John Danforth, Churchman For a State Occasion

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004

Former senator John Danforth telephoned a constituent and his son answered. A former aide recounts the conversation that followed: "Dad, it's God on the phone," he yelled, testimony not to any overbearing piety but to the sonorous voice that makes Danforth ideal for a day of solemn, semi-religious pageantry.

Perhaps Nancy Reagan had this voice in mind 10 years ago when she asked Danforth to officiate at her husband's funeral, to be held at Washington National Cathedral today. True to her meticulous character, she has been planning the details with Danforth by phone ever since, down to the last anthem ("Battle Hymn of the Republic," Reagan's favorite).

Danforth, 67, is an obvious choice for such an outsize occasion. As an ordained Episcopal priest and a three-term senator, Danforth has evolved into homilist to the mighty, shepherding Washington society over to the other side. He has officiated at funerals for former senators John Heinz and John Chafee, former secretary of commerce Malcolm Baldrige and, more recently, Katharine Graham.

Danforth has stepped into this role partly because he's a clergyman but also because he's not too overtly religious. In the late '80s, an era when the religious right was blooming, Danforth took great pains to keep his day job separate. One of his chief aides, Susan Schwab, recalls him mentioning faith only once on the Senate floor, during a debate over a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer. He was against it.

"He's not a holier-than-thou type," Schwab says. "He's always been called upon to do this sophisticated juxtaposition of faith and politics." She recalls once picking him up on Easter morning at St. Alban's Episcopal Church, where he was a volunteer rector, and waiting for him to take off his robes so he could get to the Sunday talk shows.

If he sticks to his usual form today, Danforth, who declined to be interviewed for this article, will mention God once or twice near the end of his homily. But he can be counted on not to cause a stir by freelancing an impolitic mention of Jesus, as Franklin Graham did at George W. Bush's inauguration. He will likely perfectly embody Washington National Cathedral's other role, not as an Episcopal chapel but as the closest thing we have to a national church, a place where faith is present but muted, as on the dollar bill or in the Pledge of Allegiance.

"Jack will deliver a little homily," says Alex Netchvolodoff, his former chief of staff and close friend. "It's not deep theology. He knows that funerals are for the living; they are gatherings of people to celebrate a life, that they should be upbeat, full of hope."

Official Washington likes its religion beige, interfaith, tastefully alluded to rather than shouted from a mountaintop. Danforth will oblige: "He won't step on any toes," says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "People who don't have any religious sensibilities will feel comfortable with him."

Reagan had a long history with Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority. But Falwell would be too polarizing for such an occasion. Reagan's other favorite minister, the Rev. Donn Moomaw at Bel Air Presbyterian, who read the prayers at both of Reagan's inaugurations, resigned in a sex scandal in 1993.

Danforth and Reagan knew each other while they were both in office (Danforth left the Senate in 1995), but they were not particularly close. Netchvolodoff recalls one successful visit: Danforth and Reagan talked about riding horses, about their ranches. Danforth showed the president photos from a recent trip to starving pockets of Mozambique and Somalia.

"What can we do?" Netchvolodoff recalls Reagan asking, and soon a $250 million supplemental aid bill was approved.

Reagan was baptized in the Disciples of Christ, his mother's denomination, but he and Danforth shared the same style of faith. Reagan called himself born again, but like Danforth, he predated the confessional style of faith common to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Reagan rarely mentioned his alcoholic father, for instance. Culturally, though, the two represent opposite strains in the church-state divide. Reagan lived his religion onstage, in broad strokes rather than details. He spoke of the national interest in terms of good or evil but seldom went to church. In his autobiography, he spends more time discussing ghosts in the White House than his baptism. His wife preferred spiritual guides who lived by the zodiac.

Danforth, by contrast, was all about private ritual. He never went to Senate prayer meetings. In his 12 years in the Senate he served as associate rector at St. Alban's parish. Occasionally he preached but mostly he administered communion to shut-ins. Frank Wade, rector at St. Alban's, recalls an older parishioner Danforth visited nearly every week who never realized he was a senator.

"He was not sanctimonious," says Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). "If you didn't know he was an ordained minister, you wouldn't know. He never went on and on about it."

As the Senate's only ordained minister, Danforth was a great disappointment to the religious right. He voted against abortion rights but shied away from a leadership role in the movement. He was against school prayer, against the death penalty. "He was an extremely aggressive advocate of the separation of church and state," recalls Netchvolodoff.

The left loved him for shepherding the 1991 Civil Rights Act. If he had one passion, it was "the Finance Committee," recalls Netchvolodoff, and he loved working with Democrats. John Kerry once said he wished President Bush had picked Danforth instead of John Ashcroft as attorney general. (Ashcroft, son of a charismatic minister, succeeded Danforth in his Senate seat.)

One anomaly in his career was Danforth's zealous defense of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had been his protege. The lasting image from that sordid era, described in Danforth's book about Thomas's nomination hearings, "Resurrection," is of Danforth, Thomas and their wives in his Senate bathroom, kneeling together in prayer, listening to a tape of "Onward Christian Soldiers."

His friends say Danforth was just being pastoral, loyal to a friend. In the book Danforth says he's "ashamed" at how far he went to discredit Anita Hill, the former assistant to Thomas who spoke out against him during the hearings.

Danforth is an heir to the Ralston Purina fortune. After Princeton, he went on to Yale, earning a law and a seminary degree on the same day in 1963. Danforth said he did not have the character of a priest but the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of St. Louis pushed him: "I'm your bishop, and I'm asking you to do this," friends recall. He offered Danforth an experimental role -- "priest in the world" -- and Danforth obliged.

Colleagues who knew him as Missouri attorney general and in the Senate, both Democratic and Republican, talk about Danforth like a brand name. Integrity, honesty, trust are some of the common descriptors, "a beautiful human being," says Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). While in the Senate, he never lobbied for a leadership position. After he left and joined a law firm, he never lobbied at all, on principle. When George W. Bush asked if he'd like to be vice president, Danforth said: "Look, I mean, I hope you don't pick me, but if you do pick me, I'll do it," he told Roll Call at the time.

After leaving the Senate, Danforth developed a specialty as a freelance healer, tapped by presidents to cure bloody rifts around the world. President Clinton chose him to investigate the Waco affair, Bush picked him as special envoy to Sudan, Arthur Andersen hired him during the Enron scandal to review the firm's records. Earlier this month, Bush appointed Danforth as ambassador to the United Nations.

As a sideline, Danforth officiates at funerals and occasional weddings. Teresa Heinz Kerry says the family chose Danforth when her first husband died in a helicopter crash in 1991 because he and Heinz were friends. "They fished together in the great streams of Pennsylvania," she says, and their "work, play and ethics were similar."

In a small family service at the Heinz Memorial chapel in Pittsburgh, Danforth struck a pious tone, emphasizing at the outset that this was "more than a memorial service. It is a worship service," with "God at the center." Back in Washington, at the National Cathedral, his homily put Heinz at the center, the man and the senator. He mentioned God once, at the end: "What is promised by God in Christ cannot be taken away by a helicopter in southeastern Pennsylvania."

At Reagan's funeral today, the prevailing mood will likely be the one for which Danforth is famous, the one that has dominated coverage of Reagan's death, "the sense that everything is going to be all right," says Stephen Hourahan, spokesman for Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who organized the funeral for his father, John.

The sense that Reagan is dead, but it's still morning in America.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company