Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Misery in Missouri - The Tragic Consequences of "Show Me" Politics

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a powerful symbol of the
opening of the West.
I have been a resident of the state of Missouri for 55 years. For the most part, it has been a pleasant place to live. Located roughly in the center of the United States, it sometimes gets referred to as America's Heartland. It has a little quirky reputation as the "Show Me" state, has fostered silly arguments about pronunciation of its name (Missour-ee’ or ‘Missour-uh), and sometimes gets identified as the place where hillbillies from the Ozarks live. The latter image was turned to gold by the development of Branson as a country music destination second only to Nashville.

But those irksome notions are easily overcome by the state's more redemptive features. Mark Twain is connected with Hannibal and the Mississippi River adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Western Missouri is the jumping off place for the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails and the majestic arch in St. Louis is a memorable image commemorating the opening of the West. The Latter Day Saint movement, the largest indigenous faith tradition in the United States, claims Independence as a place of historic and spiritual significance. The University of Missouri boasts one of the most prestigious schools of journalism in the country.

The Lake of the Ozarks and the small mountain range in which it nests, offers a particularly picturesque setting that surprises first-time visitors. Harry S Truman is Missouri's favorite son, a plain-speaking President beloved more after he left office than when he occupied it. I watched Thomas Hart Benton paint the majestic mural in the foyer of the Truman Library, and it was not unusual for us to see Mr. Truman walking to the Library in the morning, waving his cane at our school bus as we passed him on Delaware Street. St. Louis and Kansas City each have Major League Baseball and National Football League franchises, a claim few states can match. 

Missouri was a Border State during the Civil War and supplied troops to both the Union and Confederate forces, a form of bipartisanship in its own way. That was echoed well into the twentieth century. Although politics was usually defined by Democratic Party strength in the two urban areas and a more conservative presence in the rural areas, it also led to some spirited and healthy debate as moderate Republicans began to gain strength in the last third of the twentieth century. I remember being proud when our two U.S. Senators were Democrat Tom Eagleton and Republican John Danforth, both decent men who worked cooperatively for the good of the state and the nation.

Former senator John Danforth delivered the
eulogy at the funeral for State Auditor Tom Schweich
It was Danforth's appearance in the news today that prompted me to put these words to some things that have been troubling me and really came to a head this week. This was a horrible day for the state of Missouri, but this state has been dropping like a rock for several years now. 

Danforth, formerly a senator but also Ambassador to the United Nations, was on the television today because he was delivering a eulogy at the funeral for Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich, who took his own life last Thursday. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, delivered a powerful take-down of the cesspool that has become Missouri politics. It reminded me of how much I miss voices like that of John Danforth.

The death of Tom Schweich, a Republican, twice-elected auditor and recently announced candidate for governor, has sent shock waves throughout the state, but not enough of them for my taste. This is a terrible tragedy, but it is also a wake-up call for this state and its elected or wanting to be elected politicians.

Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich
Here is a link to a more detailed account of the Schweich suicide, but in essence this appears to be a case of a sensitive and perhaps thin-skinned man being unable to cope with a humiliating radio ad and a whispering campaign about his alleged Jewish heritage. He was not Jewish, actually an active Episcopalian, but was proud of some family roots in the Jewish faith. 

But there is a backstory here that is yet to be fully told. It involves the state chairman of the Republican party, the other announced Republican candidate for governor, a billionaire who has injected hundreds of thousands of dollars into Missouri politics, and untold allegations of corruption being alleged by Schweich. All of this has been more or less known, but now it is embodied in the death of a decent man. Something has to change.

This post is triggered by the Schweich tragedy, but is more broadly about the distressing fall of this state, now on our way to becoming a laughing stock because of the absurdity of the legislature, the ineffectiveness of the governor (a Democrat), and an increasing perception that we are a kind of cultural backwater over here. 

On the day of this funeral, many may have overlooked the report issued by the Justice Department regarding the racist culture present in the Ferguson police department, resulting in the tragic shooting and rioting last November. The report details disgusting jokes and scores of discriminatory actions by the supposed public servants. It is an account of Missouri in shame.

But that is only the beginning of our embarrassment. Here are a few illustrations of what we are experiencing here in Missouri:
  • 28% of the executions in the United States last year took place in Missouri, which tied Texas for the most executions in 2014.
  • More black elementary school students have been suspended from school in Missouri than any other state in the country. (14% compared to 7.6% in U.S,. and compared to 1.6% white in both Missouri and U.S.)
  • Todd Akin, campaigning to be elected senator from Missouri in 2014, advanced the notion that if she is "legitimately" raped a woman has the ability to "shut down" and prevent pregnancy. This proved too much for even Missouri. They reelected a Democrat.
  • The legislature has had on its agenda this year a proposal that if evolution is to be taught in a school the parents must be notified and sign a note agreeing to their child being submitted to this information.
  • Governor Jay Nixon, who has managed to get elected to several statewide offices as a Democrat in a red state, managed to embarrass us all by his inept handling of Ferguson, all of it played out on a very large national stage.
  • In 2012 the legislature honored a famous Missourian by putting a bust of Rush Limbaugh in the State Capital. Fortunately, it doesn't talk.
  •  The range of efforts to curtail lawful abortions has become so ridiculous that it can only be described as ludicrous.
  • Missouri managed to prevent many of its residents from benefitting from health insurance coverage by refusing to expand Medicaid and by attacking the Affordable Care Act at every turn, thereby denying Missourians significant benefits from federal subsidies.
It goes on and on. These are only suggestive of the kind of thing we have been coping with in this once proud state. 

We need some serious dialogue in this state around our dysfunctional political system, our willingness to succumb to the most barbarian of ideas without denouncing them as such, and by laying claim once again to being the heartland of America.

Lies, bullying, and ridicule by political officials and their take-no-prisoners consultants have resulted in a good man taking the most ultimate step possible to relieve his pain. I am ashamed to be a Missourian today. My profound hope is that people who care will take John Danforth's words and begin right now to clean this system of those whose names were not mentioned but whose identities are not a secret.

And then let's grow up and live in our own century. With our record these days we've got no business demanding anybody to "Show Me" a darn thing, as if we already know everything. It's time for us to go deep within ourselves and then hope we have something to "Show Them." Don't hold your breath. 


Literally as I was writing this piece, with my television playing in the background, the Rachel Maddow Show started playing a segment on the Tom Schweich story, including Danforth's eulogy. It is excellent and you can find it here