CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth denounced the ugly nature of American politics Tuesday while eulogizing Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, suggesting that political bullying and an anti-Semitic whisper campaign led his friend to kill himself.
Danforth expressed "overwhelming anger that politics has gone so hideously wrong" as he spoke at a memorial services that drew many of Missouri's top elected officials and hundreds of others to the Episcopal church that Schweich had attended in suburban St. Louis.
"Words do hurt. Words can kill," Danforth said. "That has been proven right here in our home state."
Schweich, 54, fatally shot himself last Thursday in what police say was an apparent suicide at his home in Clayton. He left behind a wife, two children and an apparently rising political career. He had launched a campaign for the Republican nomination for governor just a month before his death and was already locked in a contentious primary with Catherine Hanaway, a former Missouri House speaker and U.S. attorney.
Danforth, who is an ordained Episcopal priest, served 18 years as a Republican senator before retiring in 1995 and remains one of the more respected elder statesmen of Missouri politics. Danforth said he had talked with Schweich two days before his death. He said Schweich was upset about a radio ad from a political action committee that mocked his physical appearance and suggested he was a pawn of Democrats who would "quickly squash him like the little bug that he is" in a general election.
But Danforth said Schweich was particularly distraught by what he perceived to be an anti-Semitic whispering campaign by the chairman of the Missouri Republican party, who Schweich said had been telling people that Schweich was Jewish. Schweich was Christian, but had some Jewish ancestry and had said his grandfather had long-encouraged him to stand up to anti-Semitism.
The party chairman, John Hancock, has denied making anti-Semitic remarks, though he has acknowledged he mistakenly believed Schweich was Jewish and may have mentioned it in an off-hand way to some people. Hancock didn't attend the memorial service and declined to comment about Danforth's remarks.
"Today is not an appropriate time to engage in political back-and-forth," state GOP Executive Director Jonathon Prouty said on Hancock's behalf.
Schweich's former spokesman, Spence Jackson, said after the service that Hancock "should resign immediately" as Republican party chairman and that Hanaway should "do some serious soul-searching about the race she's run so far and the people she's associated with."
Hanaway did not attend the funeral and a spokesman for her said she will not have any comment.
Danforth recited a passage from the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus describes as blessed those "who are persecuted for righteousness sake" and against whom others "utter all kinds of evil against you on my behalf."
He said Schweich was a "model public servant" who "was a person easily hurt and quickly offended" — so much so that Danforth said he had tried to discourage Schweich from entering politics six years ago because he didn't believe Schweich had the temperament for it.
Danforth said he is haunted by the fact that he had advised Schweich not to personally go public last week with the allegations of the anti-Semitic whispering campaign and had suggested Schweich should have someone else supply that information to the media.
"He may have thought that I had abandoned him — left him on the high ground all alone," Danforth said.
On the morning of his death, Schweich had invited reporters for The Associated Press and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to his home for an afternoon interview, saying he was ready to go public with the allegations about the anti-Semitic campaign. He shot himself about 13 minutes after talking to the AP reporter over the phone.
"The death of Tom Schweich is the natural consequence of what politics has become," Danforth said. "It is now our duty — yours and mine — to turn politics into something much better than its now so miserable state."
Schweich's coffin, draped in a Missouri flag, was placed at the front of the sanctuary, with his family seated on one side and Gov. Jay Nixon and other top officials seated on the other. The pews were packed and hundreds of people stood along the side isles.
Schweich was first elected in 2010 and had easily won election to a second, four-year term in November. He previously served as Danforth's chief of staff for a 1999 federal investigation into the deadly government siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and followed Danforth to the United Nations, where he was chief of staff for the U.S. delegation.
President George W. Bush appointed Schweich to the State Department in 2005 as an international law enforcement official and picked Schweich two years later to coordinate the anti-drug and justice reform efforts in Afghanistan.
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