In his nearly 81 years, John Claggett Danforth has often resembled Zeus, tossing rhetorical thunderbolts from his perch atop Mount Olympus.
An Episcopal priest and former Missouri senator with a marvelous basso profoundo voice, Danforth has a long record of delivering pointed remarks at important moments. When he speaks, people listen.
That was the case last week when St. Jack, as he has sometimes been called, not always approvingly, took on the Goliath that is President Donald Trump with an op-ed that echoed across the land.
“Now comes Trump, who is exactly what Republicans are not, who is exactly what we have opposed in our 160-year history,” Danforth wrote. “We are the party of the Union, and he is the most divisive president in our history. There hasn’t been a more divisive person in national politics since George Wallace.”
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It was a well-stated blast that reflected the increasing willingness of Republican leaders to take on a president who wanders and weaves and can’t find a way forward. Some criticized Danforth, who founded the modern Missouri Republican Party with his 1968 attorney general win, for picking an easy target. But Trump carried Missouri by 19 points just 10 months ago.
Administrations have long turned to Danforth in times of trouble. As President George W. Bush’s envoy to Sudan, he brokered a peace deal that ended a civil war. As Janet Reno’s choice to investigate the FBI’s role in the 1993 attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, Danforth cleared the government and blamed sect leader David Koresh. Not everyone agreed with that call.
And not every Republican agreed with his relentless attacks a decade ago on the Christian right within his own party. Danforth decried the my-God-is-better-than-your-God attitude within the GOP and said he hoped for a backlash. With unusual prescience, he declared that Republicans were playing with fire by opposing gay marriage.
“It is brought forward to make people angry and win political support,” he said.
At times, Danforth has been blinded by unwavering loyalties. He has lamented his own tactics in the early 1990s during Clarence Thomas’ bruising Supreme Court confirmation fight, which featured the testimony of Anita Hill. Thomas is a longtime Danforth friend.
“I fought dirty in a fight without rules,” he said.
Two highly regarded reporters, Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, who were then with The Wall Street Journal, spent three years looking into the Thomas-Hill clash and concluded that the “preponderance of the evidence” suggested that Thomas lied under oath. A Washington Post profile of Danforth once noted that the book the two reporters wrote sat on a shelf, unread.
Danforth stood up again in the wake of the 2015 suicide of former Auditor Tom Schweich. In his eulogy, Danforth decried the state of Missouri politics, which, he said, had gone “so hideously wrong.” But pressed for wrongdoings that had undermined Schweich, Danforth struggled, urging reporters to find them.
More recently, Danforth has encouraged Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley to enter next year’s U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, advice that Hawley appears poised to follow. But Danforth’s admonition of Trump is becoming an issue for Hawley’s still-undeclared candidacy.
Danforth may be too pious for some, too certain of himself for others. But let’s agree on this: At 81, Jack Danforth is still a man of extraordinary consequence.