A Writer Writes —
Death of a Politician
by Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)
Tom Schweich, Missouri auditor and Republican candidate for governor, died of a self-inflicted gun shot wound last month.
Schweich said he was being subjected to an anti-Semitic whispering campaign. He believed that John Hancock, a GOP consultant who was elected February 21st as chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, was telling Republican donors and activists that Schweich was Jewish.
Schweich was an Episcopalian and did have a Jewish grandfather. But in Judaism, the religion is passed down through the mother’s line, not the father’s. As far as the Orthodox rabbis are concerned, and by choice, Schweich was not Jewish.
But is saying someone is Jewish or a Jew anti-Semitic? Not necessarily if you don’t precede it with any number of ugly adjectives, or if you don’t use it as an epithet. I’m okay if you say — correctly — that I’m Jewish. I will take exception if you call me a dirty Jew. And when a political operative starts spreading a falsehood that someone is Jewish for perceived political advantage, well, it’s anti-Semitic.
Hancock told the AP after Schweich’s death that it’s possible he may have told some people Schweich was Jewish. (“Psst, just between you and me, Schweich is Jewish. You may want to take that into account if you’re thinking about donating money or supporting him. Tell your friends.”)
Hancock said he wouldn’t have said it in a derogatory or demeaning fashion. Really? But why say it at all. Unless, of course, being Jewish is considered a liability in Missouri politics, and it’s about the worst possible thing you can say about a person short of whispering about their sexual orientation?
Former Missouri Senator John C. Danforth in remarks at Schweich’s funeral said: “Someone said this was no different than saying a person is a Presbyterian. Here’s how to test the credibility of that remark: When was the last time anyone sidled up to you and whispered into your ear that such and such a person is a Presbyterian?”
Danforth said Schweich was upset “about two things, a radio commercial and a whispering campaign he said were being run against him. He said the commercial made fun of his physical appearance [it called him a “little bug” — clearly a political campaign of the highest order] . . . But while the commercial hurt his feelings, his great complaint was about a whispering campaign that he was Jewish . . . . Tom called this anti-Semitism, and of course it was. . . . The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry.”
Hancock said he “mistakenly believed that Tom Schweich was Jewish.”
That strains credulity. Schweich was active in Missouri politics for years, and Hancock still believed he was Jewish? And how exactly did the subject come up in conversation?
But Hancock insists that Schweich’s suicide is not on him, nor should it be attributed to anything he said.
“We may never know what drove Tom to take his own life — but it seems clear that there were deeper and more profound issues than a minor political squabble,” Hancock said.
Suicide is an expression of the most profound personal despair. But for Hancock to presume to know Schweich’s state of mind and to discount his own contribution to a “minor political squabble” is outrageous.
“Words do hurt,” Danforth continued in his eulogy. “Words can kill.” What about the “anti-Semitic whispers?” he asked. And the radio ad “that calls someone a ‘little bug,’ and that is run anonymously over and over again?”
“There is no mystery as to why politicians conduct themselves this way,” Danforth said. “It works . . .. It’s all about winning, winning at any cost to the opponent or to any sense of common decency.”
Danforth concluded: “This will be our memorial to Tom: that politics as it now exists must end, and we will end it. And we will get in the face of our politicians, and we will tell them that we are fed up, and that we are not going to take this anymore.”
However, as we move into the presidential election cycle, and we seem to be in perpetual election cycles, don’t hold your breath about anything changing. Elections are seldom won along the high road and politicians know it.
Gerald Karey taught English in a middle school in a Turkish village from 1965 to 1967. After the Peace Corps, he worked as a general assignment reporter for two newspapers in New Jersey, and for a McGraw-Hill newsletter in Washington, D.C., where he covered energy and environmental issues. A collection of his essays entitled Unhinged, was published in October, 2014.