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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL158.PRB - Tom Schweich«MDNM»
News that State Auditor Tom Schweich died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot has caused me to wonder about the tough and unforgiving environment that I cover.
I worry that what I enjoy covering were factors in his death.
This is a man I will remember fondly. I will miss our conversations.
He was eager to talk with reporters about government issues.
He regularly wandered the statehouse hallways outside our newsrooms to talk with whomever he encountered.
He kept his private office doors open. It was, I think, a demonstration of Schweich's commitment to openness and his eagerness for talking about public policy.
He would expound to us about the connections between what he saw in Missouri government and his many international assignments.
I vividly remember our conversation a few months ago when I encountered Schweich in the Capitol garage.
He kept me enthralled in an extensive explanation of how a recent statehouse issue related to a similar issue he had faced at the UN.
It involved the power of the Missouri bureaucracy to frustrate policy makers just like he had encountered with staff at the UN.
Earlier, he argued with me about one of my stories on the ramifications of a state Supreme Court decision rejecting his arguments against the governor's power to block state spending.
Schweich disagreed with my story's description that he had been handed a major defeat by the court. But our discussion was far from confrontational.
Instead, Schweich sounded like a law professor arguing both sides and then acknowledging my interpretation might have been correct.
I first met Schweich when he was introduced to me by former Sen. John Danforth five years ago.
Danforth came to the Capitol to promote Schweich's campaign for the U.S. Senate that Schweich eventually abandoned to run for state auditor.
Danforth had a history of recruiting and nurturing some of Missouri's top leaders including Kit Bond and John Ashcroft.
So, I paid attention. But I was not won over at the time.
I did not see a charismatic, aggressive political leader in Schweich.
Later when he became state auditor, I did not sense Schweich had what it took to be a successful politician.
He was thin-skinned about criticism. He lacked the personal aggressiveness necessary to succeed in the political arena and to attack his political enemies.
There was in Schweich the absence of a drive to "go for the jugular" to achieve political gain.
An audit a few months ago on the governor's use of the state's primary airplane is an example.
Use of the state's aircraft has been a major issue of attack by Republicans against the Democratic governor.
But in Republican Schweich's latest audit on state aircraft, it was only at the end of dozens of pages of obscure numbers that figures are cited showing that the Democratic governor essentially had converted the state's main airplane for his personal use.
A Republican state auditor running for governor could have made great political capital from a report involving the personal flights of a Democratic governor on the state's expense.
Not taking that opportunity was typical of Schweich.
It was just one of many audits that could have been partisan, but so often were boringly bland.
Over the years, I began to understand what Danforth admired about him -- not just his lack of partisanship, but also Schweich's intellect, character, candor and understanding of public policy.
So, I wonder why such a gentle man would decide to end his life -- and end it just after voicing to a reporter a personal attack against an opponent that was so out character of everything I know about Tom Schweich.
Did the meanness of this process somehow affect him?
I'm troubled that his death involves aspects of a process I have spent my entire adult life covering and respecting.
It troubles me that I had judged him on the basis of political prospects that had little to do with what made him a leader for our state.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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