For Missouri politicians gone bad, redemption over pizza

Excellent piece by Kevin McDermott for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Smith and JettonST. LOUIS • Former political adversaries Jeff Smith and Rod Jetton sat at a long table at Pi Pizzeria on Delmar next to a stack of crisp softcover books, scrawling their signatures and chatting with a couple dozen patrons lined up around them.

On the menu was complimentary deep-dish pizza, soft drinks and humility.

“Hopefully, people can learn from the mistakes I made,” said Smith, whose preprison political talents were once compared to those of Barack Obama. “Really smart people learn from other people’s mistakes.”

Next to him, Jetton — in that retro-political fashion statement, the seersucker suit — explained how his own politics have changed as a result of his downfall. “I’m not near as judgmental,” said the one-time most powerful conservative in the Missouri House. “You make as many mistakes as I have, it’s hard to be judgmental, right?”

In this age of felonious governors, groping mayors and “sexting” congressmen, Smith and Jetton may not particularly stand out. But their crimes (respectively: lying to the feds about campaign shenanigans, and letting a consensual sexual encounter turn violent) are enough to qualify them as part of a growing modern phenomenon: fallen pols on redemption tours.

Smith, a Democrat and former Missouri state senator, and Jetton, a Republican and former Missouri House speaker, each wrote a chapter in the new book, “The Recovering Politician’s Twelve Step Program to Survive Crisis.”

Click here to order

Click here to order

Smith served almost a year in prison after lying to federal investigators about an anonymous smear campaign in his unsuccessful 2004 run for Congress against Russ Carnahan. Smith, now an assistant professor at the New School for Public Engagement in New York, penned a chapter in the book aptly titled, “Tell the Truth: Don’t Even Go Near the Line.”

Smith’s lie collapsed when his “former best friend” wore a wire at the behest of investigators. In the book, Smith recounts telling his parents he might go to prison.

“My mom’s lips quivered. ‘I knew it from the start. Knew you’d get mixed up in something like this. I tried to tell you what politics was like.’

“My dad … asked, ‘How do they even know you lied? What proof could they have?’

“‘Steve’s been wearing a wire for the last couple months.’

“‘That (expletive),’ said my dad.”

Jetton was charged with felony assault stemming from a 2009 consensual sexual encounter during which, the woman claimed, he choked her to the point of unconsciousness. Among the widely reported details in the complaint is that the two had agreed on a “safe word” of “green balloons.”

Jetton ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to probation. He now operates the Missouri Political Bug, a political analysis service in Jefferson City. His chapter in the book is titled: “Own Your Mistakes, Take Responsibility and Sincerely Say, ‘I’m Sorry.’”

“God finally had enough of my hypocritical ways and got my attention,” wrote Jetton. “After spending the night with a lady I had reconnected with on Facebook, I was charged with a felony assault.”

That was followed by news that a grand jury was investigating his handling of a bill from 2005. “Needless to say, I started 2010 with no job, very few friends and lots of time on my hands.”

At their joint book-signing event Wednesday, Smith and Jetton took turns reading from their chapters. Both pondered how they went from sincere true believers to scandal and court.

Smith admitted his thought process as he lied to the authorities was “Clintonesque” — a telling modern term for parsing words to avoid telling the truth. Jetton admitted being seduced by the pomp and privilege of politics.

“Most politicians get into it because they want to help people. … But you can get pretty addicted to the flattery and the dinners and being the man and the power of making decisions,” said Jetton. “That is a very heady thing. The dinners and power become why you’re there.”

And both pontificated on the latest national examples of Pols Gone Bad. There are plenty to choose from.

They include former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat, whose habitual “sexting” has all but collapsed his New York City mayoral bid; former Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, aka “Client 9” at a high-priced prostitution service, now running for New York City comptroller; and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, who used state funds to conduct an extramarital affair.

All three have attempted to get back into politics after their downfalls. Sanford has succeeded, getting elected to a South Carolina congressional seat. It’s an impulse Smith questions, and blames in part on the granddaddy of all modern scandal survivors, former President Bill Clinton.

“Bill Clinton surviving (the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal) showed people that, ‘Hey, the first lesson of surviving scandals is, don’t quit.’ Maybe that wasn’t the best lesson for politicians to take away from it,” Smith said.

He said that may explain why “the Mark Sanfords and Anthony Weiners of the world” jump right back into politics, instead of taking some time to reflect on what they did. “True redemption requires you to hit the pause button.”

Smith says he doesn’t see a lot of that kind of thinking in today’s scandals. He said he attended a Weiner event in New York, after Weiner’s exit from Congress, and marveled at the lack of humility he saw. “He was totally obnoxious. He was the exact same brash, arrogant guy who went in.”

He also watched ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s defiant last news conference before Blagojevich was sent to prison for corruption, and thought, “‘Dude, you don’t get it.’ … Man, that guy needs an intervention.”

Smith said he isn’t in any danger himself of relapsing into politics. “The day that I decide to go down to the courthouse to file for another office, my wife will be right behind me to file for divorce,” he said.

Though Jetton served no prison time, he was arrested and booked, and had to fight charges. It made an impression on the one-time tough-on-crime conservative.

“There was hardly a bill in the Legislature that was tough on crime that I didn’t vote for. … Now, I have grave, grave doubts (about the legal system). You have no rights.”

He added: “I feel like I’m not as conservative as I was. … I have a stronger faith in God and what he’s done for me. Jesus wasn’t judgmental. I guess you could argue Jesus was a little more liberal. I’ve just decided maybe I don’t know it all.”

The crowd at the book signing included old friends and colleagues and politicians. Among them was state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. She said she was there to support Jetton, who despite their partisan and ideological differences impressed her when he was House speaker.

“He truly understood the importance of working with inner-city legislators,” she said. (Though that didn’t stop her from loudly making a joke to Jetton about “green balloons.”)

“At the end of the day, we have to forgive, and we have to allow people to redeem themselves,” Nasheed said, through a mouthful of pizza. “People fall from grace — politicians and nonpoliticians.”

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