Retired U.S. Sen. John Danforth is blaming Missouri’s nasty political climate – and an alleged anti-Semitic “whispering campaign” -- for state Auditor Tom Schweich’s suicide, and he is calling on officials in both parties to “make Tom’s death a turning point in our state.”
“We will take the battle Tom wanted to fight as our own cause,’’ said Danforth, an Episcopalian priest, as he delivered Tuesday's homily for Schweich’s memorial service, held in Clayton at the Church of St. Michael & St. George.
Danforth, R-Mo., lamented what he said has become a climate “where politics is only for the tough, the crude and the calloused.”
Danforth delivered his emotional address just feet away from Schweich's flag-draped casket. He was the only speaker at the service.
Aside from Danforth, the service featured moving music from the church's choir, singing a cappella.
Schweich was in the early stages of a 2016 Republican bid for governor when he stunned Missouri’s political world by killing himself last Thursday with a self-inflicted gunshot.
Danforth, who was close to Schweich, didn’t single out any culprits by name during his 18-minute address, in which he declared “the bully should get the blame, not the victim.”
But right after the service ended, Schweich's press secretary Spence Jackson called for state Republican Party chairman John Hancock to step down because of allegations that Hancock is anti-Semitic and had been spreading rumors that Schweich was Jewish, which he was not. Schweich's grandfather was Jewish, and Schweich had expressed pride in his background.
Hancock and his allies have denied the accusations.
The GOP split over the emotional dispute was evident at the conclusion of Danforth’s 18-minute address. A portion of the audience erupted into applause, while the rest sat in silence.
The standing-room-only crowd included most of Missouri’s political leaders, Democratic and Republican. They included Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, and Roy Blunt, Secretary of State Jason Kander, state Treasurer Clint Zweifel, most of the General Assembly’s leadership and dozens of legislators.
Afterward, none of the officials would publicly comment on Danforth’s remarks, although one top Republican privately lamented the apparent intent of the retired senator's message.
Accusations of anti-Semitism continue to swirl
Schweich shot himself last Thursday, after calling two reporters to ask them to meet at his house to discuss religion issues. Schweich had canceled a news conference that he had planned to hold a couple days earlier, in order to level accusations against Hancock.
During his eulogy, Danforth acknowledged that he’d discouraged Schweich from going public with such accusations, saying that he feared the spotlight would be too much on Schweich and not on his assertions. Instead, Danforth said he had advised Schweich to “feed the story to the press.”
Looking back, Danforth said he regretted offering such advice. “What haunts me, I had always told him to take the high ground and never give it up,’’ Danforth said.
But Danforth also implied that other factors may have played a role in Schweich’s distress. When Schweich first told him in 2009 that he wanted to run for office, Danforth said he had questioned whether Schweich had the temperament for politics.
“He was a person easily hurt and quickly offended,’’ Danforth said.
Still, Danforth acknowledged – as have others – that Schweich had won general praise for his performance as auditor since winning election in 2010. Schweich had no Democratic opponent when he was re-elected last fall.
In remarks directed at Schweich's two children, Danforth said that his family should be proud of his service. "The legacy your father has passed on to you is this: to fight for what is right; to always seize the high ground and never give it up."
Schweich had been Danforth's chief of staff when the former senator oversaw the federal investigation into Waco in the mid-1990s, and later when Danforth was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "Tom was the model of what a public servant should be,'' Danforth said. "He was exceptionally bright, energetic and well organized. He was highly ethical and like the indignant prophets of Biblical times, he was passionate about his responsibility for righting wrongs."
Schweich upset with Hancock, Hanaway
Schweich had launched an aggressive campaign for governor just five weeks ago, in which he lambasted both of his major rivals – fellow Republican Catherine Hanaway and Democrat Chris Koster.
Schweich and Hanaway jockeyed for support at the state GOP’s recent Lincoln Days festivities, which saw the auditor's last major political appearance before his death.
Schweich had made no secret of his opposition to Hancock, who was elected chairman by the state party’s executive committee at a meeting during the Lincoln Days weekend. Hancock, a Republican consultant and radio host, had done some work for Hanaway, although he promised the committee he would not work for any Missouri clients through 2016.
Right after Hancock’s election, the 68-member committee participated in a straw poll that showed their preference for Hanaway.
Schweich's press secretary Spence called today for Hanaway to disavow Hancock. (Neither Hanaway nor Hancock attended the memorial service.)
Hancock has denied leading any sort of whispering campaign, but has acknowledged that he made a casual -- and erroneous -- comment last fall about Schweich’s religion. Hancock has said he did so as part of a general discussion with a party activist about religion in general. Hancock says he also observed during that same conversation that Hanaway was Catholic.
Hancock says he later apologized to Schweich, and that the two had not talked since November.
By Tuesday afternoon, rumors were circulating that the state GOP executive committee had asked Hancock to step down. Hancock was not returning calls Tuesday seeking comment. State Republican Party executive Jonathan Prouty said in a statement, "Today is not an appropriate time to engage in political back-and-forth. Out of respect for Tom and his family, we have nothing to add at this time."
In the few days since Schweich's death, the Republican field for governor already has been tossed into turmoil. Hanaway, a former speaker of the Missouri House, remains the only high-profile GOP candidate. But several other names are now being tossed into the mix, including: Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, businessman John Brunner and U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer.
Koster, currently Missouri's attorney general, is the only announced Democrat. He was among those attending Tuesday's service.