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Danforth cartoon

The casket carrying the body of state Auditor Tom Schweich rolled by slowly, inexorably so, past nearly every important Missouri politician. They were gathered Tuesday morning under the high Gothic arches in the diffused light of the ornate stained glass windows of the Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton.

The casket rolled into the church, past representatives and senators, by Gov. Jay Nixon, by U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, by Democrats and Republicans, by reporters and editors, by political consultants and donors, by much of the political establishment of the Show-Me State.

Draped in the red, white and blue of the Missouri flag, with its distinctive logo featuring two grizzly bears standing atop the state motto — Salus populi suprema lex esto; Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law — the casket was followed by the stately and solitary figure of the godfather of the modern Missouri Republican Party, the Rev. John Claggett Danforth, known by some simply as Jack, a former U.S. senator and ambassador, a confidant to many in the sanctuary. He was Tom Schweich’s mentor and one of his best friends.

And he was about to set the Missouri political world on fire.

With his departed friend lying in the closed casket before him, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound delivered early in an already combative Republican primary race for governor, the Rev. Danforth laid out the state of Missouri politics on a bare oratorical slab, covered it in a pyramid of dry timber like a Viking funeral pyre, lit a match and sent it out to sea to sink forever.

“Words do hurt,” the Rev. Danforth told a stunned and silent crowd of hundreds after recounting his last conversation with Mr. Schweich, last Tuesday, in which the auditor told the same story he had told to Associated Press reporter David Lieb and Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger, about the “whisper campaign” Mr. Schweich worried was being mounted by his opponents about his connections to the Jewish faith. The Rev. Danforth told of his friend’s hurt feelings over a vicious radio ad in which the announcer made fun of Mr. Schweich’s appearance and said he would be crushed “like the little bug that he is.”

“Words can kill,” continued the Rev. Danforth. “That has been proven right here in our home state.”

This was no ordinary eulogy. It wasn’t a tribute. It wasn’t a walk down memory lane.

This was Jack Danforth’s anguished call to action, fueled by his own lamentation that at the moment when Mr. Schweich needed him most, he let him down.

“Tom said that the press would only run with the story if he went public, and that if he didn’t make an issue out of anti-Semitism, no one would,” the Rev. Danforth said. “That was the phone call, except at the end he seemed angry with me. It’s impossible to know the thoughts of another person at such a dire time as suicide, but I can tell you what haunts me. I had always told him to take the high ground and never give it up, and he believed that, and it had become his life. Now I had advised him that to win election he should hope someone else would take up the cause. He may have thought that I had abandoned him and left him on the high ground, all alone to fight the battle that had to be fought.”

Mr. Schweich is alone no more.

In his death, he has spurred a righteous anger in his closest friends and family, some of whom gathered at his home the night before the funeral, comforting each other, but also sharing their common belief, laid out plainly by the Rev. Danforth, that suicide didn’t kill Mr. Schweich.

Missouri politics did.

The auditor might have pulled the trigger, but the bullies who were campaigning against him held the gun to his head.

The Rev. Danforth didn’t name names. There will be plenty of time for that later. Suffice it to say, one of Missouri’s most powerfully connected and respected statesmen sent a message to the bullies he believe killed his friend: Lawyer up.

“There’s a principle of law called the thin skull rule. It says that if you hurt someone who is unusually susceptible to injury, you are liable even for the damages you didn’t anticipate,” the Rev. Danforth said. “The person who caused the injury must pay, not the person with the thin skull. A good rule of law should be a good rule of politics. The bully should get the blame not the victim.”

For that to happen, for the bullies to get the blame for Mr. Schweich’s death, for Missouri politics to change, it is the elected officials, and their donors, who are going to have to make some tough decisions.

No more lying. No more secret political committees set up because you don’t have the courage to put your name on the nastiest of ads. No more personal attacks. No more winning at any costs. No more treating colleagues on the other side of the aisle as opponents meant to be crushed instead of well-meaning policy-makers seeking compromise for the good of the state. No more disrespecting the power of words.

Words can kill, the Rev. Danforth said. Words can kill.

The Rev. Danforth has long decried the divisiveness in American and Missouri politics. His 2006 book “Faith and Politics” was a prophetic clarion call to end the use of religion as a wedge in politics. Sadly, the problem has gotten worse since then, not better. In the summer of 2012, he continued the theme in a powerful speech to the St. Louis Metropolitan Bar Association in which he called for politics to move back to the center, the “place where decisions once were made.”

Now, the fight is personal. Tom Schweich is a martyr for the cause. The Rev. Danforth will lead the righteous march to change the “miserable state” of Missouri politics.

“This will be our memorial to Tom,” he said. “That politics as it now exists must end, and we will end it. And we will get in the face of our politicians, and we will tell them that we are fed up, and that we are not going to take this anymore.”

The high ground awaits.

Tony Messenger • 314-340-8382

@tonymess on Twitter