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McClellan: The Ghost of Christmas Past visits a former whiz kid

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Bob Feigenbaum

Missouri state Rep. Bob Feigenbaum in 1972 (left) and 1988.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is one of the few visitors to Bob Feigenbaum’s one-bedroom apartment at a senior living center in south St. Louis County. At 74, Feigenbaum is one of the younger residents.

He was once a big deal. He was elected to the Missouri Legislature when he was 24. He was a liberal Democrat from North County. He sponsored important bills, like one exempting medical prescriptions from sales tax. He said he was getting so much publicity and acclaim that when he achieved enough seniority to get a chairmanship, his more senior colleagues, who always referred to him as “the kid,” shunted him off to the backwaters of the Energy and Environment Committee.

Then dioxin happened. Also, radioactive waste was discovered in the region. Feigenbaum appeared on “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.”

In 1984, he was one of 272 Boomers featured in an Esquire magazine article titled, “In Search of the Best of a Generation.”

“It was alphabetical,” Feigenbaum said, “I was right before Al Gore.”

Four years later, after 16 years in the Legislature, Feigenbaum gave up his seat to run against Congressman Jack Buechner. Feigenbaum had given it a lot of thought. President Ronald Reagan was leaving office after two terms. That seemed to be a good sign for Democrats. Congressman Dick Gephardt was among those seeking the nomination. A local guy on the ticket could really fire up the Democrats in St. Louis.

Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses, and sucked up most of the local money before dropping out. Feigenbaum did not help himself. He said he had an opportunity to talk to an important donor group at a breakfast meeting in Washington, but got drunk the night before and was not at his best for the meeting. Actually, he was not at his best for a good part of that campaign. Some days, he had to be talked into getting out of bed.

He lost the election, and was suddenly unemployed. He said he had had a couple of steady but ill-defined gigs during his legislative career. He was a regional something-or-other for a couple of fast-food companies that saw the advantages of having a legislator on the payroll. But not so much an ex-legislator. Feigenbaum had attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis, but he did not have a degree. Or a wife. He had gotten divorced.

He was an ex-big deal with nothing going on.

“I was the best-dressed bum in St. Louis,” he told me when I stopped by last week.

I came to know him — to know of him, really — in 1990 when he testified against one of his old friends from the Legislature, state Rep. Dewey Crump. Feigenbaum had worn a wire when he bought cocaine from Crump on three occasions. Feigenbaum did this after he himself had been set up and busted immediately after buying cocaine from a prostitute at a downtown hotel. “As soon as I gave her the money, the doors burst open,” he told me. An ex-legislator is a nice scalp, but a current legislator is a better one, so Feigenbaum was given a chance to give up somebody.

His decision to give up Crump was not surprising, but the degree of joy he seemed to take in it was somehow unnerving. When the agents asked him to check his microphone before one of the meetings, he sang out, “Dew-EEE, Dew-EEE” as if he were calling in the hogs. On another occasion, he sang “Alice’s Restaurant.”

It was not a good look.

I had not seen him since the trial. His path has not been smooth. Immediately after the trial, he went to Texas. His experience with the fast-food companies was enough to get him a gig as the executive director of the Houston Restaurant Association, and his social skills and his ability to generate ideas proved to be a great fit for his new position. For a while. After things fell apart, he talked himself into a job with a water park. He asked the owner how much money the park was making from organized groups and special events. The owner admitted he didn’t do those kinds of promotions. Feigenbaum said he’d work for a percentage of what he’d bring in, and by golly, he did. For a while.

Along the way, a second marriage tanked.

The one-time whiz kid returned to St. Louis on a Greyhound bus.

An old connection got him a job, but it didn’t last long. Neither did a third marriage. Soon, he was going to the girlie joints across the river. He was checking himself into a hospital when he needed a place to stay.

Do you see a pattern here?

Feigenbaum does. High-energy ups, low-energy downs. He said he was eventually diagnosed as bi-polar. He wishes now that he had sought help earlier.

He told me that Mark Twain wrote that there are two key days in a person’s life — the day he was born and the day he realizes why he was born.

“I was born to help people,” Feigenbaum said.

He hopes that help will take the form of a book about his own struggles with mental health and his disastrous efforts to self-medicate. He showed me some notes on a yellow legal pad and said he had several titles in mind — “Fame and Infamy,” “Honourable and Dishounourable,” and “Fame and Shame.” The notion of a book is not new. Shortly after the trial, he was interviewed by Peter Hernon of this newspaper and he told Hernon he was thinking about writing a book. The working title was “The Party’s Over — The Best and Worst of the New Generation.”

Of course, I asked him about the trial. Why did he seem so joyful on the tapes? And why did he agree to set up Crump in the first place? It wasn’t as if he would go to prison for a first-time possession charge.

“I was nervous,” he said about the singing. He said he was naive about the rest. He said he was told he’d be a “confidential informant,” and he said he seized on that word — confidential. He did not envision a public trial.

“I was stunned when I saw on TV that Crump had been arrested,” he said.

Crump died in 2017. He had a family. He was mourned.

Feigenbaum’s parents are gone and he has no siblings. He and his second wife adopted two children — they were the biological kids of his wife’s daughter, so his step-grandkids — but he has not been in contact with them for years. He has a cousin in Chicago who stopped by recently on his way south and dropped off a couple of presents. They are still in their wrappings and along with a small artificial Christmas tree and a Menorah, give the apartment a holiday feel. The Menorah is in memory his father, Victor, who was of Jewish heritage, but did not actively practice his faith. Feigenbaum’s mother was Christian, as is he.

The Ghost of Christmas Present will not find much happening if he visits Feigenbaum on the coming holiday.

“Maybe I’ll have a ‘Little Figgie’ party,” he told me. A what? “A few other residents over for cookies or something,” he explained.

The Ghost of Christmas Future keeps his own counsel. No telling what he sees.

Perhaps he sees a book-signing, maybe somebody approaching the author and saying, “Thank you for sharing your story. It really helped me.”

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