The more interesting question went unasked on this evening: Why is John Danforth supporting Jim Talent?
Earlier this year, Danforth, who represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate for 18 years before retiring in 1995, donated $2,000 to Talent's campaign. Danforth and Talent are fellow Republicans from the St. Louis area. But the similarities end there. Danforth is the very image of a moderate patrician, whereas Talent is a Newt Gingrich disciple. Danforth has criticized his party for carrying out the agenda of the religious right. Talent, meanwhile, routinely receives 100 percent voting-record scores from the Christian Coalition and has credited the partisan minister James Dobson with changing his life. The two politicians also disagree on the prominent issue of stem-cell research.
In spite of their stark differences, Danforth gave Talent the maximum campaign donation allowed by law. "I'm all for him," Danforth tells the Pitch. "I think he has established a reputation for being a very good United States senator, someone who is very thoughtful, not somebody who is just trying to grab publicity for himself but somebody who is viewed as a serious, hardworking U.S. senator."
Campaign-finance records indicate that Danforth's $2,000 check arrived three months after Talent co-sponsored a bill that would criminalize therapeutic cloning, a form of stem-cell research. The process derives stem cells from altered embryos. Research outfits such as the Stowers Institute in Kansas City say therapeutic cloning presents a valuable weapon in the fight against disease. The Missouri chapters of Right to Life and the Catholic Conference oppose the practice, believing that manipulating embryos for research purposes represents the creation and destruction of human life.
Up for re-election in 2006, Talent has sided with social conservatives. As a political move, Talent's position makes sense. The senator faces a formidable Democrat, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, in next year's election. An energetic anti-abortion vote could prove decisive in the race.
Of course, not all "pro-lifers" oppose therapeutic cloning, a process of injecting genetic material into an embryo in order to harvest stem cells that match the donor's DNA. Danforth appears in a TV ad campaign designed to win support for a constitutional amendment that would prevent state lawmakers from outlawing the practice, as they have tried to do. "My entire political career, I voted pro-life, and that is exactly why I favor the stem-cell initiative," Danforth says in a spot paid for by the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, the initiative's sponsor. "I believe in saving human life. I want cures to be found, and I want the scientists, the physicians who are here in our state of Missouri, to participate in finding these cures."
Danforth wrote about embryonic stem cells in two prominent editorials published in The New York Times in March and June. The editorials criticized the Republican Party for becoming captive to conservative Christians. In addition to stem cells, Danforth cited the pursuit of gay-marriage bans and the intervention in the Terri Schiavo case as evidence of this transformation. Danforth also offered encouragement to moderate believers who support the separation of church and state. "We think that efforts to haul references of God into the public square ... are far more apt to divide Americans than to advance faith," he wrote. Danforth's decision to air his views in the Times seemed fitting conservatives consider the editorial page a bastion of liberalism.
The criticism carried the weight of not only Danforth's service in the Senate but also his status as an ordained Episcopal priest. Nicknamed "Saint Jack," Danforth is, in the words of The Washington Post, "a freelance healer" who investigated the Waco disaster on behalf of Bill Clinton and served as special envoy to civil-war-torn Sudan at the request of George W. Bush. In 2004, Danforth worked as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations before resigning after just six months on the job. (Danforth cited as a reason for his departure his desire to return to St. Louis and spend more time with his wife, Sally.)
Though critical of his party, Danforth does not intend to leave it. "I believe in the Republican Party," he says. "I believe that the basic policies of the party are in the best interests of the country, whether it's trying to keep the burden of the federal government light, whether it's trying to maintain an engaged foreign policy, strong national defense, free trade, the basic view that the courts are interpreters of the law and not creators of public policy. For all those reasons, I am a Republican."
As for his support of Talent, Danforth says he has never agreed with somebody about everything. Some past supporters of Talent, however, have indicated they will withhold contributions because of the senator's position on stem cells. Lawyer David Welte, who serves as general counsel to the Stowers Institute, has said he will not donate to Talent. The division among Republicans delights Democrats, who see the stem-cell issue as a winner for their side. Polls show that most Americans oppose restrictions on stem-cell research.
In the grand scheme of a Senate race, Danforth's $2,000 campaign donation means very little. Democratic adviser and blogger Roy Temple wonders if Danforth, an heir to the Ralston Purina Co. fortune, made the donation in an effort to avoid other obligations, such as appearing at Talent's fund-raisers. "Maybe what we view as evidence of his support is actually evidence of his effort not to have to do anything," Temple says.
Danforth rejects speculation that his support of Talent ends at the writing of a check. "I don't know what he'd like for me to do, but I hope he wins," Danforth says. "I think he's a good senator, and I think he's good for the country and good for the state."
Danforth's support of Talent brings to mind his support of another far-right Republican: Clarence Thomas. While he was Missouri's attorney general, Danforth recruited Thomas out of Yale Law School in 1974. Later, Thomas worked briefly as a legislative aide in Danforth's Senate office in Washington. Thomas went on to work at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and serve as a circuit-court judge. When President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991, Danforth resumed the role of patron, introducing Thomas to members of the Senate and vouching for the judge's abilities.
The confirmation hearings snagged, famously, on Anita Hill's sexual-harassment allegations. During the ordeal, Danforth went to great lengths to discredit Hill. To the horror of some of his own staff, Danforth spread the armchair diagnosis that Hill suffered from "erotomania," causing her to lie about Thomas' advances.
Danforth eventually wrote a book, Resurrection, about the confirmation and his relationship with Thomas. In the book, Danforth admits to "connivings" but defends his actions by describing the terrible injustice he felt was being done to Thomas.
But in Strange Justice, the definitive account of the Thomas confirmation, reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson suggest that the senator's motivation was pure vanity. "Danforth was so certain of his own rectitude and so sure of his judgment of his protégé who was, after all, a reflection to some extent of himself that he never stopped to wonder whether there might be some truth to Hill's story," the authors write.
Strange Justice also describes in detail how the White House worked with elements of the Christian right to muster support for Thomas' nomination. Danforth's book makes virtually no mention of these efforts. In fact, Danforth continues to dispute suggestions that the Republican Party and conservative Christians were already in bed together at the time of Thomas' nomination. "I would not agree with that," he says. "I never thought that at all when I was in politics until this fairly recent I mean, just within the last few years creation of a series of political issues out of religion and the endorsement of these positions by Republicans. It just didn't occur to me that there was that sort of close identification."
The bond will be put to the test next year when the Senate debates stem-cell research. If Talent holds his position, he won't be the first person to disappoint Danforth. In one of his Times editorials, Danforth wrote that one of the ideas that united Republicans during his time in the Senate was the notion that "judges should interpret the law, not legislate." But according to a Yale Law School analysis of Supreme Court decisions between 1994 and 2005, the justice most likely to strike down a law passed by Congress was Clarence Thomas.