The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Schweich and words that kill

In this Jan. 28, 2015 file photo, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich announces his candidacy for governor in St. Louis. Schweich died Feb. 26, 2015, of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot, police say. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

“At least nobody died,” we often hear in politics to explain away some regrettable act. As in:

So, yeah, maybe President Obama wasn’t telling the complete truth about keeping your doctor, but at least nobody died.

Or: Oh, sure, we said mean things about her, but she can take it. Words aren’t lethal.

With the suicide last week of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, we should lay such thoughts to rest. Words do wound and, in this tragic case, they apparently kill.

Schweich, a Republican who had just begun his gubernatorial race, already had come under some ugly fire from an unaffiliated political action committee that mystifyingly calls itself “Citizens for Fairness.” In the group’s poorly written, nasty radio ad, the narrator mimics the Frank Underwood character from “House of Cards” and directs his commentary at Schweich’s appearance. The ad says in part:

“Tom Schweich, like him? No. Is he a weak candidate for governor? Absolutely, just look at him. He can be easily confused for the deputy sheriff of Mayberry. … Once Schweich obtains the Republican nomination, we will quickly squash him like the little bug that he is and put our candidate, Chris Koster, in the governor’s mansion.”


Schweich, who has been widely commended by colleagues for his flawless work as state auditor and as a devout Christian who actually acted like one, also felt he was the victim of a “whisper campaign” that he was Jewish.

How disturbing that in 21st-century America somebody thinks that voters can be won over with anti-Semitic bias. In fact, Schweich had Jewish ancestry from his grandfather, but he was an Episcopalian — as absurd as it feels to have to make such a distinction. That religion should be used as a reason to vote against a qualified person in this country is nauseating. The same can be said about race, gender or any other prejudice born of whatever darkness clouds people’s thinking in an allegedly enlightened age.

Schweich had wanted to make public his conviction that the whisper campaign was started by state GOP Chairman John Hancock. The problem was that Schweich had no real evidence. Although Hancock has indicated that he may have mentioned that Schweich was Jewish as part of his biography, he didn’t intend it as a slight.

No one, including Schweich’s close friend and mentor, former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, who is now an Episcopal priest, felt Schweich should expose his suspicions. Schweich, however, was determined and had called a reporter to set up an interview at his home just before he put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger with his wife nearby, according to reports.

The timeline is fraught with mystery. At 9:16 a.m., Schweich called an Associated Press reporter to come by at 2:30 p.m. At 9:35, the reporter called back to confirm. At 9:48, police received an emergency call from Schweich’s house.

What happened in those 13 minutes? What caused Schweich, a Yale and Harvard Law graduate, to kill himself in that moment? Was it political bullying? Was there something else we may never know about? Another phone call? A threat?

In his eulogy for Schweich at Tuesday’s funeral, Danforth zeroed in on the lousy state of our politics.

“We often hear that words can’t hurt you. But that’s simply not true,” he said. “In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said just the opposite. Words for Jesus could be the moral equivalent of murder.”

No doubt a “Law & Order” episode is already being written along these lines.

The truth is we don’t know what caused Schweich to take his life. Some people can handle more criticism than others. Women in the public eye may be toughest of all, given the intensity and content of criticism they’ve been subjected to. If I could fill a book with my collection of insults over the past 27 years as a columnist, Hillary Clinton could fill a library.

Politics have always been a blood sport, a fact that some find worthy of boasting. But as we consider that America has lost a good man who was aspirational in his politics and inspirational in his private life, we face a question with an implicitly foreboding answer: Why would any decent person want to run for public office?