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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL159.PRB - Perspectives about Schweich's Eulogy«MDNM»
John Danforth's eulogy for Missouri's late auditor Tom Schweich reminded me of the inspiration I gained from Danforth as a young reporter covering him as state attorney general.
Danforth once was called the father of the modern Missouri Republican Party. He later became a leading critic of the current political process.
As an Episcopalian minister, ethics is at the core of Jack Danforth.
I learned that from my first extended interview with him as attorney general. Danforth talked at length about an apparent conflict of interest that might exist for a staffer.
It wasn't a real conflict. The employee had done nothing wrong. But Danforth worried it created the potential perception of a conflict.
The significant time he spent anguishing about an internal staffing dilemma was the start of my understanding about the depth of Danforth's integrity and ethics.
Although I don't recall how Danforth resolved the problem, I'm now sure he would not have dismissed an employee who had done nothing wrong. To this day, I wonder if that extended conversation was meant to be a teaching moment for me. If so, it was.
That visceral belief in integrity is the foundation of what I think is Danforth's distaste of the meaner side of politics that he expressed in Schweich's eulogy.
That might explain Danforth's use of a funeral to attack Schweich's political opponents and to call for a change in the political climate.
If so, it should not be a surprise if you look at Danforth's history. He never hesitated to criticize what he saw as wrong -- even when his own allies were attacked.
Danforth first won statewide office by attacking the corruption of the long-term, old-guard Democratic control of state government.
His campaign of reform and clean government built the foundation for the future GOP control of the state.
But when Republican Kit Bond won the governorship just a few years later, Danforth criticized his fellow Republicans for continuing to attack Democrats.
Danforth's message to Republicans was to stop the attacks against Democrats and start talking positively about what they were going to do for the state.
That criticism from Danforth did not sit well with some Republicans decades ago.
To Republicans blistered by Danforth's eulogy of this era, I would remind them that Danforth's criticism of Republicans when I first covered him was not to defeat them -- instead, it was to change their ways.
He succeeded for a while.
But Danforth's approach of bi-partisan moderation was swept aside as more ideologically conservatives gained control of his party. He fought against that too.
Yet Danforth's approach never changed. In later years, I again saw that Danforth spirit when he and former Democratic Sen. Tom Eagleton came to the statehouse to promote St. Louis issues.
Despite being from opposite political parties, they worked as a team with a kindness towards each other I fondly remember.
At the time, Eagleton had become almost completely deaf in one ear.
Danforth knew of his friend's affliction. So when I tried to interview Eagleton from the wrong side, Danforth gently moved me to the side where Eagleton could hear.
It was almost a brotherly love I saw between the two of them.
I wonder if Danforth was lamenting that gentler approach of politics of old when he had advised Schweich he lacked "the temperament for elective politics."
Did Danforth sense, as did I, that Schweich simply was too kind for this meaner environment?
There's another perspective written by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan that also reflects my thoughts.
"When I see a suicide that I cannot understand, I suspect mental illness of some sort," McClellan wrote of Danforth's eulogy.
It's another way of saying that it is folly to seek a rational explanation for such an irrational act as suicide.
Maybe McClellan and I are right in our skepticism of cause. But I also sense in the statehouse there is a desire among some for a kinder approach.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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