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Danforth takes political philosophy to school

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2012 - How does a former lawmaker define today's politics? Former Sen. John Danforth spent Friday morning talking with students at John Burroughs School, where he touched on big, sweeping problems like partisan gridlock and personal contemplation. And with a little prompting, the former lawmaker revealed some interesting details about his life in politics.

In a class focused on the history of the 1950s, student Mariel VanLandingham asked whether there was anything notable about his Senate desk.

"Wow! Yes!" Danforth answered.

Senate desks typically have a storied history, complete with name carvings of those who used the furniture previously. Danforth said he got a not-so-nice surprise when he initially opened a desk he had early in his tenure.

"It just had the most awful, disgraceful member in the history of the Senate," said Danforth, which elicited some laughter.

Danforth said that desk had been used by Theodore Bilbo, a former Democratic senator from Mississippi who gained infamy for defending segregation and being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan - a New York Democrat who was friends with Danforth - said the desk "needed an exorcist."

Eventually, Danforth said he got the desk once used by Harry Truman. That came after Tom Eagleton, Danforth's Democratic counterpart from Missouri, retired. Currently, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., uses the Truman desk.

The introspective and interpersonal nature of politics - including cooperating with colleagues with different mindsets - was a key theme discussed at the private high school in Ladue. In addition to visiting classes, Danforth addressed an assembly of students.

Personal Toll, Lack Of Compromise

Danforth - who endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential bid - did delve into presidential politics during his visit. He again expressed displeasure of GOP presidential contenders' propensity to "pander," citing in particular Republican candidate Herman Cain's suggestion that an electrified fence should surround Mexico.

"A big applause line is if somebody from Mexico tries to cross the border, we're going to create an electric fence that will electrocute them," Danforth said. "And that's an applause line? What kind of appeal to the worst instincts of human kind is that - all for the sake of getting applause?"

But Danforth's talk mostly addressed hypothetical questions to students interested in running for office, including "can you handle losing," "when you think about politics, is it all about you" and "are you willing to compromise?"

For the first question, Danforth said losing can be more painful, for instance, than coming up short in a sporting event.

"If you so hate to lose, then you want to avoid it," Danforth said. "But one way to avoid it is don't try. Don't compete. ... In politics, losing feels awful. Why? Because it's not just a team on your jersey - it's your name on the ballot. It's you, just sort of naked before your constituents."

As for ego, Danforth said, "I have known people in politics who were so self-absorbed that they end up losing their families," Danforth said. "And a really important question to think about is at the end of your political life ... to ask your family 'do you think that my career came before you?'

"If they really think that 'yeah, your career came first,' you really messed up a lot of people," Danforth added.

The third question about navigating between political extremes has been a reoccurring point throughout Danforth's post-elective life. He's often battled with more conservative elements of his party over social issues, such as a 2006 initiative to enshrine protections for embryonic stem cell research in the Missouri Constitution. He also has advocated for the Republican Party to chart a more "moderate" course.

"Some people aren't compromising and they're proud of that," Danforth said. "And they say 'well, I stand on principle.' ... But if that's it, if it's 'here's my principle, there's my principle' - we have a debate, but there's no resolution."

Danforth said. "We've lost the ability to work things out. We've lost the ability to compromise. ... The principle in America, the principle is holding this diverse country together. And the way you do that is to somehow work things out."

Student Questions Peer Into Long Career

In response to a question about religious issues and the Republican base, Danforth said "the bread and butter of the Republican Party" typically doesn't have to do with religious or social issues. Instead, he said, it's more about the size and role of how government should affect people's lives.

"I do think that both political parties, the effort has been to energize the base," Danforth said. "And the way to energize the base is to use very inflammatory language on both sides. It tends to be religious language on the part of the Republicans. It tends to be class-based language on the part of the Democrats. But it doesn't serve the country."

"I think the best cure of that is shedding a lot of light on it," he said, adding that was one of the reason he wrote the book 'Faith and Politics: How the "Moral Values" Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together.'

Chris Front - the history teacher for the class where Danforth was speaking - noted there were several examples of bipartisanship in recent history and asked Danforth when such cooperation "became a political liability."

One theory Danforth mentioned has to do with social interaction.

"The Moynihans were very good friends of ours, the Eagletons were very good friends of ours, the Bentsens (then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas) were very good friends of ours," said Danforth. "So you knew people in both parties. You knew their families. You knew their spouses. Now, what I'm told is that for a couple of reasons the families don't move to Washington. One reason is that the fundraising is so relentless that the candidates are out there raising money each and every weekend - even for a six-year term."

Because of that, Danforth said, lawmakers are in Washington a few days a week. Add in the cost of living in Washington, he said, and that provides families with plenty of reasons to stay home.

"They don't know each other as people," Danforth said. "They just know each other as politicians."

Asked about the United Nations, where he served as U.S. ambassador, he said best thing that occurred during his tenure - which stretched from July 2004 to January 2005 - was the ability to forge a peace agreement ending a years-long conflict in Sudan. He said the entire Security Council went to Nairobi, Kenya, for the peace talks.

"That was a very big deal," Danforth said.

Danforth almost got back into electoral politics when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush considered him a vice presidential candidate. That obviously didn't happen, but student Steven Trulaske asked whether Danforth ever considered running for the presidency.

"As Sally Danforth would say 'not with this wife,'" said Danforth, to some laughter. "It was too pre-emptive. It's too much of your life. If you're president, that's all you are from that day forward."

[Since the students at John Burroughs are minors, some of their names could not be used by the Beacon without parental permission.]

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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