Jack Danforth, the former U.S. senator from Missouri and ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a very personal eulogy Tuesday at the funeral service of his friend and protégé, Tom Schweich.
He said Schweich, the Missouri auditor and candidate for governor, reached out to him last week for advice but ended the conversation unsatisfied. And he said his reaction to Schweich’s death is “overwhelming anger that politics has gone so hideously wrong, and that the death of Tom Schweich is the natural consequence of what politics has become.”
Danforth and Schweich worked together on the special investigation ordered by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno into the mass deaths at Waco, Texas. And Danforth enlisted Schweich as his chief of staff at the United Nations. In both roles, Schweich was highly organized and skillful at managing people and situations, Danforth told a crowd packed into the Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton, Mo.
But Danforth, who is an Episcopal minister, revealed he had tried to discourage Schweich from running for public office.
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“He was a person easily hurt and quickly offended, and I told him I didn’t think he had the temperament for elective politics, but Tom didn’t easily accept advice, and he was offended by mine. It was his decision, and he was my friend, and I was for him, whatever he chose to do,” Danforth said.
Schweich proved to be a successful politician, winning his 2010 race as Missouri auditor. He was easily re-elected last November and announced in January that he would run for governor on the Republican ticket, setting up a primary with an already announced candidate, former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway.
“We spoke often about the calling to public service, and what we said was always the same. The objective should be always to take the high ground and never give it up,” Danforth said.
Danforth said Schweich phoned him last Tuesday and was upset about a malicious radio ad his opponents were running. He was even more upset because he thought John Hancock, the newly elected chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, was involved in a whispering campaign to spread a lie that Schweich was Jewish.
“This was righteous indignation against what he saw as a terrible wrong,” Danforth said. “And what he saw was wrong is anti-Semitism.”
But Danforth said he advised against going public with the story and producing witnesses who would verify his allegation, as Schweich was inclined to do. “I said that I was concerned about his political future, that his focus should be on winning election as governor, and that the best approach would be to have someone feed the story to the press and let the press run with it,” Danforth related.
What he said next is heart-wrenching:
“That was the phone call, except at the end he seemed angry with me. It’s impossible to know the thoughts of another person at such a dire time as suicide, but I can tell you what haunts me. I had always told him to take the high ground and never give it up, and he believed that, and it had become his life. Now I had advised him that to win election he should hope someone else would take up the cause.
He may have thought that I had abandoned him and left him on the high ground, all alone to fight the battle that had to be fought.”
Danforth said he is angry that the race for Missouri governor, which won’t be finally decided until November 2016, had already turned so ugly. Besides the anti-Semitism charges, he railed against the ad, which called Schweich weak, ridiculed his appearance and likened him to “a little bug.” Whoever was behind that ad, he said, was a bully.
Like many, the ad is claimed only by an innocuously named committee, in this case “Citizens for Justice in Missouri.” The funding for the committee is unclear at this point, but the committee’s treasurer is a suspended lawyer from Kirksville, Mo., Seth Shumaker. Key aspects of the the ad are identical to one produced last year by Axiom Strategies of Kansas City, consultant Jeff Roe’s firm.
“Since Thursday, some good people have said, ‘Well that’s just politics’. And Tom should have been less sensitive; he should have been tougher, and he should have been able to take it,” Danforth said.
“Well, that is accepting politics in its present state and that we cannot do. It amounts to blaming the victim, and it creates a new normal, where politics is only for the tough and the crude and the calloused.”
There is little question that viciousness, personal attacks and outright lies have become the normal in campaigns. Everybody hates it, but most people have come to accept it.
Except for Tom Schweich. As Danforth knew better than most, Schweich was incapable of accepting wrong as normal. That’s what made him a great auditor and public servant. But it almost certainly contributed to his undoing.
“This will be our memorial to Tom: that politics as it now exists must end, and we will end it,” Danforth said. “And we will get in the face of our politicians, and we will tell them that we are fed up, and that we are not going to take this anymore.”
There is a lot of wire to be spooled back, and the untimely death of a good auditor, though a big development, won’t have an extended news cycle. But we can try. We have to try.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bshelly.