“I looked down and I remember vividly saying to myself, ‘I’d like to do that someday,’” Danforth said. “And I also remember word for word what my father said as we were leaving the Senate gallery. He said, ‘What a bunch of blowhards.’”
At 81, Danforth, the elder statesman of a bygone era of national politics, now finds himself embracing both of those sentiments. It was “both an honor and a joy” to serve in the Senate, he said, but now lawmakers spend their time demonstrating ideological purity and fending off election challengers instead of legislating.
“I loved it when I did it — really loved it,” he said. “But I’d hate it now.”
Things were different when Danforth began his political career. He was elected as Missouri’s attorney general in 1968, making him Missouri’s only statewide Republican elected official. At the time, he said, Democrats had dominated state politics for so long that the party had become “moribund,” and Republicans came to office as reformers.
“I think we injected some enthusiasm into state politics that had been lacking,” he said.
Danforth remained the state’s top lawyer until the 1976 election propelled him to the U.S. Senate. He served three six-year terms and probably could have won another election, he said, but he didn’t want politics to consume his entire life.
“I just wanted to come home,” he said.
Danforth, who had worked as a tax lawyer at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York early in his career, returned to the practice of law — first with Bryan Cave in St. Louis and then, in 2015, with Dowd Bennett.
Of course, he was hardly done with politics. In 1999, he led a Justice Department investigation into the disastrous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. And in 2004 he briefly served as ambassador to the United Nations.
But Danforth is perhaps best known these days for his denunciations of modern politics, even within his own party. As an ordained Episcopal priest, he delivered a searing eulogy for Tom Schweich, an aide to the Waco investigation who killed himself in 2015 while running as a Republican for Missouri governor. Danforth, citing rumors that had circulated within Republican circles about Schweich, told mourners that his suicide was “the natural consequence of what politics has become.”
Last year, Danforth wrote in The Washington Post that President Donald Trump was “the most divisive president in our history.” His tone hasn’t softened in the intervening year.
“Personally, I have nothing in common with Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t consider him a Republican.”
But Danforth has seen political transformations before. He’d like to see them again.
“Most people in the public are not on the fringes. They’re somewhere in the center,” he said.
“But the center has been destroyed in American politics. Reconstituting it isn’t going to be done by the insiders. It’s going to be done by just people who engage themselves in politics and are uncomfortable with the two poles.”