The grass

There is a narrowness in Missouri.

An increasing, mean-spirited, narrowness in Missouri.

A poisonous, deepening, unthinking narrowness in Missouri.

There is a frightening lack of courage in Missouri.

A dangerous, frightening lack of courage in Missouri.

A continued shrinking from confronting those who poison Missouri.

A continued shrinking from courage by private citizen and public leader alike.

There is no courage among assassins.  There is no honor among them.   There is only one less target—no matter how their goal is accomplished.   They know that poisoning a political system has enormous rewards.  They grow rich and feast on the fear they cultivate.

And too many of those who should rise up against them do not.   Because those very people benefit from the assassins’ works.   Courage is easily forfeited for political gain.  And it has become increasingly easy to forfeit.

Two voices raised against this unholy alliance of cowards and assassins in the wake of State Auditor Tom Schweich’s death deserve note here.  One voice is that of John Danforth, once the standard-bearer for the Republican Party, a man elected time after time on the basis of personal integrity, a man whose concerns about the depth to which he believes his party has sunk—and the general decline of personal political responsibility by candidates on both sides as well as the voters—have been public for some time.  The other is from Senator Mike Parson, a former southwest Missouri sheriff who has had to break the news to survivors of those who have ended their lives.

Danforth admitted that his eulogy at Schweich’s funeral was born in “overwhelming anger that politics has gone so hideously wrong.”  He blamed Schweich’s death on “what politics has become.”

“I have never experienced an anti-Semitism campaign,” he said. “Anti-Semitism is always wrong and we can never let it creep into politics.”

Danforth recounted Schweich’s last conversation with him and how Schweich was angry about a radio commercial that attacked him but was more concerned about “a whispering campaign that he was Jewish.”

“The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry,” said Danforth.

The comment was considered by observers as a direct confrontation with Republican State Chairman John Hancock whose statements to the press and to others in the wake of Schweich’s death seem to vary.  Schweich had told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page director, Tony Messenger, that Hancock was spreading the word that Schweich was Jewish.   He wasn’t, although his grandfather was.  Messenger says Schweich also told him he thought the word was being spread to hurt him among evangelical Christian voters.

When the Associated Press asked Hancock about Schweich’s concerns, Hancock admitted he thought Schweich was Jewish and that “It’s plausible that I would have told somebody Tom was Jewish because I thought he was.”   But, said, Hancock, he didn’t mean it in a “derogatory or demeaning fashion.”

“Why was the discussion even in the first place,” asked an emotional Senator Mike Parson in the Senate on Monday in calling on “people involved” to “have the decency to apologize to Tom’s family for being part of such an irresponsible act.”

“Most of us understand how it all began,” said Senator Parson. It began with “hiring consultants to manage campaigns and to gather information about opposition candidates to use against them to win elections. In the beginning I truly believed they were gathering facts to use against your opponent—voting records, things that maybe they had done wrong. They were based on factual basis. I believed that…It has now become a way to promote false information about your opponent. It has turned into totally misleading statements, outright lies and propaganda about a person.  It has become a way to destroy one’s character, to destroy their integrity and their honor not to mention destroying their family that they’ve worked a lifetime to achieve.”

And then there was the radio commercial, inexcusably irresponsible in a campaign media climate where responsibility went out the window long ago. Eighteen months before the primary election, a rancid outfit clothing itself with the laughable name of “Citizens for Fairness in Missouri” bought time on Missouri radio stations in which some character imitating actor Kevin Spacey’s character in a TV series called “House of Cards” leveled a devastating personal attack on Schweich. “Just look at him,” said the voice.  “He could be easily confused for the deputy sheriff of Mayberry.”

“But more importantly, he can be manipulated,” the voice continues.  That’s why Senator Claire McCaskill and President Obama enlisted my help to meddle in another Republican primary with Schweich as our pawn.”

“My” help?   Who ARE you?   Oh, right, a citizen for fairness.

The “citizen” charged Schweich and McCaskill were “tied at the hip” before proclaiming that “Schweich is an obviously weaker opponent against Democrat Chris Koster. Once Schweich obtains the Republican nomination we will quickly squash him like a bug that he is…”

“We? “

Tom Schweich was nothing more than a bug?

Danforth, in his eulogy, called the commercial “bullying,” and said, “there is only one word to describe the person it: bully.”  He dismissed those who passed off such things as “just politics” and suggested that Schweich should have been tougher.  “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.”  He questioned why any decent person would want to seek political office.

Parson, speaking on the Senate floor the day before Danforth’s eulogy at the funeral, ripped the commercial as having “no factual basis whatsoever. None. Zero. It had nothing to do with the duties of his job or performance of being an elected official. Zero.  Nothing. And the fact that that commercial was aired almost two years before a statewide election speaks volumes.  It speaks volumes to how far out of hand this all has become. To base things totally on one’s appearance and to make reference to one being small, being able to be squashed like a bug should be unacceptable to all of us, to be totally unacceptable to all of us.”

The commercial has been linked to Kansas City political consultant Jeff Roe, who works for the campaign of Catherine Hanaway, the other major announced Republican candidate for governor, whose efforts have been largely bankrolled by financier Rex Sinquefield.  The Sinquefield-Hanaway relationship had been blasted by Schweich in his promises to root out corruption in state government if he were elected governor.

The tag line at the end identified one Seth Schumaker is the treasurer of this shameful bunch.  The Kirksville Daily Express contacted Shumaker and he refused to comment “out of respect for the family.”

How considerate.

The newspaper identified Shumaker as a former Kirksville lawyer whose law license was suspended four years ago for ethical violations.  The state Supreme Court has denied two requests for reinstatement.   His record since then has included running one of last year’s Rex Sinquefield-financed campaigns against a Republican representative (Nate Walker) who had voted against tax legislation that Sinquefield wanted to pass.  Walker was one of four GOP reps targeted for ouster by Sinquefield and his cronies.  All, however, won.

The newspaper also reports the Adair County Commission had hired Shumaker to do “judicial research” in their court fights with the district’s Presiding Circuit Judge, Russell Steele, who also was influential in the refusal of the Supreme Court to reinstate Shumaker’s law license.

The Post-Dispatch had reported that the deputy treasurer of the “Fairness” outfit was James C. Thomas III, who until the middle of last month was the campaign treasurer for Hanaway.  Hanaway told the newspaper she didn’t know who produced the commercial but it did not come from her campaign.  She said she hadn’t heard the commercial.

And that is a major part of the problem of jugular politics.  The candidates who seek to benefit from it easily deny any responsibility for the despicable things said against their opponents.  And tell us, please, when have you ever heard a candidate discourage the independent groups that circulate this sewage.

Nope.  Not my responsibility. (But it sure is good for my campaign.)

There has been no comment—except for Shumaker’s desire to respect the family’s situation—from those who produced that radio commercial.

Joshua DeBois, who led the White House faith-based initiative in President Obama’s first term, refers to these times as the days of “Pilate Politics,” referring to the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria who washed his hands of any responsibility for the fate of Jesus.  “Nothing I can do about Citizens for Fairness in Judea,” he might say, “or any of those twisted things they said about Jesus.”

Pilate’s brand of political courage is not unfamiliar in today’s politics.  Danforth and Parson called out their colleagues in politics and in office.  “There is no mystery as to why politicians conduct themselves this way. It works….It wins elections and that is their objective…It’s all about winning, winning at any cost to the opponent or to any sense of common decency.”

“The campaign that led to the death of Tom Schweich was the low point of politics, and now it’s time to turn this around.  So let’s make Tom’s death a turning point in our state,” said Danforth. “Let’s pledge that we will not put up with any whisper of anti-Semitism. We will stand against it as Americans and because our own faith demands it.  We will take the battle Tom wanted to fight as our own cause.  We will see bullies for who they are.  We will no longer let them hide behind their anonymous pseudo committees.  We will not accept their way as the way of politics.  We will stand up to them and we will defeat them.   That will be our memorial to Tom.”

Parson asked his Senate colleagues Monday, “What are we going to do about it?  Will we continue to be driven…by money to win elections at all costs?”  He called on Senators to make a commitment to the people of Missouri and to themselves. “We’re not going to use propaganda. We’re not going to destroy people’s lives at all costs to win an election.”  And he promised with a quivering voice to “no longer stand by and let people destroy other people’s lives using false accusations and demeaning statements all in the name of money and winning elections….Nor will I support candidates that use such tactics ever again.”  He called for a “much-needed overhaul of a system that has gone completely awry.”

Grass will be flourishing on Tom Schweich’s grave by the time the primary election in which he would have been a candidate rolls around.  That’s a long enough time in politics for emotional words spoken about the terrible loss of a good man to be borne away on the winds of Missouri’s political climate.

John Danforth and Mike Parson have challenged private citizens and public officers alike to significantly change that climate.

Let’s hope that the courage to do it will be flourishing by then, too.

Flying with Ike

–By Mary Furness

I woke up to news of the death of Ike Skelton today. I was startled at first — even shocked. After all, I had seen and talked with him only 10 days ago, under rather unlikely circumstances.

I had planned for a long time to travel to the Washington, DC area to visit family and friends, and leaving out of Kansas City on a non-stop flight was the cheapest and easiest way. An older, somewhat frail gentleman boarding early looked familiar, but in the context of a crowded airport, one can never be really sure. Bumping down the aisle with carry-on bags to a cramped seat in coach, I missed seeing him again, and the idea of catching up on sleep seemed a better use of my time.

Leaving the plane in Washington, I caught sight of the gentleman in First Class, sitting quietly in his seat, a blanket over his lap. A faint bell went off in my head, “Is that….?” But there were people crowding behind me, and I had to keep moving. Just inside the jetway, several wheelchairs waited, each with a hand-lettered sign, and a shiver went over me as that bell clanged louder; one had a sign that read, “Reserved for Ike Skelton”.

I broke ranks and stepped over to the gentleman holding the wheelchair, “Ike Skelton!” I nearly shouted. “Do you know who that is?”

He looked at me, and in heavily accented English said, “No, ma’am…he somebody famous?”

I smiled, realizing how I must have sounded, but pressed on, “He is a Missouri Representative. A Congressman. Retired now — an elder statesman.”

The gentleman’s face lit up, “Oh! I understand!”

I fixed him with a stern but kind eye, “Please! Take very, very good care of him, he is one of our finest people.”

I waited at the security exit, hoping to get a photo, or possibly a quick few words on my recorder, but I didn’t see him. Putting my gear away, I joined the crush of people headed toward the shuttles for rental cars and other ground transportation, and suddenly there he was. No time to grab the camera or recorder, I called out to him, went over, shook his hand, and thanked him for all he had done for Missouri.

When I introduced myself and said I work for Missourinet, he nodded, chuckled quietly, and asked for my name again, as if going through his mental file and to pull out anything we might have said to one another. I mentioned my esteemed News Director Bob Priddy, and he grinned. Then he, his wife, and I chatted for a few moments about Missouri, as well as my beloved hometown of Arlington, Va., where they now make their second home.

I stood for a moment, smiling, and waved as they went through the doors, down the sidewalk and disappeared into the crowd. I thought about that grand old man — a true “gentle man” — who served so long, touched so many people, and yet was so down-to-earth.

Rest in peace, good and faithful sir, and thank you.

So this is what political discourse has become

You have courage,” they tell me.
It’s not true. I was never courageous.
I simply felt it unbecoming
to stoop to the cowardice of my colleagues

–Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Soviet poet of the Khrushchev era,  “Conversation with an American Writer

The two greybeards of the Capitol press corps, talking in the darkening and increasingly quiet Capitol halls early this morning, agreed we’d never seen a veto session like the one that had ended shortly before. Phill Brooks and this correspondent have never seen 29 bills eligible for overrides. We’ve never seen so many vetoes overridden in one session, brief though it might have been–and nobody else has, either, since 1833, somewhat before our time. We have never seen the two top leaders of the state senate make a principled vote against the wishes of their caucus, causing the override effort of a highly-controversial bill to fail.

And while we have seen spirited debate in the Senate in our combined eighty years or so of covering the legislature, we probably have never seen a worse disregard of Senate debate decorum than we saw last night.

The issue was the gun bill, the one that critics say would let local police arrest any federal agent enforcing federal gun laws. It’s the same bill that would have sent reporters to jail for a year for publishing the names of gun owners, even the names of legislator-gun owners who voted for the bill. The override failed by one vote because Senate President Pro tem Tom Dempsey of St. Charles and Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard of Joplin voted to uphold the veto while the other members of the Republican caucus voted to override it.

We’ve seen some pointed and sometimes angry debate during our careers. Phill recalled Senator Richard Webster of Carthage ripping fresh-faced Governor Christopher Bond a few times, calling him “Kid” Bond and Bond’s staff “the kiddie corps” back when Bond was the youngest Governor in Missouri history and Webster was a top dog in the General Assembly and liked to make sure youngsters knew it.

But the tirade launched by the Senate sponsor of HB436, the gun bill, Brian Nieves of Washington, beat anything this correspondent has ever seen in the Senate.

Nieves brought the bill to the floor for an override vote but instead of justifying the legislation and urging support of its merits, he tore into Attorney General Chris Koster for 25 minutes. Koster had sent each member of the legislature a letter, going into legal detail about the shortcomings of the measure. He sent out those letters a few days after he had given an opinion on the other flashpoint bill of the veto session, the tax bill. In the case of the tax bill, he was responding to a request for a legal opinion from House Speaker Tim Jones. Jones and other Republicans criticized Koster because his annotated legal opinion didn’t say what they wanted him to say.

Nieves cranked up the rhetorical onslaught when the gun bill came up.

In his 25-minute harangue against Koster and Koster’s letter, Nieves called Koster’s analysis of the gun bill “every kind of crazy imaginings…false arguments” and said Koster was “perhaps the most anti-Second Amendment person in Missouri.”

He said the letter, which he called a “joke of a document,” and the “most dishonest, disingenuous document I’ve ever seen,” scared the bejeezus” out of the law enforcement community. He further proclaimed that the letter “perpetrates a crime against the people of Missouri,” calling it a “ridiculous, untrue document,” and a “slick, snakeish move.”

“He has lied and lied and lied,” said Nieves, who continued by accusing Koster of “hating the Second Amendment.”

He later said Koster had taken time to draft the letter “to think up this level of lie.” He further said Koster was “lying” in the letter.

“This letter is the biggest bunch of baloney that’s ever been presented from an official in Missouri government,” he said. “He did it by lying and did it by deceptively using perfect timing” in the release of the letter to each member of the legislature days before the veto session.

However, Pro tem Tom Dempsey says he had heard concerns from public safety officials before Koster put out his letter. Floor Leader Richard said he had a letter from the Missouri Sheriff’s Association a week before the Koster letter arrived.

Dempsey released a statement after the session saying HB436 represented a point where “political prudence and good public policy have parted ways…While I have been advised to take a path of least resistance and vote to enact into law a policy about which I have grave reservations, I believe I must do what is right for the citizens of our state and for the voters who sent me here.”

Dempsey said his own legal staff had told him the bill “very likely” violates parts of the First Amendment. “My love of the Second Amendment does not trump my love for the First,” he said.

Dempsey’s remarks were echoed by Richard, who pledged “in the next four months, legislation will be filed regarding the Second Amendment Preservation Act that is constitutional and does not hinder law enforcement officers’ ability to do their jobs.”

Thoughtful, perhaps courageous, speech and action is, unfortunately, something unusual enough to merit attention in today’s political and legislative climate that is too often marked by disrespect for process and people and can degenerate into nothing but largely-unchallenged personal attack. Two Democrats chastised Nieves for his remarks. No members of Nieves’ Republican caucus expressed any misgivings about anything he said. But in the end the two leaders of the Senate, both Republicans, quietly voted “no,” their votes far louder than their voices.

The greybeards sometimes wonder if they will live long enough to see “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” in the House behave again as ladies and gentlemen, and if they will see Senators behaving as Senators.