John Danforth continues his election-year tradition of endorsing candidates he purports to despise
John Danforth is not the worst public figure in Missouri. But he may be the most tedious.
The former U.S. senator drones on about the combativeness and polarization of American politics. And he claims to be particularly aghast at the state of his party.
“The Republican Party today … there is no resemblance to what I was, and what it was,” he told St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger after the August primary.
But whenever a general election approaches, Danforth usually endorses whichever Republican is on the ballot, no matter how little the candidate reminds him of his former self.
The latest un-Danforthian Republican to get the Danforth stamp of approval is Eric Greitens, the gun-strapped macho man who wants to be Missouri’s governor. Greitens is promising to bring disruption to Jefferson City, a stance that does not square with Danforth’s belief in incrementalism or his respect for tradition. “[L]et’s figure out where we can effect change, but not undermine the whole system,” he said late last year in response to a question about the protests in Ferguson.
Even in his recent written endorsement of Greitens, Danforth bemoans that politics has become the “worst kind of personality contest.”
That’s a strange comment to make in a letter of support for a candidate fond of snug T-shirts that show off his biceps — until you recall Danforth’s long history of contradictory endorsements. His pattern is to plead for problem solvers and peacemakers when the field seems wide, then revert to dumb tribalism as Election Day nears.
In 2006, he wrote a book criticizing Republicans for cultivating the Christian right. That same year, he endorsed Jim Talent — a Newt Gingrich disciple with a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition — in his U.S. Senate race against Democrat Claire McCaskill, a centrist.
A few years later, Danforth was appalled to see his party’s leaders intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a vegetative state, calling it a “breathtaking departure from the principles of the Republican Party.” Then he turned around and gave money to Roy Blunt, who as a Republican leader in the U.S. House had supported congressional meddling in the Schiavo case and other efforts to stir up the evangelical base.
Danforth lamented the rise of the tea party. But he lacked the conviction to withhold endorsements from tea party–aligned conservatives Ed Martin, in 2010, and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, in 2012. (While he supported Kinder in the 2012 governor’s race, Danforth drew the line at Todd Akin, the bumpkin who tried to assert that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy. Danforth and other Missouri Republicans called for him to drop out of the U.S. Senate race.)
When Tom Schweich, a Danforth protege, killed himself early last year, Danforth used his eulogy to denounce the bullying Schweich had endured in the early months of his campaign for governor. But sermons and editorials are about as far as Danforth goes.
In his recent conversation with Messenger, Danforth acknowledged that little had changed since Schweich’s death. “I was wasting my breath,” he said.
If words were all he was prepared to give, he was a fool to expect a different outcome.
Danforth’s tendency to lead two lives — sober statesman and brain-dead partisan — goes back to his days in office. As a U.S. senator, he zealously defended Clarence Thomas when Anita Hill’s allegations threatened Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination.
Like Schweich, Thomas was a former Danforth protege. Danforth sponsored Thomas’ nomination and tried to discredit Hill, at one point accusing her of “erotomania.” He would later admit to “connivings” in a book about the confirmation hearing. Hardly a mea culpa, though, the book bears the dreadful title Resurrection and ends on a laughable note: “Clarence had risen. Alleluia!”
On the court, Thomas has proven himself most un-Danforth-like in his judicial temperament. Danforth believes in collegiality — he wishes members of Congress socialized over fondue pots the way they did in his era. The idiosyncratic Thomas is the Supreme Court equivalent of a congressman who sleeps in his office and flies home every weekend. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote recently: “While some Justices are famous for seeking consensus with their colleagues, Thomas seems to go out of his way to find reasons to disagree — often in the most provocative ways.”
Vain and stubborn, Danforth continues to defend Thomas. In a 2013 interview, he tried to couch the justice’s extremism, describing his opinions as “very interesting and strong.”
One of Danforth’s flaws is that he does not fully comprehend his party’s drift toward radicalism. When he complains about Republicans, he’s quick to look for a Democratic equivalent. “[I]t takes two to create polarization,” he wrote in his most recent groaner, The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics. “It takes MSNBC as well as Fox News, Elizabeth Warren as well as Ted Cruz.”
Cruz has been described as “Lucifer in the flesh” by a former leader of his own party. But, sure, Jack. Both sides are equally to blame.
Danforth is blind to many of his hypocrisies. He was troubled, for instance, by President Obama’s assertive response to the recession he inherited. “It’s a very dramatic change in the relationship between the federal government and the rest of the country,” he told me at the time. Of course, as a senator, Danforth had supported the Chrysler bailout in 1979.
Frequent bouts of selective memory aside, Danforth continues to be held up as a sage by the state’s political writers. “When Jack Danforth speaks, people listen,” Steve Kraske once wrote. Gather ’round!
As this year’s election approaches, and political writers return to Danforth’s knee, I remind myself that Greitens was not his first or even second choice. (He gave money to Kinder after Schweich’s death.) But the question remains why Danforth felt the need to make a post-Schweich endorsement at all. For all the times he has rejected partisanship, being seen as a team player seems pretty damn important to him.
And it’s not as if Greitens is running against a monster. For all his flaws, Democrat Chris Koster is a moderate who would govern within political norms. In the abstract, at least, he is the type of politician Danforth says he would like to see ascend.
At least one Danforth sees it that way. William Danforth, the senator’s older brother, gave $100,000 to Koster for Missouri last week.