Tragic death of Schweich recalls past instances of anti-Semitism in politics

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“There are two things I never discuss: politics and religion,” said Mark Twain.  Those memorable words come to mind amidst the profoundly tragic death of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich in an apparent suicide.

Fueling concerns are numerous reports that Schweich believed he was the target of a “whispering campaign” involving a prominent Republican, Missouri GOP Chairman John Hancock. Schweich reportedly told St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger that he feared Hancock was “spreading the word” that Schweich was Jewish in an effort to cost him votes in a hotly contested primary against front runner Catherine Hanaway. Schweich was a practicing Episcopalian, but his grandfather was Jewish – something of which Schweich had said he was proud.

Hancock has told reporters at the Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star that he “might have mentioned” that Schweich was Jewish to some Republicans, but has strongly denied that he was trying to smear Schweich. The entire matter is a bitter mixture of tragedy and disturbing rumors.  It is deplorable that in this day and age a candidate’s religion, or in this case the religion of the candidate’s grandfather, should make any difference to any but the most bigoted in our population.  

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Our Constitution, after all, prohibits any “religious test” for holding office, but nonetheless the ugliness of anti-Semitism has greeted some previous political campaigns in our nation, state and local communities.

Here are some examples:

The late U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, an Arizona Republican, had a Jewish grandfather named “Goldwasser,” but this fact, which Goldwater did not hide, did not prevent him from being nominated as the Republican candidate for president in 1964.  Goldwater was trounced by Lyndon Johnson in the general election, but Goldwater’s extremely conservative policies were the reason for his defeat; his Jewish ancestry was never a factor in the campaign.

When Vice President Al Gore was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000, he selected Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a Modern Orthodox Jew, as his running mate. Not only was the fact that Lieberman was Jewish not a factor in the campaign when Lieberman was first nominated, but Gore’s approval ratings went up by several points.

Closer to home, both Kenneth Rothman and the late Harriett Woods were elected Lt. Governor of Missouri, unimpeded by being Jewish. Rothman previously had been elected the first Jewish Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives with the solid support of outstate legislators who admired the fact that Rothman was proud that he was Jewish throughout his career in politics. More recently, Jewish Kansas Citian Jason Kander was elected in November, 2012 to serve as Missouri Secretary of State. He recently announced that he would look to seek the Democratic bid for U.S. Senate.

Walter Ehrlich, in his classic history of St. Louis Jewry, “Zion in the Valley,” devotes considerable space to Nathan Frank, who was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1888, becoming the first — and thus far only — Jew to represent Missouri in the House.  Ehrlich notes that when Frank was first nominated by the GOP for the same House seat back in 1886, two major newspapers that normally endorsed Republicans refused to endorse Frank’s candidacy as did some prominent local Republicans.  There was a charge that the “real opposition to Frank was to his religion.”  Ehrlich notes that in his one term in Congress, Frank “compiled a very good legislative record.”  He tried and failed to get the Republican nomination for the Senate in 1910, 1916  and 1928.  He went on to become a major philanthropist and civic leader in the general and Jewish communities of St. Louis.

Another Jewish aspirant for the nomination of his party for a term in the House of Representatives was Jack Schramm, who sought the Democratic nomination for the Second District against Bob Young for a vacant seat.  In the course of the primary campaign a letter from someone associated with Young’s family was circulated that called attention to the fact that “not only was Schramm pro-abortion,” but offered as evidence of that stance that he belonged to the “pro-abortion” local chapter of the American Jewish Congress. The letter stirred considerable outrage as a smear tactic, and Young repudiated the letter and said it did not represent his views.  Young went on to win the seat and compiled a record of support for Israel and cordial relations with the local Jewish community.

The late Lawrence K. Roos was running as the Republican candidate for St. Louis County Supervisor back in 1962 as a “good government” candidate.  A local Democratic operative prepared a scurrilous flyer that claimed that Roos was “not a good Jew” because his wife was not Jewish.  When wiser heads in both parties prevailed, the flyer was withdrawn from circulation.  (Disclosure: I served as Roos’ press secretary and speechwriter in 1964-1969.)

In 1968, Roos was the Republican nominee for governor in a race against the popular Democratic incumbent Gov. Warren E. Hearnes.  When Roos gave a talk in Sikeston the campaign, someone in the crowd came up to him and said, “We heard a nasty rumor down here that you are Jewish.”   Roos replied, “Well, I am Jewish.  Do you have a problem with that?”  When he shared the story later, he said he was shaken by the incident.  Roos lost the election to Hearnes, who won in a landslide, though there was no evidence that Roos’ Jewish faith was a factor in his loss.

In the 251-year history of the city of St. Louis, there was only one Jewish chief executive, A. S. Aloe, who became acting mayor of St. Louis when the incumbent mayor, Henry Kiel, was taken ill.  To date he remains the only Jew to head the government of the city, and there is no record of any adverse effect to his political and civic career resulting from his being Jewish.