As he listened to his longtime friend describe to a crowded room of supporters in Blue Springs the hellish training both of them endured 15 years ago in order to become Navy SEALs, Eric Greitens grinned from ear to ear.
“It was absolutely terrible,” Greitens later admitted.
Yet there he was, smiling.
“What I’ve found in my life is on the other side of pain is wisdom,” Greitens said in an interview with The Star. “On the other side of suffering is strength. You confront fear, and you build courage.”
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Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll say that’s vintage Eric Greitens.
The former Navy SEAL and Rhodes scholar is the Republican nominee for governor. He’ll face off next month with Attorney General Chris Koster, the Democratic nominee.
In the year since he first entered the race, he’s become the most polarizing figure in Missouri politics.
Greitens, 42, emerged from a bruising four-way Republican primary in August with an upset victory, beating the sitting three-term lieutenant governor, a former Missouri House speaker and a multimillionaire.
His campaign is based on the premise that state government is teeming with “corrupt career politicians,” “well-paid lobbyists” and “special interest insiders” — an indictment he says applies to both Republicans and Democrats.
What it’s going to take to clean up the mess, he insists, is an outsider, someone who has never held public office before and has no loyalties to a broken system.
“I’m coming in,” he said, “and we’re going to clean up Jefferson City.”
What supporters see as brave truth telling, his critics see as hypocritical and self-serving bravado.
And therein lies the conundrum of Eric Greitens.
Is he, as admirers describe him, a brilliant and disciplined man who’s dedicated his life to altruistic purposes and is running for governor as the next step in a lifetime of public service?
Or is he closer to the description offered by detractors: an ideological weather vane spouting fortune-cookie talking points who is completely naive about the complexities of state government?
“The number of policy areas about which Eric Greitens knows next to nothing is truly breathtaking,” Jeff Mazur, a longtime Democratic strategist, said on Twitter after the GOP primary.
Greitens brushes off the criticism, saying he’ll gladly put his experience up next to Koster’s any day.
“I trust the thoughtfulness of voters,” he said, “and when they look at our two records, there’s no comparison.”
Greitens’ life story is central to his campaign for governor.
He grew up in St. Louis County. His mother was a special education teacher, his father worked at the Department of Agriculture. He studied ethics, philosophy and public policy at Duke University.
Selected as a Rhodes scholar, he furthered his education at the University of Oxford in England, where he earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. His doctoral thesis investigated how international humanitarian organizations can best serve war-affected children.
Throughout his time in school, Greitens did humanitarian work around the globe — Croatia, Rwanda, Bolivia and India. After leaving Oxford, he joined the military, becoming a Navy SEAL in 2001 and eventually serving in Southeast Asia, Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq.
When he came home from Iraq, Greitens founded The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization aimed at empowering wounded and disabled veterans to begin new lives as citizen leaders here at home. He wrote several books and became a regular fixture on the lecture circuit and in the media.
“The work that I did overseas,” Greitens said, “and the work I’ve done here at home with veterans is essential to how I think about solving problems.”
Republican in name only?
In 2008, Greitens attended the Democratic National Convention with former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden. Two years later, he was recruited by Democrats to run for U.S. Congress, although Greitens insists he was never truly interested.
“Eric has said he leaned toward the Democratic Party,” Holden told Roll Call last year. “I wish he still did.”
Greitens admits he grew up a Democrat, noting after he won the GOP nomination that it was the first time in his mother’s life that she cast a vote for a Republican. As he got older, he says his view began to shift.
“I was made a conservative,” he said, “not by birth but by conviction.”
But others hint at a more self-serving purpose: that he became a Republican because he saw it as an easier path to higher office.
Greitens’ conservative bona fides were continually called into question throughout the primary.
He was the only Republican candidate to voice opposition to a so-called religious freedom amendment to the state’s constitution, although he’s softened his language on the idea of late.
Greitens was also the only GOP candidate to not receive the endorsement of Missouri Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group. The group urged its supporters not to vote for Greitens and still hasn’t endorsed his candidacy.
“And I say to myself: ‘OK, well, he’s on our team.’ I’m not going to vote against him,” Republican state Sen. Paul Wieland recently told St. Louis Public Radio. “But I can’t get excited and say, ‘I want to spend all my time, talent and treasure helping this guy get elected. Because it’s like, ‘Eh,’ you know? ‘Eh.’ ”
Culture of corruption
The issue that most animates Greitens’ campaign is ethics reform.
He wants to ban all lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, establish tough new laws barring lawmakers from becoming lobbyists after they leave office and would advocate for term limits for all statewide officeholders.
The issue resonates with the public, especially after two high-profile Missouri lawmakers were forced to resign in disgrace last year over inappropriate behavior involving interns. Three more legislators resigned this year: One over an extramarital affair, one begrudgingly stepped down after moving out of his district, and one resigned to avoid having to abide by a new law restricting lawmakers from lobbying.
“Trust is essential to making any kind of progress,” Greitens said. “And right now, people don’t trust the government in Missouri.”
Greitens admits that corruption in state government isn’t a partisan issue. Both parties are to blame for the situation, he says, and both parties must be held accountable. In a Missouri General Assembly dominated by Republicans, those accusations haven’t been greeted warmly.
After the Greitens campaign publicly criticized a bank account set up by the state Senate to solicit contributions from lobbyists to pay for meals for senators and staff, that chamber’s leader fired back.
“He should probably learn more about how the Senate is run before hauling off with comments like that,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard.
And while his campaign talks a lot about rooting out dirty money in Missouri politics, he’s been called a hypocrite for accepting $2 million in anonymous money from a political action committee called SEALs for Truth. It was revealed last week that all that money came from a Kentucky-based nonprofit founded by a lawyer known for working to obfuscate the source of campaign cash.
Greitens said before the disclosure report was filed that the donations came from former Navy SEALs. Greitens says now that he’s only ever spoken with the group’s treasurer but still believes the $2 million came from SEALs.
“The specifics of their filing and how they did that and what they’re disclosing, you’d have to ask them,” he said. “I don’t know all the guys, so I can’t speak to their motivation.”
He’s also taken hits for refusing to release his tax returns, despite saying last month that he would do so if Koster did.
Critics say he’s withholding the tax returns because they might show he made a fortune off his various books and on the lecture circuit, where he earned five-figure checks for speaking around the globe. That, they say, would make the $175,000 salary he accepted from The Mission Continues look gratuitous.
Also dogging him are allegations that his campaign used a donor list for The Mission Continues to help raise money to get Greitens’ gubernatorial bid off the ground. If true, both Greitens and The Mission Continues could be in violation of federal law.
“If these are issues Chris wants to discuss, he should be willing to come out in a public forum and answer questions,” Greitens said, noting Koster’s refusal to debate him until he releases his tax returns. “The fact that he’s too cowardly to do that speaks volumes about his character.”
Greitens insists the governor’s mansion isn’t a stepping stone.
Seven years ago, Greitens reserved the website EricGreitensForPresident.com. His kindergarten teacher and a former Duke professor have both said publicly that Greitens openly discussed wanting to be president one day.
“As a kid, you have lots of different ambitions,” he said. “One of mine also was to play second base for the St. Louis Cardinals. That didn’t come to pass. I’m focused on the governor’s race.”
After speaking to a town hall forum in Blue Springs, Greitens’ longtime friend and former Navy SEAL Kaj Larsen said everyone has always known Greitens was special.
“When I first met Eric, what was exceptional about him was he had this extraordinary background that was unique even for the SEAL community,” he said. “We knew he was an extraordinary leader, but had no idea he was going to one day run for governor.”
The work he’s done in his life, Greitens said, “speaks to my commitment to service.”
“There is a tremendous amount of pessimism in the culture about politics,” Greitens said. “There are so many thousands of great people around the state of Missouri who have gotten engaged in this campaign who have never been involved in politics before. They’re really, really inspiring.”