On February 26, Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich had something he wanted to get off his chest. Two days prior, he'd try to call a press conference about the fact that his political opponents were spreading rumors that he was Jewish, but his advisers had convinced him to back off. So taking matters into his own hands, the 54-year-old called both the Associated Press and the St. Louis Dispatchhimself to request a set of interviews. "This is more of a religious story than a politics story," he told the local paper in a voicemail.
But Schweich never met with any reporters. Seven minutes after asking to be heard out, the Republican candidate for governor shut himself up with a bullet to the head.
The suicide—already one of the more bizarre political news stories in recent memory—took a turn for the even-weirder on Sunday evening, when Schweich's spokesman, Robert "Spence" Jackson, was also found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gun wound. Now, people in Missouri really want to know what Schweich was trying to get off his chest last month—and whether it was even related to anti-Semitism after all.
In the wake of Schweich's death, former US Senator John Danforth blamed political bullying and Missouri's dirty politics for his friend's suicide. In a scathing eulogy, Danforth noted that Schweich had believed that other Republicans, including state party chairman John Hancock, were behind the rumors that he was Jewish, and claimed that a hurtful House of Cards–themed attack ad mocking the auditor's appearance may have pushed Schweich over the edge (it compared him to Don Knotts).
"Politics has gone so hideously wrong, and the death of Tom Schweich is the natural consequence of what politics has become," Danforth told the stunned audience. "I believe deep in my heart that it's now our duty, yours and mine, to turn politics into something much better than its now so miserable state."
But the news of Jackson's apparent suicide raises questions about whether dirty politics is really to blame. After all, could Missouri politics—as bad as they are—really drive two people to suicide in a month?
Schweich's friends weren't convinced that the whisper campaign about the state auditor's religion even existed. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Schweich identified as Episcopalian, although his grandfather was, indeed, Jewish. After a career serving in George W. Bush's administration, he was elected as Missouri's state auditor in 2010 and won a second term last year, after which he decided to throw his hat into the governor's race.
Danforth claims the gubernatorial bid was his protégé's undoing. In his eulogy, he explained that he initially thought Schweich was too "easily hurt" for politics, and that he was—tragically—proven right. "I last spoke with Tom this past Tuesday afternoon," Danforth said. "He was indignant. He told me he was upset about two things, a radio commercial and a whispering campaign he said were being run against him." He noted that the campaign for governor started a full two years in advance of elections, which was a sign that state politics weren't exactly what they used to be—and that the new tactics drove away people who were "normal," "sensitive," and "decent."
It's true that Missourians play dirty politics, perhaps none more so than Jeff Roe, the guy behind the House of Cards ad. Known as the "Karl Rove of Missouri," he got his start in politics in 1994, according to Mother Jones, and helmed successful campaigns for Missouri Republican Congressman Sam Graves. Opponents have described Graves's campaign staff as "evil"; other phrases used to describe Roes's campaigns include "intimidating" and "very, very bad." It's also worth noting that while Missourians are trying to figure out what to do about Roe, he's taking his hardball talents to the big leagues. Late last year, Ted Cruz, the Republican senator who no one really likes, announced Roe would be heading up his presidential campaign.
The question remains, though, whether political bullying actually drove Schweich to take his own life. Plenty of politicians have offed themselves in the past, although typically they were nailed (or about to be nailed) for some sort of embezzlement or fraud. Perhaps the most famous was R. Budd Dwyer, who was the treasurer of Pennsylvania and had been caught accepting a bribe for a lucrative government contract. On January 22, 1987, he shot himself in the head during a live press conference.
The number of politicians who have killed themselves over dirty politics is much, much fewer. The first was actually a Missouri governor, Thomas Reynolds, who was the subject of harsh criticism from the Whigs and Soft Democrats that apparently drove him over the edge. In February 1844, he shot himself in the executive mansion and left a note that read, "I have labored and discharged my duties faithfully to the public, but this has not protected me from the slanders and abuse which has rendered my life a burden to me... I pray to God to forgive them and to teach them more charity."
Then, almost 100 years later, in 1953, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette killed himself, reportedly because he was afraid of being called out by Senator Joseph McCarthy over rumors that communists had infiltrated a subcommittee he'd headed. The next year, Lester C. Hunt, a Democrat from Wyoming and bitter McCarthy opponent shot himself after several political opponents threatened to publicize his son's arrest for soliciting a male prostitute if he continued his political career.
"Lester Hunt, a much more sensitive soul than his colleagues realized, just could not bear the thought of having his son's misfortunes become the subject of whispers in his re-election campaign," a journalist named Drew Pearson wrote at the time.
Whether or not Schweich joins this list remains to be seen. The key to unlocking what happened could lie in the suicide note of Spence Jackson, the spokesman. However, the contents of that final missive aren't being revealed to the public just yet. As the week goes on, we're likely to find out if we have another McCarthy-level bully on our hands, or if something else entirely is to blame. Either way, it's clear that whatever is going on within the Missouri political scene is absolutely nuts.
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