Eric Greitens received a PhD from Oxford, founded a nationally-renowned nonprofit, and survived combat as a Navy SEAL. Whether he can survive Missouri politics remains to be seen.
“Unbelievable. It’s just unbelievable.” The word “unbelievable” keeps coming up. This time I hear it from Brett Dinkins, an earnest young Missouri native. Brett is the field director for Eric Greitens, a Jewish veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who is running for governor of Missouri. We are sitting in Brett’s car talking about his boss.
Rain lashes the windshield and Brett keeps looking at his phone to check the GPS. I keep thinking of questions to ask. This is partly because I am writing a story about Greitens, but it is also because pretty much everything Brett tells me — about his background, about Missouri politics, about the 300-person town he grew up in — is new. Paradoxically, the banality of Middle America has made it exotic. I grew up in San Francisco. I am used to crazy and different and foreign. But I feel completely out of place in Missouri.
When I met with Greitens earlier in the day, I asked him about his connection to Missouri. He was born and raised in St. Louis—of course he has the same connection we all do to our home state. But I wanted to know more. What was it about Missouri that made him want to serve it as governor? What does Missouri mean to him?
He told me that he loves Missouri, and it hurts him to see the way the state is suffering. He presented some statistics: Missouri ranks 42nd in wage growth, 47th in economic growth, 50th—last—in getting people off welfare….
I clarified the question: “What is it about Missouri that you love?”
“I love the people of Missouri,” he told me. “And not just because this is my home state but because this is a great state….We have incredible people in Missouri.”
This didn’t particularly help me better understand Missouri. It also didn’t particularly help me better understand Greitens. The man’s life story is incredible, to be sure. He has done humanitarian work in Bosnia and Rwanda with survivors of genocide, in Bolivia with street children, and in Mother Teresa’s hospices in India. He was a Navy SEAL. He was a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and received a Ph.D. from Oxford. He was a White House Fellow. He founded The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that empowers veterans by providing them opportunities to do volunteer work in their communities. He is a national boxing champion. And now he is running in the Republican primary for governor of Missouri.
I knew this all before meeting with Greitens. He seemed pretty perfect. But there had to be something wrong with him, some flaw, no matter how minor, right? I thought that in person he might reveal it. But when I did get a chance to speak with him, he was just as impressive as he was on paper. He was calm, confident without being arrogant, and meticulously prepared. His spokesman was present at our interview, but Greitens clearly did not need him. Midway through the interview, the spokesman was checking emails on his phone. Greitens had it covered. He knew that I’m double majoring in Classics and Slavic Languages and Literatures, and he knew that the title of that second major was “Slavic Languages and Literatures,” plural, not the singular “Slavic Languages and Literature” and certainly not “Slavic Studies” or “Slavic… something, right?” He was not close, he was exact.
We bonded over our shared love of Classics. He is a strong believer in the relevance of The Odyssey to modern-life. He views the story as, essentially, a metaphor for how a soldier copes with life after the war is over. He has recommended that veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who believe that they are now no longer doing anything meaningful or important, should read it. He even recommends a particular translation (the Fagles one).
His most recent book, Resilience, consists of a series of letters he wrote back-and-forth with a veteran who had PTSD. In his letters, Greitens tries to impart some of the greatest wisdom of the ancient world to his friend in order to teach him how to be resilient, to bounce back from the difficulties and pain he has faced. Resilience name-drops everyone from Aeschylus, Homer, and Epictetus to John Bunyan, Machiavelli, and John Stuart Mill. It quotes Zen proverbs and the Talmud. Clearly, Greitens is incredibly well-read. But although he is quite the intellectual, numerous friends described him to me as being incredibly down-to-earth. “He can talk to a plumber in a town of 300 people” as easily as he can discuss classical philosophy, one told me.
Greitens and his wife Sheena have a 19-month-old son named Joshua and another child on the way. Sheena wasn’t doing interviews at the time I wrote this article, but I ran into her at his campaign headquarters and she welcomed me warmly. They make an attractive couple. Sheena is petite, with auburn hair worn long and straight. Greitens is fit (his mornings start out with an intense 75-minute workout) and about half a head taller than his wife, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, striking blue eyes, and straight, white teeth. He smiles often.
At the end of the interview, Greitens wanted to make sure I received copies of his four books. He signed each of them: “For Miriam, who lives with Courage!” “For Miriam, who lives with Strength + Compassion!” “For Miriam, who embraces Resilience!”
I asked him what his greatest personal struggle had been. Greitens has helped fellow veterans through PTSD and has seen his friends killed in combat. But his greatest personal struggle, he says, was the sleep deficit he racked up caring for his newborn son. His son provides him with “tremendous joy,” but there were a lot of sleepless nights.
How much of this is an act? Can Eric Greitens really be as great as he seems?
I pose this question to Brett in the car. “It’s unbelievable,” he says. “People are inclined to think he’s an impostor. But it’s all real. That’s just how he lives his life. It’s not a front or anything.”
Brett has graciously agreed to drive me to a Lincoln Day banquet in Franklin County, about an hour west of St. Louis, where Greitens will be speaking. A Who’s Who of Franklin County Republicans—activists, fundraisers, and donors—will be in attendance. In addition to Greitens, several other people running for public office will be speaking: his three competitors for the Republican nomination for governor, the Franklin County Republican Central Committee chair, the sheriff, a Missouri GOP National Committee member, and a pastor. There is a silent auction and two raffles. The prizes in both raffles are guns.
In the California where I live, my outfit passes as pretty nice: jeans, blouse, boots. But everyone else at the Lincoln Day event is dressed in business wear. They are also probably old enough to receive Social Security benefits, and rich enough not to need them. I am 23. When I tell people I am a journalist working for a “DC-based magazine,” I do not receive a warm reception.
I am asked, “How did you find yourself stuck in Franklin County?”
“I have no idea,” I say.
There are animal heads mounted on the walls. The master of ceremonies keeps complaining about transgender people using the bathrooms of their preferred gender, which he calls a “subversion of our traditional values” that are “being eroded by the Democrats in Jefferson City,” the state capital. I glance around the room and count two non-white people. Catherine Hanaway, Greitens’ main competitor for the gubernatorial nomination, describes how she instituted a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for abortions, to raucous applause. Before we eat dinner, a Missouri GOP National Committee member leads us in prayer. Almost everyone bows their head and closes their eyes as she thanks “Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior” for the meal.
There is a palpable desperation here to preserve the status quo, or at least prevent the country from sliding further into what they see as decadence and decay. There is no hopeful vision for the future. The message is that you should vote for the Republican nominee for president not because you like the nominee or even the Republican platform, but because Obama was so awful and we cannot afford Hillary or, God forbid, a socialist. “Whoever we nominate is going to be a better president than Barack Obama,” we are told, and we understand this as a quiet exhortation to vote for Donald Trump even if we dislike him, lest we get another Obama. You will not be voting for someone, but rather against the Democrats.
Eric Greitens is not establishment. He has never held any kind of political office, and, seizing on the same anti-establishment current that has made Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders the darling of so many frustrated and fed-up voters, has branded himself a “conservative outsider.” I asked him about this anti-establishment zeitgeist that seems to be sweeping America. That feeling exists in Missouri as well, he said. Missourians “recognize that government is broken…at every level, not just in Washington, D.C., but here in Jefferson City.”
According to Greitens, people are frustrated:
They think that they’ve got a group of career politicians in Jefferson City who because of their cowardice and self-interest keep shrinking from facing the hard problems all around us. And what people are looking for, the reason I think there’s so much of a desire for outsiders, is that people want real leaders who can get real results….And I think that’s one of the reasons why people are so excited about this campaign, that that’s what we’re doing, we’re coming in as proven leaders to engage in service to really help to turn this state around and to build a Missouri that we can all be proud to pass on to our kids.”
Greitens has shown himself to be a leader through his work as a Navy SEAL officer and as CEO of The Mission Continues. In his book, The Heart and the Fist, he tells of one time his leadership skills were really tested. He was on tour in Thailand as commander of a Naval Special Warfare squadron, when he got information that some of the men under his command had been using illegal drugs. He ended up requiring all his men to undergo urinalysis tests; ultimately, some were kicked out of the Navy, and one went to jail. Greitens had worked with these men for over a year. He writes about how he knew their families, how he had traded jokes with them and helped them plan their careers and educations. But it had to be done. “Whether or not it was hard was not relevant,” he wrote. “It was necessary. No matter how many people we might upset, no matter how many supposed friends we might lose, our duty was to protect our men, the men who were doing the right thing.”
After the prayer concludes, the other Lincoln Day attendees and I line up for food.
A number of the candidates are standing at the front of the line like animals about to pounce on their prey. I shake hands with the Republican candidate for State Auditor, smiling politely and thinking about how we are both wasting each other’s time. I already seem out of place. If people knew I was not a Missouri voter, I am certain no one would speak with me. But they do not know, and so Catherine Hanaway, who is standing there at the front of the buffet line, introduces herself to me and asks me what I do.
I tell her I am a journalist, and I’m here covering the governor’s race.
“Do you have any particular angle?” she asks.
“Well, I’m actually writing a profile of Eric,” I reply.
Her mood immediately changes. She no longer fakes kindness, but turns aggressive, like a mother bear who feels threatened.
“Why would you just cover one candidate?” she says, icily.
I explain that my editors were particularly interested in Greitens’ story. Sensing she is not likely to change their minds, she tries a different tack.
“Are you going to put the thing about this donor in your piece?”
“The thing about this donor” refers to Michael Goguen, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who is currently the defendant in a civil suit alleging that he raped a woman multiple times over the course of their 13-year relationship, which she described as being a “sexual slave.” Goguen has filed a countersuit alleging that the claims are false and that the woman is extorting him. Goguen donated $1 million to Greitens’ campaign.
Hanaway wants Greitens to give the money back – a super PAC supporting John Kasich donated Goguen’s $250,000 of contributions to anti-human trafficking charities. Hanaway says that Greitens’ refusal to do so shows that he lacks ethics. Greitens’s campaign, on the other hand, maintains that the case is not settled and that Greitens does not want to presume guilt. I suspect that—on both sides—this is less about ethical values and more about the money. Quite simply, Hanaway doesn’t want Greitens to have it. Greitens wants to have it. His refusal to return money donated by someone who may or may not be guilty of a crime, he seems to believe, does not reflect on his ability to govern a state.
I discuss the scenario with Brett in the car on the way back to St. Louis. He thinks the Hanaway campaign is grasping at straws in an effort to take Greitens down. The Republican field for governor is crowded, but Greitens and Hanaway have emerged as the two frontrunners. There aren’t any poll results yet, but everyone talks about Hanaway as a solid pick, and Greitens is eminently qualified. Several people at the Lincoln Day event tell me they have narrowed their decision down to the two candidates. Hanaway and Greitens are the most articulate of the four who speak, and receive the most applause. Brett says Greitens lacks name recognition, but doesn’t seem particularly worried about it: Greitens will gain name recognition as campaigning ramps up in advance of the primary elections in August. And the Hanaway camp’s focus on attacking Greitens indicates that they see him as their main threat.
The last person the Hanaway camp saw as their main threat was Tom Schweich, and he is now dead. Schweich was the State Auditor until he committed suicide a little over a year ago. He was running in the same primary race as Hanaway, and some have pointed to the brutal tactics used by Hanaway’s campaign as, at least in part, responsible for Schweich’s death. About a week before the tragic incident, a mysterious PAC with ties to Hanaway called Citizens for Fairness ran a nasty radio ad poking fun at Schweich’s physical appearance, calling him a “little bug” whose political opponents would “squash” him. The ad was paid for by a Hanaway consultant named Jeff Roe. They both maintain that Hanaway didn’t know about the ad until after it aired. Roe is now Ted Cruz’s campaign manager.
But there was a long lead-up to the ad, during which Schweich was subjected to anti-Semitism. Minutes before his death, Schweich called the Associated Press to tell them that a political consultant named John Hancock, whose firm had done work for Hanaway’s campaign, was spreading rumors among donors and the political elite that Schweich was Jewish—even though he was actually Episcopalian. The accusation was later supported by a signed affidavit from a leading Missouri Republican donor. Hanaway has denied any involvement in the smear campaign. Hancock admitted that in a statement that “It is possible that I mentioned what I believed to be Tom Schweich’s religion, but if I did so, it certainly was not in a derogatory manner.” Hancock is now the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.
If seeing friends killed in combat did not drive Eric Greitens over the edge, false rumors probably won’t. But what happened to Tom Schweich demonstrates that anti-Semitism is a powerful force in the state. This could hurt Greitens’ campaign.
“I’m sure there are people,” Brett tells me, “who are still trying to say that about Eric behind his back just like they did against Tom, ‘You know he’s Jewish, right, you know he’s this?’” Brett thinks Greitens’ Judaism could hurt him in his pursuit of the nomination.
Other candidates have played on this. In January, Hanaway ran a radio ad highlighting her Christian faith. John Brunner, also running against Greitens, followed suit. Then another competitor, Peter Kinder, did so. Greitens cannot run an ad expressing his Christian faith, and if he ran one expressing his Jewish faith, it might have a negative impact on his campaign.
It is not the “New Anti-Semitism” that hurt Tom Schweich and it is not the “New Anti-Semitism” that could hurt Eric Greitens. We are not talking about the kind of anti-Semitism currently in vogue on college campuses and certain strains of the political Left that disguises its hatred of Jews behind hatred of the Jewish state. After all, more than 85 percent of Missouri Republicans say they support Israel. But in pockets of Missouri, good old-fashioned anti-Semitism still exists, the kind that says Jews can’t fully be trusted.
“If you ask every Missouri Republican whether they were pro-Israel, they would all say yes,” Brett says. “But if you asked them if they were okay voting for a Jewish guy, like for governor, I don’t know. I don’t know what the results would be. But it probably wouldn’t be 100 percent saying yes like it would be 100 percent saying yes to Israel.”
Greitens is aware of this, though he seems reluctant to admit it. “I have not experienced anti-Semitism,” he told me in our interview. “When I talk with…my evangelical friends all over the state, I tell them about my love for Israel. [This makes them] very excited about my candidacy.” He went on to tell me how these evangelical friends have embraced him and his faith:
They appreciate that we are all defenders of Israel together. They also, I think, appreciate my commitment to taking my faith and turning it to action, whether that’s service in the SEAL team, service at The Mission Continues, or service in humanitarian work.
But what of people in Missouri who are not evangelical, or are not his friends? He did not bring up these people’s attitudes toward Jews. “While Tom Schweich believed he was the victim of an anti-Semitic whispering campaign, I would say from my perspective I have not experienced this, and Missouri has been not just welcoming to me, but effusively embraced me,” he said.
Nevertheless, Greitens seems rather reluctant to publicize his Judaism. “Judaism is very important to me,” he says. I believe him, but he is not exactly shouting it from the rooftops.
“It’s not like Eric hides his Judaism,” Brett says one too many times for me to quite believe him. But I don’t fault Greitens. He’s playing the game. In Brett’s words, “It’s really really unfortunate.”
Greitens’ speech at Lincoln Day does not mention his Judaism. But it is also very different from Hanaway’s speech. Rather than focus on social issues—shutting down Planned Parenthood, forcing transgender people to use certain bathrooms—he talks about his history and how it qualifies him to lead Missouri.
“Our law enforcement officers deserve to have a leader who knows what it means to put on body armor and wear a sidearm,” he says, referring to what he sees as Democratic Governor Jay Nixon’s failure to adequately support law enforcement during the violent protests in Ferguson. “They deserve to have a leader who knows what it means to say goodbye to your family and step into the dark and do dangerous things.” He is that leader, he tells the crowd: “As your governor, I will always have the back of those men and women who are always on call for us.”
Greitens goes on to discuss Missouri’s struggle to provide adequate education for its children and adequate care for its veterans, as well as the dire state of its economy and how he intends to reform it. But mostly, he presents the neatly-packaged Greitens I have seen before. In an energizing, engaging way, he talks about how he is a former Navy SEAL who served our country in “four deployments in the global War on Terrorism to Afghanistan, southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa, and to Iraq.” He is the founder of a non-profit that helps veterans, and he is dedicated to leading and serving and helping.
Meanwhile, I am still trying to find the flaw in the perfect veneer. When he repeats, nearly verbatim, a cute story about his son that he told me earlier in the day, I think I might have found it. But I soon realize I haven’t. Politicians have certain talking points and they repeat them. That’s to be expected. It doesn’t really say anything about who Greitens is as a person.
Others think they have found Greitens’ flaw, however, and it’s not about his character but his ideology. Some people consider him a RINO, a “Republican in Name Only.”
And they have some reason to think so. Until a few years ago, Greitens was a registered Democrat. In 2010, he met with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which wanted him to run for Congress. He declined. As recently as 2013, he endorsed the Democratic mayor of St. Louis. But in July 2015—about two and a half months before he declared his intention to seek the Republican nomination for governor—he published an op-ed on Fox News’s website entitled “Former Navy SEAL: Why I am no longer a Democrat.” In it, he explained that he was raised as a Democrat, but had come to realize that he “no longer believed in [Democratic] ideas.” The Democrats’ desire to “stand up for the little guy” is a nice idea, Greitens wrote, but Democratic policies don’t actually help the little guy.
This has not convinced some hardline conservatives. Eric Farris, who hosts a talk-radio show in Missouri, devoted almost 45 minutes on one of his shows to discussing whether Greitens could actually be trusted. He mentioned that Greitens attended Obama’s inauguration and, even more suspiciously, managed a nonprofit. But he was particularly leery of the fact that Greitens has registered domain names indicating he has thought about someday running for the Senate or even president. According to Farris, this makes Greitens a “career politician” leeching off taxpayers’ money—even though Greitens has never held or run for any political office before.
During his segment, Farris mentioned a website set up by yet another mysterious PAC that takes issue with Greitens’ credibility as a conservative. “Eric Greitens is not a Conservative,” reads the website. “NOT a Conservative. Not Then. Not Now. Not Ever.” A former staffer for John Brunner—another Republican running against Greitens—was reportedly involved in the website.
Brunner denied involvement, but Greitens had some reason to doubt this. He called Brunner on the phone and, according to the Brunner campaign, the call was overly aggressive. When Greitens called a second time, Brunner secretly recorded the call and released it to the media. It is not pretty.
Tim Wise, a friend of Greitens’ who worked with The Mission Continues and now owns his own company, told me he had never seen Greitens get really irritated or agitated. “He can always turns a negative into a positive,” Wise said, and he “doesn’t get flustered.” But on the recorded call, Greitens is irritated, agitated, and flustered in the extreme. He shouts over Brunner almost the entire time, and at one point yells, “Oh my God, you are such a weasel!”
Everyone I spoke to about Greitens said they had never seen him get angry or even have a bad day. Perhaps he only very rarely gets angry, and was unlucky enough to be recorded by a political rival on the one day it happened.
I don’t think one instance of getting exceedingly irritated should disqualify Greitens from any kind of office. Politics is tough, and none of us is perfect. Perhaps this is one of Greitens’ flaws, the only one I was able to uncover: He gets angry sometimes.
But he is also brilliant and dedicated and confident. He has served his country bravely and proudly, and has changed hundreds of lives for the better through his charity work. And he has chosen a difficult path that allows him to help others instead of an easier path that would have helped him alone.
It easy to understand why Brett says, “Democrats, Republicans, everyone loves him,” and why an old lady at the Lincoln Day celebration said she “liked him the first time I met him” and another “fell in love with him from [his] books, [because] he’s a person that’s really served this country, that’s helped Americans and people all over the world.” Yes, Eric Greitens has paid for the domain GreitensforPresident. Yes, he is ambitious. And yes, he wants to help people. If Missouri lets him, who knows where he will go from here.
Banner Photo: Eric Greitens / YouTube