year, Gillespie was begging her father to take her to SMU to hear President Gerald Ford speak.
Gillespie studied at Texas A & M. She planned to be a business or Spanish major but a course in political science changed her mind. When she informed her mother, “I heard this silence on the other end of line. And then she said, ‘What on earth are you going to do with that?’ And I said, ‘Well, Mom,’ I don’t know. I just like it and I know if I like it, I’ll do well at it.’” She soon joined the College Republicans.
“What is really unique is the way we promote contest winners,” says Gillespie.
When Gillespie met congressional candidate Joe Barton, running in 1984 to fill former Senator Phil Gramm’s seat in the U.S. House, her professors begged her not to go to work on his campaign. He didn’t have a chance. When Gillespie ignored their advice, Barton insisted she report for work on graduation day. “You can walk across the stage, and you can have lunch with your parents, but you need to be in my office by three o’clock,” Barton said. She was Barton’s first paid staffer; Karl Rove was Barton’s consultant. “Since there was nobody else to call, Karl called me every morning at 8 a.m. to give me my daily “to do” list. Finally, somebody slammed the phone in his face, leaving her to explain, ‘This is a dorm phone, not a campaign office!’ Later, when Karl became famous, I asked my friend, ‘Do you remember when you hung up on Karl Rove?’”
Barton won an unexpected victory, and Gillespie came to D.C., where she worked in Barton’s congressional office starting in 1984 and later became his chief of staff. 1984 had been a great year for Texas Republicans—six, including former Rep. Dick Armey, were elected. They were known as “the Texas six pack.” Cathy met a cute guy when the Texas Republican staff organized a softball game. “We were out for practice one day and this guy comes running across the field and everybody was saying, ‘Hi, Eddie, hi, Eddie.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, he’s kind of cute. And, he was new in the office.” He was Ed Gillespie, Armey’s new press secretary. After the game, a perceptive staffer made sure Cathy and Ed ended up riding to the next event, a Beaver Brown concert, in the same car. They started dating immediately and became engaged in 1986. The Gillespies have three adult children.
Ed Gillespie is Senior Executive Vice President of External and Legislative Affairs at AT&T. Prior to joining the company, he chaired the public affairs practice at Sard Verbinnen & Company, a strategic communications firm based in New York. He was a top aide to former President George W. Bush, and chaired the Republican National Committee in the 2004 election cycle. Ed also was the Republican nominee for United States senate in 2014 and for governor of Virginia in 2017.
Although Turner was born in Nebraska, she grew up in the Lone Star State and definitely considers herself a Texan. She grew up in Fort Worth. Her father was a West Point (United States Military Academy at West Point) class of 1957 graduate named Turner Maurice Gauntt, Jr. nicknamed “Tex.” He was one of the first to fly at twice the speed of sound. Mr. Gauntt received meritorious medals, awards and commendations including the Top Dog Award for fulfilling the mission of the 43rd Bomb Wing, 1963 Award for Exemplary and Outstanding Performance, serving with honor and distinction in the 98th Bombardment Wing and the same award in 1964 for the 98th Strategic Aerospace Wing, and the Department of the Air Force Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service in 1964. “When I was in the third grade,” Janine recalls, “I asked him what the Founding Fathers would be most disappointed about. He looked down at me and he thought for a minute. And he said one word… “taxes.”
She may have gotten her taste for limited government from her father, but Turner probably gets her stage flair from her mother. “She was from San Antonio, Texas, and won all of the local beauty pageants and was even seen as a golden girl to go to Hollywood,” Janine says, quickly adding: “She hates it when I make her sound like a beauty queen. She was a Trinity University straight A student, and she’s been a top selling real estate agent for more than 50 years.”
The Mentor Trip last year, which brought the kids to Washington, included a 45-minute question and answer session with Chief Justice Roberts.
Janine’s admiration for the Founding Fathers was fueled by appearing in the aforementioned fifth grade production of the musical 1776. “I portrayed Martha Jefferson and it had a lasting impact on me. I became very passionate about our Founding Fathers and our founding documents.” Martha Jefferson was just the beginning of an acting career, too. Janine already had been a model in Dallas at the age of 3. At 15, she went to New York and was taken on by the prestigious Wilhelmina Models agency (now Wilhelmina International—current clients include Nicki Minaj and Billie Eilish). Turner attended the Professional Children’s School and went for auditions every day. Janine, a straight A honors student begged her father to attend college, Harvard or Julliard, but her father said absolutely not, “you are already making $100,000 a year!” Her current project, outside Constituting America, is a musical that she has written and about which she is rather hush hush. But we do know it has a patriotic theme.
Turner lives on her 300-acre longhorn cattle ranch in Texas, Mockingbird Hill, with her daughter Juliette (the daughter of Jerry Jones, Jr, son of Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones), a recent cum laude Rice University graduate who is taking a gap year, working with the Kirkland Ellis law firm before attending Harvard Law School in 2021.
Janine is the author of Holding Her Head High which profiles a dozen influential single mothers, who, according to the Amazon blurb, “found ways to twist their fates to represent God’s destiny for their lives.” It’s clear that motherhood has been a tremendously important role for Janine, who took Juliette everywhere. “If I gave a speech at the Alamo, she gave a speech at the Alamo (at the age of 10!). If I gave a speech in Alaska with Sarah Palin, Juliette gave a speech with Sarah Palin (at the age of 12!). I would say, ‘Juliette, write your speech.’” It paid off: Harper Collins published Juliette’s first book, Our Constitution Rocks (2012), followed by Our Presidents Rock (2014) and That’s not Hay in My Hair (2016)!
In its ten years, Constituting America has been a hugely successful program in teaching young people about the significance of our government’s founding document —thanks to these two very different wing women of the U.S. Constitution.