Seven weeks

Spring break is ending for the legislature. 

From now until 6 p.m., Friday, May 13th, there will be only increasing pressure, increasing tension, increasing opportunities for the train to go off the tracks again.  Only seven weeks remain.  Only seven weeks.

They are a special seven weeks for many lawmakers. This is the last time they will live in this arena, this place where many of them feel they are only now learning how things work or can work or should work. This is the last seven weeks they will be somebody.

They will get a day, or two, in September for the veto session, a footnote to this part of their lives.  But in terms of the meaningful struggle, these seven weeks are all that remain for them.

For many of them, this is the last time they will know the intensity, the heat, the adrenaline rush that builds and builds and builds until the last gavel falls.  

For many of them, they will never feel this important again, or be this important again. And they will spend the rest of their lives among fellow citizens who have not known how it is to have been what they were, and don’t really care.  And when January rolls around again, this seven-week world will only be an echo in their memories.  

When the gavel falls on that Friday night, they are done.  They can never come back.  Term limits will never let them sit at that desk and never let them again be part of the passionate process of defining how they and their fellow citizens will live.  Or die. 

Seven weeks, and then those who are their friends, their comrades in the hallways, will no longer pay them attention for they will no longer be useful to them.  After the thunder and lightning of their last legislative session, the place where once they were somebody will be cold and distant.   

They will be able to return and only sit on a side bench or stand in a side gallery and get up and wave when they’re introduced while others quickly turn away to fill their time in the pressure cooker.  Their desk, their chair, their office will be occupied by someone else until those people, too, hear the gavel fall for the last time.    

They are seven weeks away from being only pictures on the walls in the hallways, pictures that thousands of people pass by every day—and will pass by every day for generations to come– without looking, or, if looking, find no meaning in the images. 

Seven weeks.  And then they’re gone.

John T.

John T. Russell died Friday.  He was 84.  

He was from Lebanon, Missouri and the people sent him to Jefferson City to represent them in the House and in the Senate for 42 years because they could.  And they probably would have kept electing him if he wanted to keep running, but they were among the Missourians who approved term limits in 1992, giving up their right to end him back to the Senate in 2004 elections.

Russell, a Republican, and Wayne Goode, a Democrat from the St. Louis area, served together in the General Assembly for 42 years.  Only Michael Kinney served longer—56 years, all in the Senate.  For a brief time, Russell, a conservative, and Goode, a liberal, were co-chairmen of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  It was during the switch from Democratic to Republican control of the Senate and although Russell finished out his career as the committee chairman, he and Goode worked closely together. 

We watched him for most of his career, first in the House and then in the Senate. He never left any doubt about his political leanings but he also left no doubt that he could work with the other side, and did.  He honored the title of “Senator” with his service.  His generation, now only a memory in the minds of many who are themselves close to being only memories in the Capitol, understood words like honor and courtesy, respect, and decorum, words that in recent days or even in recent years increasingly have become just words. 

He represented Laclede County, the place where he was born and grew up on a farm and went to a one-room country school.  He was not a man who felt he was bigger than the place he came from. And the place he came from knew it.  John T. Russell was elected to seven terms in the House and seven terms in the Senate.  In half of those elections, he had no opponent in November. 

He was a successful businessman in Lebanon for decades, an Air Force veteran from the Korean War, not given to hyperbole and only occasionally did his firmness give way to anger.  But when John T. Russell thundered, the Senate understood he had been pushed beyond his line of reasonableness—and that took quite a bit of pushing.

John Russell looked like a Senator, with his dark hair, gray at the temples, his deep, authoritative voice, and his confident demeanor. 

john t. russell

He was firm but not unalterable in his positions, understood the value of respecting the other side and—when necessary—yielding on some points so he could achieve others. 

He is the third member of his generation of Missouri politicians to leave the scene in recent months.  We lost Senator Harold Caskey of Butler last October and Senator Emory Melton of Cassville in December.   Caskey, like Russell, served 28 years in the Senate. Melton served 24.  No members of today’s Senate ever served with them—and the Senate is a poorer chamber in spirit because there is no one there to remember three men who knew how to be Senators.

Senator Russell’s funeral will be Wednesday morning at the First Baptist Church in Lebanon. 

Spring break

This is the traditional time to assess how the General Assembly is doing and is likely to do this year.  Spring break for lawmakers always produces proclamations from the majority party that things are going well and proclamations from the minority party that the legislature has failed to do its job.

Both sides are right.  And they’ll be right in May, too.

The heady enthusiasm of January has worn off and the slogging through a muddy legislative battlefield is in full slog.  Some trench warfare has developed.  Some verbal bombs have burst in the air.  It’s about eight weeks before adjournment (seven when the legislature returns on Tuesday).  Eight loooonnnnnng weeks.

The rush to pass meaningful ethics laws has lost momentum.  Photo Voter ID and the latest efforts to make a legal medical procedure too difficult to obtain are a game in process.  The state budget and its accompanying intimidation, sandbagging, and sniping festival still has a lot of innings to play.

The majority leader of the Senate says people are working together, “for the most part.”  Ah, but that other part promises to enliven these last seven weeks.  Seven weeks is a long time to slow a slog to a crawl but nothing is unexpected in the General Assembly these days.

It’s a campaign year so don’t look for anything significant in the field of campaign reform to happen.  It’s a campaign year so do look for the majority party to do all it can to satisfy its base so it can keep its supermajority.  Look for the minority party to try to appeal to its base by stopping the majority from appealing to its base. The pressure to satisfy both sides only increases from here on.

Every session creates interesting bed fellows and this one has just created one. In this case, it’s one special interest trying to find a comfortable place under the covers for itself.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which has fought efforts to pass laws banning businesses from firing people because they are gay, is now opposed to a proposed constitutional amendment protecting those of its members who don’t want to sell things to gay people—because the amendment would be bad for business.  What an interesting conundrum for the majority party: Do you side with the state’s biggest business organization that traditionally favors your party or do you side with the evangelical voting bloc that has embraced your party?  It’s the House’s problem now.

And the legislative dance floor has the potential for some other interesting moves in the last seven weeks.  Perhaps some will be humming Chubby Checker’s great hit as they twist their way around the issue of transportation funding.  One idea would keep the Highway Patrol from using gas tax money to enforce laws on the highways by having the patrol’s funding come out of general tax collections which already are inadequate for numerous programs and services, most glaringly education, and which some legislators want to reduce even further with tax cuts.

This long-time observer always had the feeling that the legislature should leave when Daylight Savings Time arrives.  Being cooped up at the Capitol while the days are dark and cold is okay.  But, oh man! When there’s warm temperatures and daylight and the session drones on and on for seven more weeks—that’s cruel and unusual punishment.

But we know how it will turn out. The majority party will proclaim this a great session.  The minority party will maintain it was a disaster.

And then they’ll go home for a longer break.

Notes from a quiet street

(The second  of 2016’s random observations far from the front lines of our past, and not worthy of full bloghood).

He was talking about the special interests that influence government, including banks and protected industries.

We want prosperity, but not at the expense of liberty.

Poverty is not as great a danger to liberty as wealth, with its corrupting, demoralizing influences.  Suppose all the influences I have just reviewed were to take their hands off instead of supporting the Republican Party, would it have a ghost of a chance of success?

Let us have prosperity, but never at the expense of liberty, never at the expense of self-government, and let us never have a government…owing its retention to the power of the millionaires rather than the will of the millions.” 

That’s not Democratic Party rhetoric this year.  It’s from a speech given by Joseph Pulitzer in Indianapolis in 1880.


We got a press release from the St. Louis Archdiocese a few days ago announcing churches throughout the Archdiocese would be taking part in a “Reconciliation Initiative” March 4-5.  The press release arrived about a week after the Bishop said churches should consider dropping sponsorship of the Girl Scouts because the Scouts might lead girls to think of things beyond what the church thinks they should think.


Nancy’s downstairs listening to the John Denver Channel on Pandora. It’s an internet site that plays whatever music you want to hear.  John Denver would be 72 years old now.  He died more than eighteen years ago.  72.  Kind of hard to envision.  But then James Taylor turned 68 a few days ago and still sounds like James Taylor is supposed to sound.  But still, John Denver would be 72—-


A sample of legislative efficiency:  The state senate has restored the chamber’s mezzanine beautifully.  But to do it, it had to destroy the offices of its senate information staff.  It moved them into a first-floor hearing room for a while, then into some vacant space in the capitol basement.  Then it moved the capitol press corps out of its spaces on the first floor across the hall from the hearing room up to some offices on the fifth floor that are not handicapped accessible. Then it moved its information staff from the basement into the spaces on the first floor that the press had occupied.  Wonder if it ever occurred to the senate to just move its information people into the fifth floor offices to begin with and save a bunch of effort and hassle.

And now it’s spending more money on another move—getting rid of those pesky reporters at the press table on the senate floor because one of them reportedly (an appropriate word in this instance) did his job by tweeting that the senate leader had told a senator who had been presiding that he should have brought Senator Brian Nieves under control when Nieves went off on one of his embarrassing tirades.  The senate is spending still more moving money to turn an area that has been for public visitors for the last 96 years into a place for people who apparently have been illegal aliens on the senate floor in this capitol—as well as the one built in the 19th century.

We are sure the Senate will give the taxpayers it so aggressively wants to protect a complete final report to the public about how much it has spent, total, to move all these people from top to bottom to top in the Capitol.


Another example of efficient thinking: Had to get a new computer monitor the other day.  Got one of those 23-inchers (so maybe there will be fewer typos in these entries since the letters are bigger).  Once again, a piece of equipment treated the purchaser like an idiot.  Remember owner’s manuals?  Remember you used to be have directions to things that you could READ?  The box lid for this thing had some drawings that were useful only because this user had hooked up a monitor before.  One drawing appeared to show an “on” switch, which was fine except the screen was still black when a little blue light came on on the front panel.  Inside a plastic bag were some booklets.  Directions?  Oh, no.  Warranties written in most of the world’s known languages.  The user’s manual was on an enclosed disc.   Great.  Except if the monitor is only a black screen, what in Heaven’s name is the user supposed to use to read the directions that tell him how to make the monitor not black?

This user thinks he has been insulted. A person smart enough to have a computer apparently is not smart enough to read an instruction manual on  hooking up the monitor unless he is smart enough to hook up the monitor  so he can see images of the manual. Obviously because you are reading this, the problem got solved, no thanks to the drawings, so the disc with the users’ manual on it is not needed.

Now that the monitor is working, it’s time to plan to do some other things that make about as much sense: check the stock market, make some airline reservations, buy a tankful of gas for the car, wait for the House to rationalize passage of the Wesboro Amendment……


Reaping the whirlwind

A couple of syndicated columns published in the last several weeks seem from this lofty office (my office is in a loft that overlooks the living room) on this quiet street to be a good assessment of today’s politics and how we got here.

Cal Thomas wrote of the Republican presidential campaign in “Sewer Politics” in a March 1 column that he was going to talk about gutter politics “but given Donald Trump’s horrid statements, the gutter would be a step up because things have descended into the sewer.  Never in modern times has there been a presidential candidate who has hurled more personal insults and hurtful accusations at his fellow candidates and others who disagree with him.  It should embarrass a normal person, but Trump appears beyond embarrassment.”

Thomas admits he is amazed by the continued strong support evangelicals are showing Trump and the general silence about that support by evangelical leaders. “This is what can happen when some pastors who are called to a different kingdom and a different King settle for an earthly kingdom and a lesser king,” he wrote.  However he praises Max Lucado, a best-selling writer who told Christianity Today he felt he had to speak out because of “Trump’s derision of people.”  He says he would not be speaking up except that, “he repeatedly brandishes the Bible and calls himself a Christian.”   Lucado thinks it is “beyond reason” for Trump “to call himself a Christian one day and call someone a bimbo the next or make fun of somebody’s menstrual cycle.”

Thomas suggests at the end that this election could become not a choice for the lesser of two evils but a choice “between the least evil of two lesser.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his February 26 column, noted a rise in the last thirty years of people who are against politics, which Brooks says is recognition “of the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions.”  He says it’s the effort to balance or reconcile or compromise those interest, or at least a majority of them” by following rules established “in a constitution or in custom to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.”  He concedes it’s a messy, muddled process in which “disappointment is normal” because people have to settle for less than they want.”

He thinks the Tea Party is the best example of the anti-politics movement that wants to elect people with no political experience. “They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.”  But, he writes, “They don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victory for themselves and their doctrine,” a process that has had “a wretched effect on our democracy.”   And, he argues, the anti-politics movement is sending this nation into “a series of overlapping downward spirals.”

How is it doing that?  First, by electing people with no political skills or experience, he says. “That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.”

Brooks thinks these politically-inexperienced people “don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations.  When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitcs” leading to the election of people who “refuse compromise and so block the legislative process” which, in turn, “destroys public trust (which) makes deal-making harder.”

And along comes Donald Trump, a man Brooks thinks is the culmination of all of these trends: “the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.”  He compares Trump to the “insecure school yard bully.”

Brooks says he printed out a New York Times list of Trump’s Twitter insults.  Thirty-three pages is what it took.  And he cites a study by political scientist Matthew MacWilliams that Trump supporters are likely to score high on tests that measure authoritarianism.

He concludes, “This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide.  The answer to Trump in politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements…”

Those of us who have or have had front row seats to the deterioration of politics in Missouri know precisely what Cal Thomas and David Brooks are writing about.

What it all boils down to is that the sewer politics we—and many of you—complain about is our own fault.  We have done this to ourselves and, quite frankly, we have been urged on in our destructive efforts by people in this columnist’s own medium, radio, who have found rudeness and disrespect profitable.  Analysts in years to come will undoubtedly find today’s era of antipolitics had many causes, but the root cause is that a large part of the general public bought into the idea that the way to solve government problems was to elect people who don’t respect government and the political system that has made it work.

Thomas and Brooks have identified the problem and how we got here.   So what is to be done about it?

Of all the public figures this reporter has watched in his forty-plus years of covering Missouri politics, John Danforth is the one he most respects.   A few months ago Danforth put out a new book.   It is worth reading.   In a future post, we will offer some of his reflections.

But in the meantime it might be good to think about the necessity of repealing term limits.  Missourians approved them but by their own actions on that very day and in every election since Missourians have shown they don’t really believe in them.  And it seems from this lofty view that the Brooks’ overlapping downward spirals accelerated in Missouri from that day.

The Wesboro Amendment

Anger and disgust can provoke competing and counterproductive emotions.

One leaves an observer of events rendered speechless.   The other leaves the observer spewing heated words that tumble over themselves and become so tangled that their value is lost.

So it is with the accounts of last week’s Missouri Senate passage of a proposed constitutional amendment under the guise of protecting religious freedom.  Perhaps through the discipline of writing and editing, thoughts will have some order.

Thank God, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was not discovered in, say, 1953, before Brown v. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Millions of Americans and thousands of Missourians might today still be denied equal access to housing, education, jobs, bathrooms, and drinking fountains if RFRA allowed them to be targeted for exclusion from equality under law by those who claimed to be motivated by a “sincere religious belief.”  Unfortunately, sexual orientation was not a high enough profile issue fifty or sixty years ago when civil rights, public accommodations, and fair housing laws were enacted with protections for various citizen groups that had suffered discrimination for decades, which is why bigotry in the guise of religious freedom is today able to attack a segment of our citizenry that was far less visible in 1964.

Only a few hours after Senate leader Ron Richard threatened reprisals against fellow senators who did not respect the traditions of the Senate, he was one of 21 Republican senators who signed a Previous Question motion that immediately stopped the Democrat’s filibuster against Senate Joint Resolution 39. So much for the Senate tradition of respecting the right of the minority to try to keep the majority from steamrolling legislation opponents think detrimental to the general population. We have observed the Republicans being quite reluctant to move the PQ when a filibuster is led by their own members.

Two, and sometimes three, Republicans voted with the Democrats who wanted the official record of the proceedings to reflect some of the things that happened during that filibuster.  Three Republican Senators, Bob Dixon, Ryan Silvey, and Rob Schaaf, voted with the Democrats against the move to stop the debate.

But Dixon and Silvey voted for the bill.

Schaaf was the only Republican to split with his party and join all of the Democrats who voted “no” on final approval of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Dixon and Silvey supported Democrats’ unsuccessful effort to amend the official record of the filibuster to show that the sponsor of the bill, Bob Onder, had suggested summoning the Highway Patrol to get two absent senators back into the chamber.

Dixon was furious when his fellow Republicans refused to let the amendments to the record be adopted.  The normally soft-spoken Dixon was uncharacteristically loud in his attack: “I am a senator, and I am disgusted at the slope and the speed with which this body is descending. When one member is disrespected, when any member has their rights disregarded in such a dastardly way, every Senator loses.  And not only that, our constituents are disrespected, the people are disrespected!”

But Dixon, who was concerned about disrespect for his constituents and for “the people” generally, voted for the bill.

Silvey also was angry about the rejection of the wording explaining what had happened during the debate.  “To say this did not happen is ridiculous,” he told his colleagues on the senate floor. And he continued, “What happened yesterday at the end of the debate was disturbing at best.  The fact we had members seeking recognition and ignored regardless of party should offend everyone in this room…What this debate is about is the soul of the Senate.”

But Silvey voted for the bill.

Senator Rob Schaaf, who has been part of Republican-led filibusters that were not stopped with PQs was the only one who continued to stand with Democrats.  “The beauty of the Senate design is destroyed…by not following our rules,” he said.  He called his party’s treatment of filibustering Democrats “disrespectful.”

Schaaf would have voted for the bill.

But he did not because he thought his party’s forced shutdown of debate raised “the stink of tyranny.”

This bill—which might be on our ballots later this year, thus presenting voters with the opportunity to further define Missouri’s narrowness or reject it (both, we suspect, in the name of religion)—and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act seem to spring from those who want to enforce the idea that this always-pluralistic country has always been some kind of “Christian nation.”

They want to be the ones who define “Christian.”

And that should strike a chord of fear in all of us.

You know who probably is cheering for our legislature as it works on SJR39?  The folks at the Wesboro Baptist Church in Topeka. This is their kind of religion.  The kind of people who show up at military funerals with signs reading “God Hates Fags,” whose web site says it stands against “the fag lifestyle of soul-damning nation-destroying filth,” love the kind of politics behind this kind of legislation.

So let’s just call this bill “The Wesboro Amendment.”

Interestingly, the Wesboro Baptist Church hasn’t needed RFRA to protect its religious freedoms.  It has the First Amendment, as we all do. Is the Missouri legislature so craven in its desire to appeal to the voting bloc known as “Evangelicals” that it advocates making the theology of the Wesboro Baptist Church part of our state constitution?  The actions last week are an answer to the prayers of the Wesboro faithful.

In Christian worship centers for the hundreds of denominations and non-denominational believers, a faith that advocates love for others is preached.  We wonder how many of those who voted for this bill have opened their hymnals on Sunday mornings and have sung Peter Scholtes hymn:

We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

We will walk with each other; we will walk hand-in-hand, and together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

All praise to the Father from whom all things come and all praise to the spirit who makes us one.

(chorus):  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Or the words from the thirteenth chapter of the New Testament book of Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth that are familiar and often used in marriage ceremonies—of all kinds– perhaps some of the ceremonies involving some of those who voted for the Wesboro Amendment:

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.  If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it, but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing…”

Three things last forever—faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love. 

In a matter of hours last week, the State Senate and its leaders demonstrated that talk of respect for tradition is cynical babbling in the face of partisan narrowness and they demonstrated how religion used for political purposes ignores the basic tenant of the teachings of the its founders.

Some of us, in observing recent events in the Senate, have heard the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals.  And the noise and the clanging played a tune called “riffra” as the Wesboro Amendment moved closer to a ballot in Missouri this year.

The ABT factor

Not that the presidential candidates have noticed very much  , but Missouri’s presidential primary is Tuesday.  Missouri tried to move its primary to an earlier date four years ago so it would be more relevant but the Republican party threatened to take away half of our delegates to the nominating convention if we did so the legislature decided it is best to be irrelevant in the Spring instead of being less relevant in the summer. 

This observer is not the only observer to observe that Republicans are becoming increasingly concerned that Donald Trump will have the nomination locked up before the summer presidential nominating convention.  And Trump loyalists are saying that if he goes to the convention with 1100 or so delegates (he needs 1237) and the “Republican establishment” denies him the nomination, there will be hell to pay, or something like that. 

More sophisticated analysts than those living outside the political cauldron are pointing out who supports him and who doesn’t and what he wins within the voting bloc and what he loses.  But what we have noticed is something more basic. 

Voters seem to favor ANYBODY BUT Donald Trump even in primaries (through last Tuesday) that he has won.  Here’s the “Anybody But” results through Super Tuesday:

Iowa   76% Anybody But Trump

New Hampshire  65

South Carolina  67

Nevada  54

Alabama  57

Alaska  66

Arkansas  67

Georgia  61

Massachusetts  50 (although in the total vote, he lost by about 20,000 out of 631,413 cast)

Minnesota  79

Oklahoma  72

Tennessee  61

Texas  73

Vermont  67

Virginia  65

Kansas  77

Kentucky  64

Louisiana  59

Maine  67

Hawaii  58

Idaho  72

Michigan  64

Mississippi  53

At that point, Trump had 458 delegates.  But “Anybody But” had 564. 

But he hasn’t cracked 40% support in 17 of the 23 states even as the number of competitors has narrowed. The candidate who has yet to get half of the votes cast in any primary has to get about 54% of all of the remaining delegates to be chosen to have enough delegates for a first-ballot nomination. 

Despite what seems to many observers as a steep uphill climb, his supporters believe Trump could go to the convention with a delegate count that deserves nomination.  But if he’s short, merriment will ensue after the first ballot and the convention will have to decide if he can win the presidency with base support of only about one-third of the party faithful.  Some Trumpians, ignoring the two-thirds for “Anybody But,” already are talking tough about what will happen if the mainline party leaders “take away” the nomination from their guy.

Delegate selection for conventions differs from place to place.  Some primaries/caucuses are winner-take-all.  Most are proportional.  As long as there are three other people running, voters will be able to vote for “Anybody But.”  Trump would prefer voters not have three other people giving voters an ABT alternative, of course. But all three of the ABT contenders have given voters in different primaries different people to use to express their ABT sentiments. They’re useful to the process.

Unfortunately, “Anybody But” is unlikely to work on the November ballot.  Watching the rest of the primaries is going to be more fun than usual. Watching the Republican National Convention holds even greater promise for entertainment this year than in many years past.  It also will be interesting to see if disappointed Trumpians will stay at home and sulk on election day (assuming he doesn’t launch a third-party effort) or if the party will be able to convince them that “Anybody But” Hillary Clinton is enough to rally them from their funk .    

One thing we’ve never understood is how opponents in primary campaigns can say the vilest things about one another and then get real palsy-walsy afterwards.  We’ve never understood why the public should consider such behavior the least bit credible. We’ll be among the many who will be watching for the obligatory unity moment after somebody, Trump or ABT, gets the nomination and wondering why yesterday’s leper can become tomorrow’s savior.    

One of the most fun moments in our career as a political reporter was the day we went after some losers in a post-election unity news conference.   We might tell that story some other day.


Your correspondent was awakened far too early this morning with the thought that he had made a grievous error in criticizing the leader of the Missouri Senate in yesterday’s entry for his effort to kick former colleagues in the press corps out of the historic press table on the Senate floor.  

We regret that error.

In these pre-dawn hours, as we type this, we realize there are TEN chairs at the press table, not eight as we said.  That lowers the cost of the move from the $16,000 per chair that we mentioned yesterday to only $12,700 per chair.  

And it follows that we would commend the Senate leaders for delaying the move to avoid overtime costs that would have made the price for each chair $17,100 instead of the $20,000 that we mentioned. 

And in all honesty, our mention of the Pentagon’s $700 toilet seat in the 1980s also was an unfair comparison.  We checked with the Federal Reserve System and the Fed calculates $700 in 1980 is equivalent to $2010.44 today, so the toilet seat-to-press corps chair cost is not as excessive as we portrayed yesterday. 

But our early-morning conscience, which forced the publication of this correction, wonders what kind of new chairs our former colleagues will get for $12,700.  For that price, one might expect a leather upholstered recliner with cupholders, a warming system, and maybe a therapeutic massage feature.   

We apologize to the Senate leadership for our miscalculation



Needed words and $16,000 chairs

(This post is rated “R” because of language)

Senate Leader Ron Richard gave his colleagues a dressing-down last week.  He has had his fill of fellow senators ignoring rules of common courtesy and respect for one another and for the position of Senator.  

It’s about time somebody said what he said.   

The Senate has written rules on decorum. But the UNwritten rules are as important, maybe more important, because they’re the kind of rules of common courtesy and respectful language that our parents tried to drum into us.   Good manners are not laughing matters. 

We’re not going to get into a discussion of rudeness and crudeness in campaigns.  That’s not what Richard was talking about and that’s not what we’re going to talk about here. 

Not long after Jefferson City became the state capital in 1826, a newly-elected member of the House of Representatives went to the Governor’s House—that’s what it was called then at a time when the first government building in Jefferson City housed the legislature and a two-room apartment for the governor—and went to the second floor to present his credentials.  Sorry, he was told, this is the Senate.  You should be downstairs in the House.  The new state rep supposedly observed that he had passed through the House on his way upstairs and thought it was a grog shop, what we today would call a rather raucous bar.  

The Senate likes to maintain the idea that the House is a noisy, unruly joint while the Senate is the place of dignity and cool reflection on potential law.  In recent years, we have observed, too many Senators seem to think the Senate is little more than a smaller House. 

Some former House members have sometimes addressed the Senate’s presiding officer as “Mr. Speaker” two years after becoming Senators, and in debate have sometimes referred to each other as “gentleman,” or “lady,” which are House terms.  Everybody in the Senate is a Senator and the presiding officer is “Mr. President,” or “Madame President.”  Slovenly discipline is such a small thing as this used to not happen.

There are Senate rules about where members can walk, which aisles they can use to get to their seats—and above all, they are not to walk between two debating Senators.  But it has happened all too often, and the reaction has too often been treated as some kind of a joke.

It has been considered extremely rude for one senator to ask another senator on the floor why a vote was cast the way it was.  Not so much anymore.  Senators are free to give their opinions on legislation during debate but they are not accountable to one another for their final votes on a bill.  They should be accountable to their constituents, and ultimately are, although being accountable to donors and influence-peddlers in the halls can’t be overlooked.

And language.  Your chronicler of events remembers the day a Senator slipped and referred to being “pissed off,” and was so embarrassed by his comment that he started to apologize even before the gavel came down to admonish him.  That seems such an innocent time.  A few days before Richard spoke on a point of personal privilege, one senator had referred to an issue as “bullshit.”  Richard told the senate that profanity has no place in the chamber and will not be tolerated hereafter. 

He can’t do anything about “the f-word” aimed at the governor by at least one senator some time ago on Twitter.   So we’ll say it: Senators are senators even when not in the chamber and such language demeans that body.  There are, as Senator Richard indicated, some things that can be said in the privacy of one’s office that should not be said in a public forum because it lowers the esteem of the chamber.  And twitter is about as public a forum as there is today.

And just plain common courtesy.  It has not been uncommon (but not real common, either) for a senator to interrupt debate to speak on a point of personal privilege about an unrelated issue.  It’s another example of the discourtesy that has crept into the chamber in recent years. Richard set an proper example by waiting until debate had been finished on an issue and the vote had been taken before he asked to make his personal remarks. 

So Senator Richard has served notice there will be penalties for people who use bad language, who violate rules of courtesy by asking why someone voted as they did, and who deliver personally-critical comments about a colleague, or use barnyard language.  We listened to his remarks archived by the Secretary of State and didn’t hear him mention walking between debating senators or violating other movement rules, or other courtesies that used to maintain collegiality outside the capitol.  But his desire to regain lost decorum in a chamber where decorum has only become a word in too many ways for too many years is a good thing.  Now we’ll see if he can make it stick. 

Although Richard did not say what the penalties would be for violations there have been, frankly, times when about half of the members of the chamber could have been banished to the visitors’ galleries.   Their violations of decorum have been much worse and far more frequent than anything any reporter at the press table has done.  But Richard has sentenced the press corps to the gallery.    

Probably because he can.   Whether he can inflict any meaningful or equally onerous punishment on his fellow Senators is something we’ll wait to see.   And we’ll be watching our former colleagues in the press corps to hear if Richard’s fellow Senators are capable of shaping up because of his lecture.  


Just as we were about to post these comments, we learned that the Senate leaders had decided to delay punting the press corps off the Senate floor into the visitors’ gallery until after the session.  That leads us to a slight diversion in this conversation but we’ll get back to Senator Richard and his PPP eventually because it ties in to this story, too.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Project on Government Oversight reported during the Reagan administration that the Pentagon had paid $435 for a hammer, $600 for a toilet seat, and $7,000 for a coffee pot.  The story about the delay in kicking the reporters off the Senate floor is the story of eight $16,000 seats.  

The Associated Press reported the delay is a money issue.  The move already was going to cost the senate $127,000 to renovate the gallery and move all of the necessary wiring to the new facilities in part of the gallery that has been reserved for visitors since 1919.  But doing it this month would have cost an extra $44,000, raising the total cost of moving eight reporters from the table to the gallery to more than twenty-thousand dollars per press table seat.   

Twenty-thousand dollars per seat.  The Senate already was going to spend about $16,000 per seat before the overtime issue was raised.  And that, apparently, is enough.   

We’re kind of moving away from the original topic here, but we just can’t help it.  One Senator two years ago got his nose out of joint because he said something to another senator within earshot of the press table and one reporter summarized the conversation in a tweet and another reporter re-tweeted that tweet.  It is useful to question whether the tweeting was proper but if the senate is concerned about such things it has only itself to blame—and this will start to move us back to Richard’s point of personal privilege.

The unwritten rules of the Senate have said for generations that the press table is off-limits to senators and that interviews are not allowed to be done in the chamber while the senate is in session.  But time after time through the years, senators have strolled over to the press table, sat down on the couch behind some of the reporters and have engaged members of the press in conversations while debate continued on the floor, often making on-the-record comments about an issue or responding to questions from those at the press table.  I recall one day when a senator who couldn’t get to his seat because he would have had to go between two debating senators sat at one of the press table chairs—until I reminded him that he wasn’t allowed to sit there.  Members of the senate created that climate.  And now senators are bound and determined to spend at least $127,000 so they won’t be tempted to do what many of them have done so often in the past in violation of the chamber’s rules.  

It might be good to note that the Virginia Senate Majority leader, Tommy Norment, announced in late January that he would allow reporters back on the floor of the Virginia Senate.  They had been banned from the Virginia Senate floor a few weeks earlier.  We don’t know why but Norment seems to have decided his ban was not a good thing.  We don’t know if cost of alternate space was a factor in Virginia but it sure is an issue in Missouri.  

Sixteen-thousand dollars per press table seat. A senate that voted to cut benefits to people without jobs is willing to spend $16,000 on new chairs for eight people.  Think about that.   

Too bad Senator Richard didn’t make his comments two years ago about respecting the unwritten rules as well as the written rules of decorum and courtesy in the chamber.  Maybe the tweeting wouldn’t have happened if a certain conversation was taken off the floor, as Richard said some conversations should be.  He was dead-center right in saying what he said last week that senators should behave more like senators in word and deed.   It’s easy for this scribe to say so now that this scribe is no longer scribing at the senate press table. 

But this scribe is not ever going to think the senate spending $16,000 dollars per seat to move reporters out of eight chairs so senators are not led into the continued temptation to violate the chamber’s own rules is a sensible expenditure of taxpayer money.   After all, that’s $16,000 per seat that could better be left in taxpayers’ pockets because, as the legislature keeps telling us, taxpayers know how to spend their money better than government does.

Oh, well—-the press corps at least still will have a ringside seat through the end of the session to see if Richards’ necessary words turn out to mean anything to members of the senate.  One can only hope.    

It’s easy to overlook Clarence

The state lawyer for poor people accused of crimes has made the annual pilgrimage to the Capitol to go reiterate his plea for the money needed to give poor Missourians anything approaching the defense wealthier people accused of crimes can afford.

This time it was Michael Barrett sacrificing his forehead against the masonry, hoping our elected legislators would increase financing for this part of the criminal justice system by $25 million.  Governor Nixon has recommended a $1.5 million increase in funding but has not proposed adding any more lawyers.  Barrett uses the word “crisis,” a word used by his predecessors year after year.  Although legislators have nodded sympathetically each year as they already are doing this year, the crisis remains.

The idea that poor people had the same rights as wealthier people to be defended is more than 225 years old.  It’s part of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution as a general statement that everybody is entitled to a legal defense in court.   But the idea that poor people deserved equal protection might have its origin in an 1853 Indiana Supreme Court case that held publicly-financed criminal defense was one of the “principles of a civilized society.”   The Indiana Supreme Court opinion said, “It is not to be thought of in a civilized community for a moment that any citizen put in jeopardy of life or liberty should be debarred of counsel because he is too poor to employ such aid.  No court could be expected to respect itself to sit and hear such a trial.  The defense of the poor in such cases is a duty which will at once be conceded as essential to the accused, to the court and to the public.”

That was a recognition by one state.   But it was eleven decades before that principle of a civilized society was recognized as a national right.   This is the man from Missouri who is the face of that right.


This fellow who might easily be dismissed as a person of little consequence if we passed him on the street is Hannibal native Clarence Earl Gideon.  His father died when he was three.  His mother remarried but Clarence lived an aimless and sometimes troubling life that led him to drop out of school after the eighth grade and run away from home to live as a drifter at the age of 14.  He returned about a year later and lived with his mother’s brother until she learned he was back in town and had him jailed. He escaped one day later, broke into a store and stole some clothes. His mother asked a judge to send him to the Boonville Reformatory.  He later recalled, “Of all the prisons I have been in that was the worst. I still have a scar on my body form the whippings I received.”  He was paroled after a year, got a job in a shoe factory, and got married.  But he lost his job and was arrested on several charges not long after that.  A judge appointed a lawyer to represent him but he was sent to prison for ten years for burglary, larceny, and robbery. He was 18. He got out in 1932, after serving three of those years.  He went back to the penitentiary for stealing, larceny and escape and did prison time at Leavenworth for stealing government property and more time in a Texas prison for theft.

Gideon married four women during those troubled years, the last time a woman named Ruth in 1955, when he was 45 years old.  They lived in Texas where he worked from time to time as a tugboat deckhand and as a bartender until tuberculosis put him in bed for three years.  He and Ruth moved to Florida where child welfare authorities eventually took away their six children (three that Ruth brought to the marriage and the three they had together).  Gideon got a low-paying job as an electrician and started gambling to get extra money.

About three weeks before Gideon’s 51st birthday, he was accused of stealing money and beer from a pool room in Panama City.  In the space of two weeks, a judge refused to appoint a lawyer to represent him because Florida law allowed court-appointed lawyers only in capital cases. He was convicted of breaking and entering and was given the maximum sentence, five years.

Gideon, remembering that years earlier a Missouri judge had appointed a lawyer to represent him, began reading law books in prison and decided the Florida judge had violated his Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The Florida Supreme Court refused to do anything.  So he went straight to the United States Supreme Court with a five-page handwritten petition in which he wrote, “It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong to if any. The question is I did not get a fair trial. The question is very simple. I requested the court to appoint me an attorney and the court refused.” The Supreme Court decided to hear his case and assigned future Justice Abe Fortas to represent Gideon.  The state of Florida argued that the issue was a state matter, not a federal one and that upholding Gideon’s position would result in thousands of convictions being thrown out.  Fortas argued that the average person untrained in the law had no hope of winning when arguing against a trained attorney.

The court’s opinion issued fifty-three years ago this month ordering a new trial for Gideon was unanimous. One line in the opinion bluntly stated, “Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”

While Gideon was preparing for his second trial, two-thousand Florida prisoners were released.

His attorney, W. Fred Turner, destroyed the prosecution’s case in the second trial and the jury acquitted Gideon after only one hour of deliberation.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy observed, “If an obscure Florida convict named Clarence Earl Gideon had not sat down in prison with a pencil and paper to write a letter to the Supreme Court; and if the Supreme Court had not taken the trouble to look at the merits in that one crude petition among all the bundles of mail it must receive every day, the vast machinery of American law would have gone on functioning undisturbed. But Gideon did write that letter; the court did look into his case; he was re-tried with the help of competent defense counsel; found not guilty and released from prison after two years of punishment for a crime he did not commit. And the whole course of legal history has been changed.”

Gideon married a fifth time and died of cancer in Fort Lauderdale early in 1972, still a pauper.  His family returned his body to Hannibal and buried him in a grave that remained unmarked until the American Civil Liberties union placed a stone in 1984.  The stone contains a quote from Justice Fortas, “Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”

A little more than one-hundred miles from Clarence Earl Gideon’s grave, almost half a century after his death and more than a half-century after the U. S. Supreme Court said poor people have the right to adequate representation in the criminal cases, Michael Barrett is pleading for the state to give his office the resources it needs to let today’s Clarence Gideons have that right.  And in a year when millions of dollars will be spent to influence public policy or to influence those who write public policy, the office that symbolizes a basic right all of us have is begging for nickels and dimes from a legislature that year in, year out, gives it a few pennies and nods sympathetically