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Illustration by Greg Betza
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“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
In 2004, an unusually energetic 29-year-old—a white guy with a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies and a Ph.D. in political science—starts going door-to-door, campaigning for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s his first crack at elected office, and he edges out eight opponents and comes within 1,725 votes of beating Russ Carnahan, scion of Missouri’s most famous political family.
But he tries too hard.
First, he lets his staffers coordinate a campaign mailing (a negative but accurate postcard about Carnahan) that’s supposed to be independently produced. Then he lies about it to the feds.
The initial screw-up is garden-variety politicking. The surprise is that they get caught. The catastrophe is that they lie about it. And the betrayal comes when his best friend wears a wire to incriminate him.
By the time the charges are filed, Jeff Smith is a state senator. He resigns from office in August 2009, and in December is sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He says his political career is over.
But neither his friends nor his enemies are letting go.
When people talk about Smith, they make three points over and over again. He’s short (“a tiny little guy”) with a squeaky voice (“sounds like he’s castrated”). He’s a brilliant, charismatic politician. And he tweets too much.
From there, they choose sides. He’s either a decent guy who made a dumb mistake out of fear, or an arrogant manipulator who bends the rules to suit his needs.
Either way, he’s in prison now, and by all accounts a lot more contented than the people who are waiting—with mixed emotions—for his release.
They want to know only one thing: Is he truly sorry? Or just sorry he got caught?
In the charges brought against Smith, some of the taped quotes sound like a kid scrambling for excuses. Others sound Machiavellian. Assistant U.S. attorney Hal Goldsmith called the case “textbook corruption,” and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch accused Smith of “venality and craven opportunism.” Smith’s supporters say the feds overreacted and took away Missouri’s most promising politician.
Interesting debate—but it’s the vehemence on both sides that puzzles me. A short guy who tweets proves himself either a jerk or an idiot—why such vitriol? And why such sorrow?
I start talking to Smith’s supporters and detractors, and with every conversation, what should have been a simple plot grows more complicated. Outside of his circle, the tale takes on mythic proportions: Jeff Smith was an underdog, an outsider, a fresh face, the hope of the future. He came from nowhere and rose to power. Then he sinned and fell from grace, because it was inevitable, and America tears down its heroes, and even a bid for power corrupts, and politics is broken.
Worn down by the clichés, I ask someone close to him what turned a screw-up that would have gotten him a fine and a slap on the wrist into a felony conviction for obstructing justice. Did Smith lie about that postcard on reckless impulse, out of pride, to protect his young staff, to avoid disappointing people who believed in him, because he craved power, because he wanted to help people, or to show he was the smartest guy in the room?
I call Smith in January. He's already been sentenced, and he’s still hoping to serve his time close to home, in Marion, Ill. (No dice. They ignore his judge’s recommendation and send him seven hours away, to rural Kentucky.) He answers personal questions freely, and his tone’s conversational, but he’s saying, almost verbatim, the same things he’s said to every other reporter. He only sounds spontaneous when he talks about the safe, distant past: “My mom always said I was a very determined kid. I wouldn’t get in the stroller; it made me feel like a wimp.”
For the second interview, he rides his bike from the city out to the Brentwood Borders (no wimp would do that). He got rear-ended, he explains. “My car was probably worth $2,500, and it would’ve cost $3,000 to fix it. And I’ve got a $50,000 retainer to pay my attorney and a $50,000 fine, so I’m not trying to buy a new car. I mean, I don’t need a car anyway. I’m going to jail.”
Every few minutes, he checks his famous BlackBerry. The BlackBerry he used on the Senate floor, irritating his enemies. The BlackBerry a friend says got him in trouble at a casino, after they twice asked him to put it down. He boyishly admits addiction and says giving it up is what scares him most about prison. Then he gets serious and talks about how hard his mother’s taking this and how bitter he feels about his friend betraying him. The sentiments seem genuine, but controlled: He is open without spilling emotion; self-deprecating without really being vulnerable.
When I ask if I can email him some follow-up questions, he looks relieved. “That would be a lot easier,” he says, explaining that he’s been trying to speak very deliberately—not his usual style—so he doesn’t phrase something wrong.
Now he’s careful?
Jeff Smith grew up in a ranch house in Olivette, and that got him into the Ladue School District. At Ladue Horton Watkins High School, he aroused the same ratio of wholehearted admiration and wariness that later greeted his candidacy—roughly 80:20. President of the student body, co-captain of the basketball team, valedictorian, he made tons of friends—black kids in the deseg program, white kids from Ladue, even faculty. His math teacher would later write, “Jeff enhanced valued discussions on geometric concepts and deductive proofs of theorems.” But his smartass comments lost him the trust of more sensitive classmates, who decided he was, put simply, a jerk.
Smith graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He burned with ambition, but not for the usual shallow stuff, like money. Even when he gambled, it was more for the rush than the jackpot. And his friends’ sweet visions of a wife, kids, and picket fence left him ambivalent at best.
What excited Smith were political ideas, solutions that would transform the world. That’s where the ego came in: He wanted to be the one to make those changes. So against the advice of everybody in his family, he plunged into politics. He went from working on other people’s campaigns to running for U.S. Congress, with no steps in between.
Smith campaigned the old-fashioned way, going door-to-door, sometimes in a T-shirt and shorts, drawing young people like a Pied Piper, or maybe a Pepper. Mary Long, a mom who liked his progressive pragmatism, helped him buy suits that fit. (“He was so cheap, he was wearing clothes his basketball coach gave him!” she recalls. “The collar had this big gap, and the tie hung down…”)
He thought hard about the issues, spoke eloquently, slept only a few hours a night. “He doesn’t do any caffeine, either—it’s all 7UP and OJ,” says Kailey Burger, who started interning for Smith at 18. “I’d text him at 4 a.m., and he’d text me right back.”
It drove Smith crazy that the media and the political establishment ignored him, and meanwhile, there sat his big-name rival, absent time after time from the Missouri House of Representatives. “I want to beat him more than life itself,” Smith was filmed saying. He was determined not to run a negative campaign—but he couldn’t get anyone in the press to report on Carnahan’s absenteeism. “He’s missed more votes than all but four of his 163 colleagues in the state house!” Smith kept saying—and nobody seemed to care.
So when aides came to him and said somebody wanted to help him by producing a flyer that wouldn’t have his campaign name on it, but could point out that voting record, Smith said, If he’ll do that, great.
“I vividly remember somebody being like, ‘Well, [Skip Ohlsen] wants to do this,’ and I was like, ‘Well fucking let him do it, sweet,’” he was later recorded telling his friend Steve Brown. “And they’re like, ‘Well, he’s going to need to get the money to do it, he’ll need to get it from your donors,’ and I said, like, ‘Well, hopefully my donors will give it to him.’”
It’s called an independent expenditure, and it’s a legitimate way to let your donors continue to support your campaign after they’ve reached the campaign-finance limit. The catch is the word “independent.” The campaign cannot talk to the people who are organizing the independent expenditure, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, the “someone” was a guy named Skip Ohlsen. (Actually, Milton Harold Olsen III, a.k.a. Mark Hamilton Ohlsen, Mike Ohlsen, Mike Scott, Nathan Alexander, Alexander Nathan, and Michael Alexander. But they didn’t know all of that yet.) He wanted to work for Smith, and he’d already broached a commercial and gotten turned down flat. “I didn’t have a good feeling about him,” Smith says now, wincing. A simple postcard, though, done externally so Smith didn’t look like he was going negative. Hard to turn down.
Ohlsen presented himself as a one-stop communications shop, with computers to put together the graphics, contacts in mailing houses, and video and audio equipment. Finding the money was no problem: Brown, who was not on the campaign staff, had agreed to coordinate such things for his friend. Brown got the bulk of the money for Ohlsen from two big Smith donors, Adolphus Busch and Donald Musick, plus a handful of other donors, and added a personal check for $5,000.
But then Ohlsen started talking to young campaign staffers, mainly treasurer Nick Adams and communications/press director Artie Harris, about how the mailing should be done.
They shouldn’t have answered. But they had the data he needed, and they had the mailing lists, and they knew how they wanted it done. Harris, a New Yorker who didn’t mind rolling up his sleeves, had urged the team all along to stop being so nicey-nice. This was their chance to blast politics’ favorite son with the facts.
Smith says he was out of the project altogether at this point. He talks about the incident as “15 minutes in a long campaign” and uses phrases like “I became aware” and “my aides brought this to me.” People who’ve seen him work find this a bit disingenuous; they say he would have tracked every detail. “Jeff’s a micromanager,” blurts one. “He does not have a campaign manager; he is his own campaign manager. Nobody tells Jeff what to do on a campaign.”
By the same token, the staffers’ involvement with the project wasn’t exactly Watergate. “It happens,” another Missouri politician readily admits. “You’ve got a bunch of A-type personalities on a campaign, and they want it done right. It happens, and when you get called on the carpet, you say, ‘We did it.’”
Those words just wouldn’t come out of Smith’s mouth. And to complicate matters, the guy they were working with wasn’t exactly righteous, and he’d grown sufficiently paranoid to tape his conversations. He was also a bit absent-minded, or perhaps too quick with a jibe: He’d formed an organization, Voters for Truth, that would be the independent sponsor of the flyer—but instead of putting “Paid for by Voters for Truth” on the back, he put “www.rustycarnahan.org.”
Some say that tiny slip started the unraveling; others say Carnahan would have been suspicious anyway. In any event, the Federal Election Commission went looking for the sponsor of the mailing. That’s when the biblical rooster crowed the first time: Smith submitted a false sworn affidavit saying, “I have no knowledge of who was responsible for the [postcard]…nor who paid for the mailing.”
Mailing houses keep records. Soon the FEC was back, asking Smith whether he knew a “Milton Ohlsen III.” No, he told investigators on April 12, 2006, he did not. (He says he only knew a person named Skip and did not know his surname.)
That November, they subpoenaed Ohlsen to testify in D.C.
Ohlsen called Brown two days beforehand. “He said, ‘I want to meet with you before I go in and talk to the feds,’ and Steve Brown contacted me and said, ‘What should I say?’” Smith recalls. “I said, ‘Just be very vague and listen.’ Steve said, ‘What if he says, ‘I want to work for you guys in the future?’’ I did not want Skip to spill the beans, but I didn’t want Steve to do anything illegal, either.”
What Brown should have said was, “I’m out. I’m done. And if they call me, I’m telling the truth.” Instead, he met with Ohlsen and wound up blurting, “I mean, Jeff is prepared, as am I, you know, to still be your friend, and to show it, and I think you picked that up, you know, if you keep us out of this… You’ve got Jeff with the possibility of a, you know, the Senate campaign stuff, we know you’re on the line but we’re prepared to still be your friends… We’re prepared to take care of you in this if you take care of us in this.”
With those words—which, unbeknownst to Brown, Ohlsen was taping—Brown became complicit.
Ohlsen testified on November 16. He lied and said he was just “working for” Voters for Truth (in divorce proceedings the following year, Michelle Ohlsen corrected that one). He said an anonymous individual had paid him in cash, but he did reveal he’d gotten information from Artie Harris, and he did name a “Steve Brown.”
Ohlsen flew home and met with Brown and Adams in the steam room of Brown’s club—a convenience that would later make it sound like they watched too many movies.
In March 2007, Harris and Adams took their turns lying to the FEC about the campaign’s involvement.
On December 12, 2007, the FEC issued its final report. The investigators called Ohlsen’s testimony “overall vague, ambiguous, and inconsistent,” couldn’t verify the existence of the mysterious “Steve Brown,” and found no evidence that Smith’s campaign had been directly involved in the mailing.
Smith and Brown had gotten lucky.
Meanwhile, Smith had run for the Missouri Senate in 2006—with Brown as his campaign treasurer—and won. In 2008, Brown won his own seat, in the Missouri House of Representatives. He would represent the 73rd District, serving just as his aunt, Sue Shear, had done for a record-breaking 26 years.
They were set. And then, suddenly, that Skip Ohlsen guy was in the news. He’d gone from politics—Smith never did hire him—to mixed martial arts and fight promoting. (He got a steel-cage ring painted to look like a ring of fire and let amateurs bloody themselves; it probably felt just like politics.) He wasn’t paying his bills; his wife had reported domestic violence and left him; a furious investor was making past drug charges public; and his various names were starting to intrigue investigators.
What if the feds hauled him in and he used Smith and Brown as bargaining chips?
They started sweating. Back in December 2007, police had pulled Ohlsen over in Ladue and found a loaded Glock that had been reported stolen in 1998. In December 2008, the FBI searched his downtown loft and found a poster board covered with the names of two Riverfront Times reporters, his ex-wife, and other antagonists; emergency medical service badges; several cellphones; a plastic-enclosed body bag; camo; gear labeled “POLICE”; and a bright-orange smoke grenade.
They also—ostensibly during the search, although there are other theories—got hold of Ohlsen’s many tapes, and heard Steve Brown stammering about taking care of him.
The FEC reopened its investigation.
Smith and Brown lied again.
On June 1, 2009, FBI agents went to Brown’s home. They had the tapes. He could stay out of prison, home with his wife and children—if he wore a wire and helped them get Smith.
Brown had spent years being loyal to his friend. Now, without thinking twice, he chose his family.
He hid a recorder, and it was whirring on June 17, 2009, when Smith blurted, “We weren’t fucking white knights here. None of us are going to get the fucking Nobel Peace Prize for our interaction with [Skip Ohlsen].”
Assistant U.S. attorney Hal Goldsmith agreed.
Brown was fined $40,000 and sentenced to two years’ probation. He lost his political office, his job, and his law license. (He is currently volunteering with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.) But he did not have to go to prison.
During the hearing, Goldsmith called Brown “the most courageous government informant that he’d encountered,” Smith recalls, his jaw tensing. “He said he was right up there with the man in Miami they had up on cocaine charges who went down to make a huge buy amid machine guns.” His mouth twists. “At 5-foot-6 and on a good day 120 pounds, I’m hardly some Mexican drug lord.”
Smith says he was invited to wear a wire, too, to help the feds investigate other possible cases of political corruption. He says he turned them down. He pleaded guilty to two felony counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice and was fined $50,000 and sentenced to a year and a day in prison; with his inevitable good behavior, he’ll probably be out by November.
Adams was fined $5,000 and sentenced to two years’ probation. Goldsmith told the court that when Adams heard the tapes, “a ‘light’ went off in his head” as he recognized the gravity of his wrongdoing. Goldsmith saw no such light in Smith.
“I wasn’t aware that he had such supernatural powers,” Smith snaps. “I was advised by my attorney to show no expression when I heard the tapes.”
Fair enough. But…does he recognize his actions’ gravity?
The tapes contain plenty of damning comments: “[Skip Ohlsen] can tell them I knew about the mailer.” “I’m going to tell them 90 percent of the truth.” “Can you shade it at all? I just want to say that I didn’t know about it while it was happening.” But there are also hints of boyish contrition: “Ever since the second the campaign ended, I was like, ‘I can’t believe we did that.’” “Do you think I made a huge mistake today telling them I didn’t know who did the mailer? If I called them back, would that change things?” “You’re going to go home, and [your wife] is going to tell you you’ve got to just tell them exactly what happened. So then I’ve got to tell the truth. So I should call them back immediately.”
Those are just snippets pulled by the prosecution; the full tapes are not yet public. Goldsmith obviously heard nothing redeeming in them. But Smith’s supporters wonder how much buildup there was, with Brown perhaps informing or reminding Smith of the facts we then hear him scrambling to conceal.
Much has been made of his terse directive to Adams about pay-as-you-go cellphones: “Buy three at Wal-Mart and meet tomorrow to pass them out.” But the idea first came from Adams, sounding like an eager teenager: “Can we get some of those pay-as-you-go cellphones, like on The Wire?” And Smith tells me now, “If you look at the actual transcript, which the prosecutor snips, Nick then says, ‘Should I go to Wal-Mart?’ and I say, ‘That’s probably a good idea.’ I’m not a paranoid person. I never would have thought of it.”
It would be interesting to get Brown's take on all of this. But he’s not commenting.
“Steve has his own code, and he just won’t violate that,” says his father, Mel Brown. “He won’t come forward and express his side of the story.”
Mel traces his son’s silence all the way back to age 13, when he lost his mother and refused to unburden himself of the grief: “I think it caused him to always internalize his feelings.” But in her letter to the court, Rebecca Brown emphasized her husband’s “blind loyalty” to Smith, his “palpable envy” of his friend’s political ease and charisma. “Steve grew up believing that he would never be the smartest, the quickest, the most athletic or the most popular, but what he could be was the best friend,” she wrote.
And so he talked to Ohlsen, for Smith’s sake, and lost everything.
A colleague says, “I thoroughly imagine Steve’s family saying to him, ‘How much more are you going to do for this guy?’ He was forced to choose between his family and his best friend. I don’t fault Jeff for feeling betrayed, and I don’t fault Steve for feeling like he did what he needed to do. You can easily imagine, in the reverse situation, Jeff throwing everything away in order to not be the bad guy betraying his friend, and in Jeff’s head, that makes him the better person. And in Steve’s eyes, Jeff dragged him into this.”
There’s no “Wait. You have a family. Don’t keep lying for my sake” on that tape.
Smith says of Brown, “He was one of my best friends. We talked about our families, our love lives, everything from public policy to women I dated to his kids to our brothers. I would have asked him to be in my wedding.
So what’s Brown like, as a person? “He’s a good father.” Smith stops there. He can’t imagine them speaking to each other again.
“Steve Brown had a choice,” he continues, his voice terse. “I was presented with a similar choice. We made different choices. Obviously, the choice I made had harsher consequences.”
In fairness, though, they didn’t make quite the same choice. The feds already knew about the crime they wanted Brown’s wire to confirm. Putting a wire on Smith would have been a fishing expedition—in more than one lake. “Jeff was very connected,” says one insider, “and he had good relationships with several people who are currently being looked at.”
Smith's made all sorts of abject public apologies, including a mea culpa in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on September 8, 2009. “It was easier for me to lie than to face the scrutiny and embarrassment that would come with accepting responsibility,” Smith wrote. “I was terrified of admitting anything. My nightmare was for all this to come out: my betrayal of what I thought I stood for and wanted to achieve; my betrayal of supporters and constituents; my parents’ embarrassment reading about my actions in the newspaper, and their shame as friends and neighbors searched for what to say to them and how to say it.”
He still finds the Post’s editorial characterization of him as venal and cravenly opportunistic “completely ridiculous,” though. “I never used my influence for bribes! I was an ambitious person who wanted to get to a place where I could help people, and I made a mistake in the process,” he says.
When, by email, I ask whether he’s tired of the public demanding self-flagellation, he replies, “There’s only so many ways and so many times I can accept responsibility, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. It’s not really society, though, that demands it, I don’t think. It may be the media, and it was definitely the prosecutor. No matter how many times I publicly apologized, and even though I took full responsibility for everything that everyone affiliated with my campaign had done, the prosecutor still accused me of trying to avoid responsibility.
“He seemed to take this case very personally,” Smith continues. “I’m not sure why he was so furious, but it was evident to those who read his memorandums, which were full of strange extralegal editorializing, or watched him in the courtroom, where he was literally quivering with anger and disdain. He believed everything any informant said and took it all at face value. Nick Adams claimed that he was against the idea of doing the postcard, but was convinced by others to go along with it, and the U.S. attorney’s office believed that and put it in a brief. I could give you other examples. The point is, [Goldsmith’s] view from the beginning was that I had masterminded the entire thing.”
Smith resents the notion that “because of my worst moments caught on tape talking to one of my best friends, that that embodies my true character. I think that’s a fairly harsh assessment. And it’s not the way I look at people or the world.” He sums up the prosecution of his case in a single word: “overkill.”
“Had Steve simply told them everything and then declined to talk to me, I would’ve quickly realized the jig was up and told them everything. But the prosecutor and the FBI apparently wanted to leverage me to learn about other imagined wrongdoings by others, and thus, the wire and the government’s persistence.”
It’s their job. But there is a measure of hyperbole in Goldsmith’s rhapsodies about Brown, and a bit of a prodigal-son feel in the warm words about Nick Adams, who, in the transcript, sounds far more calculating than Smith.
Adams was younger, though, cocky and panicky at once, and then he heard himself on tape and blurted remorse. Even without his attorney’s caution, friends say Smith’s never been one to show sorrow or anger. He copes by thinking fast, teasing, tossing off sarcasm. And in the end, that was what lost him more support than anything else, and left the judge and prosecuting attorney convinced he was remorseless.
I ask Smith, by email, for his reaction to Judge Carol E. Jackson’s remark, “I have to wonder, because you seem so sincere and have such a stellar record, do people tend to believe you, even when you are lying to them?”
“No reaction,” he writes back.
I ask state Rep. Jake Zimmerman, who roomed with Smith in Jefferson City, his response to Jackson’s second famous question from the hearing: “Reading these letters, then reading these transcripts, leads me to wonder: Who is the real Jeff Smith?”
“They are both the real one,” Zimmerman says instantly. “He is simultaneously the incredibly committed activist and devoted public servant and passionate player of the political game, and also the overly passionate player of the political game, who doesn’t mind throwing a few elbows and cutting a few corners to get what he wants. When he looks his maker in the eye, will he feel he has sinned? That’s what everyone is struggling to know.”
Skip Ohlsen's locked up, sentenced to 30 months in prison for mortgage fraud and weapons violations last October. But a lot of people still wonder whether he was the man in a poncho, hood, and sunglasses who carried helium balloons and a wicker basket into a Carondelet Plaza parking garage on October 15, 2008. The next morning, a bomb inside the basket exploded and injured John Gillis, a mild-mannered lawyer no one could imagine wanting to hurt. Jeremy Kohler and other Post reporters pieced together a possible scenario in which the bomb was actually intended for Richard Eisen, another lawyer, who also drives an Acura TL, and who parks it in roughly the same spot one floor below Gillis.
Eisen was Michelle Ohlsen’s divorce lawyer. His name was scrawled on Skip Ohlsen’s chart of enemies.
Charges have yet to be brought, however. “I don’t think he’s good for it, honestly,” says his attorney, Paul D’Agrosa. “Obviously I have some knowledge of the evidence. I could see at first blush where it seemed to connect him to the building. But beyond that, I don’t see any connection.” The chart? “He did that for every case he was involved in. He had a chart and a file on everybody. But there is no physical evidence, so for me that is just pure speculation, and that’s all they have.”
What mattered for Smith and Brown was that every strike against Ohlsen gave him more reason to cooperate with the feds. Indeed, media outlets were soon reporting that he had cooperated. Charles Jaco at Fox 2 News reported last August, “When Skip Ohlsen was busted by the feds on unrelated fraud charges, he told them about Brown’s role.” In The St. Louis American, editor Chris King wrote, “The feds will be keeping Ohlsen close to their chest for as long as they can.”
But here’s the irony: People close to the case say Ohlsen was not cooperating. Which means that if Brown hadn’t agreed to wear a wire, all the authorities would have had was an unauthenticated, uncorroborated tape of two people talking. Maybe a judge would have accepted an outsider’s verification of the voices, but it’s a long stretch to think the tape could have been used as evidence against Smith, whose voice wasn’t even on it. All he would have had to say was, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.”
And he’d had plenty of practice saying that.
Two months after the FEC grilled him, Harris—chronically anxious and depressed, recently broken up with his girlfriend, miserable about moving back to New York—killed himself. Harris’ old friend Richard Luthmann, a New York lawyer, believed the stress of the federal investigation was what tipped the scales. And that didn’t help Luthmann react calmly when he read a quote from Smith suggesting that the campaign misconduct be blamed on his dead friend.
What was lost in the ensuing hysteria was the fact that it wasn’t even Smith who brought it up in the first place. It was young Adams. “I’m alive, and Artie’s dead. Can we emphasize this was Artie’s deal?” he asked, and Smith probably grinned, remembering Harris’ style. “Artie would totally want us to throw him under the bus here,” he agreed.
Those words made him sound, to anybody who didn’t know Harris, like a bastard who’s not only coldly unmoved by his friend’s suicide, but also willing to dishonor his memory for expediency’s sake.
But anybody who did know Harris was nodding—even his own mother. “People were appalled that Jeff said that, but I had to agree,” Myra Harris tells me. “I really can hear Artie saying that to Jeff: ‘I’m dead already! Throw me under the bus!’”
Smith says, “Artie was one of the darkest and funniest people I’ve ever known in my life. He could turn a phrase faster and more caustically than anyone I’d ever known.” They shared a lot of traits, he adds: “We could both be very sarcastic. We made fun of each other all the time. We both were progressive but pragmatic. We both never backed down from a fight.
“Of course, the public thinks it’s so awful that people would try to pin something on him,” Smith continues. “But he was the person on the campaign every day saying we have to go negative! He had been pushing more than anyone else to draw contrasts and point out Carnahan’s record, and always felt that I was too reluctant to do so.”
Still, when Luthmann read the comment, something inside him went cold. “I think Artie may have wanted that. But it’s a big difference between someone saying that and somebody making that choice for him,” Luthmann says. He wrote a letter to the American, whose editor, King, has been one of Smith’s harshest critics.
An immediate protest rose from Smith’s camp, blaming family history and saying Artie’s own father had committed suicide.
“Absolutely not,” Harris says crisply. “My husband died on the chairlift of a massive heart attack. Now, he worried himself to death, there’s no doubt about that. He had anxiety and depression, and so did Artie.
“I’m sure the investigation didn’t help,” she says. “Neither did drinking. Also, a girl broke up with him.” Her voice softens, turns weary. “Artie was just a very tortured person. Senior year of high school, he had a semi-breakdown. And both he and my husband were very anti-meds. They both worked at the upper end of their brain, and they were afraid it would dull them.”
Smith regrets what he said about Harris because of how people took it. But that doesn’t answer the larger question of conscience.
“I would venture to guess that the place where he has the most remorse is the young people this might affect,” says Zimmerman.
I ask Wash. U. poli-sci professor Bill Lowry what he thinks. Is Smith such a pragmatist outside the ivory tower that he sincerely believes the ends justify the means? “Man, I’d love to know his answer to that,” sighs Lowry. “He did contribute to a lot of young students around here being pretty disenchanted.”
Many of Smith’s interns, though, remain loyal. Kailey Burger is a college senior who’s worked for him since her freshman year. (She emailed him and confided that someday she wanted to be president, and he replied instantly “Dear Miss Future President Burger: We’d love to have you help this summer in the district office.”)
“He’s genuinely interested in what you have to say,” Burger explains. “Any politician is pleasant, but when you look into their eyes, you can tell that nothing you say is really going to get past that ‘OK, I’m shaking hands, I’m shaking hands’ facade. Jeff’s listening to you, he’s taking it in, and he’s curious.”
Burger got suspicious last summer, when Smith cancelled a campaign event: “He never does anything halfway,” she says. She confronted him, and he met her at a McDonald’s, two months before the news broke, and came clean. “He said, ‘This is what happened, and I might be going to jail. You’ve been such a great friend. I just want to thank you for all you have done. Here is your paycheck, and I wish you the best in all you do.’ And I said, ‘You think you are going to get rid of me that easily?’”
Benjamin Singer, a former intern who’s filming (yet another) documentary on Smith, says he liked the fact that Smith’s “a little bit postpartisan. That speaks very strongly to my generation. People my age really couldn’t care much less which party does one thing or the other.
“I passed out flyers with Jeff for three-on-three basketball,” Singer remembers, “and he would engage with anyone, have really meaningful conversations, know someone they knew, too. How crazy is that, that a politician is just spending his time passing out flyers, and it’s not even a campaign event?”
And how crazy is what happened? “We know the guy, and we know that even if he—I mean—I don’t know,” Singer says haltingly. “People commiserate, because they think now I’m all jaded by a guy I worked with who was deceiving everyone. People’s responses are dictated by the belief that Jeff is now a bad person or something. But even now I still feel like I don’t know the full story.”
Smith’s ease with young people is helped by his own boyish informality, sarcasm, friendly curiosity, amazing memory, and willingness to praise and thank. He’ll call out interns and staffers as “one capable dude” or “the hardest-working staffer in the senate”; he’ll take time with a stranger even when there’s no immediate gain to be had (“thanks man, glad u enjoyed the film, when did u finish @ Carolina? And what do u do in SF?”).
Surely, with his passion for education and love of young people, he’ll wind up teaching? “I hope somebody gives him a chance,” says Lowry.
Would Wash. U.?
“I doubt it.”
Lowry remembers Smith as “smart, very likeable, good sense of humor, bit of a wise guy. High energy to the point where sometimes I worried about him. He had an ulcer for a while.
“Some of the stuff that happened,” Lowry says slowly, “I’ll admit it’s troubling. It bothers me that he was cavalier about it. If he’d just said, ‘I screwed up,’ he’d still be in office.” There were early signs of that recklessness, though: “He was one of these people who didn’t get around to what he should be doing until the night before.”
The casino thing was reckless, too. And Long remembers “speeding tickets,” and the high-energy goofing off with all the kids on the campaign, and the relentless push, “the sleep deprivation, the food deprivation. He had a bleeding ulcer after that campaign. The decisions you might make when you are fully rested and you’ve had a good meal and you can think about it are a lot different.”
At the time, he no doubt nodded politely and ignored her motherly fussing.
Random question: Why do people keep talking about how short Smith is? It certainly didn’t keep him off the basketball court, or stop him from competing with his brother. “People have never seen a Scrabble game like the ones at my house,” he says. “They’re like blood feuds. People remember what words they used to win a game five years later.”
But not even his brother shares Smith’s political drive; his family was unanimously appalled by his decision to enter politics. In ’04, they told him giving $100 to his campaign would be throwing their money away. Some see Smith’s drive as a reaction to his famously frugal, cautious family: He was determined to experience everything, connect with everybody, take all of the risks they avoided.
Others just say it’s because he’s short.
When I ask whether his stature ever bothers him, he emails, “LOL. It’s been a tremendous source of strength for me in two ways. #1, I am underestimated because of it, and it’s always good to be underestimated. #2, in athletics and in particular in basketball, it’s taught me about overcoming obstacles to success, and made me a much stronger person.”
It’s true, lots of people tell stories about how they underestimated Jeff Smith. Political writer Dave Drebes remembers their first lunch: “He didn’t seem like congressional material, you know what I mean? I thought he was running for state rep the first half of the lunch. I thought he was running for Carnahan’s seat, not against Carnahan!”
Brian Wahby, chair of the Democratic Central Committee in St. Louis, told Smith to get lost when he showed up at a meeting of Democratic staffers after former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt dropped out of the presidential race. Smith called Wahby’s cell and tried again—“I’m Jeff Smith, I’m running for Congress”—and Wahby, who was at the barber, said, “Dude, I’m getting my hair cut,” and hung up on him.
Then Smith came within 1,724 votes of beating Carnahan, and Wahby started paying attention.
“I didn’t want to lose him,” Wahby admits. “He really energized a group of young voters that, frankly, the party hadn’t been able to energize in the past, and I wanted to tap into that. So I talked to him about that fourth Senate district. I pulled out a map and said, ‘This is what you should do.’ I went through the potential candidates and said, ‘You could win this race.’”
He did. “He made a couple of mistakes his freshman term, youthful hubris things, where he just played it wrong with more senior members of the Senate,” Wahby says. “But by the time he got into his second session, he had really mastered the process. Well over 70 percent of the body were conservative Republicans, and Jeff was still able to get some stuff done.”
Making friends made him enemies, though. The American scolded him “for raking in money from public-school privatizer Rex Sinquefield and cozying up to the disappointing and divisive Mayor Francis G. Slay.” Other city Democrats despised him for supporting school choice and found his easy slides across the aisle disturbing.
His first term, “He would have his notebook out like he was in a classroom and take notes on each person’s comments,” recalls one legislator. “He’d interrupt. He’d whip out his BlackBerry and sit on the floor and do nothing but send messages. He wasn’t willing to take advice from people who knew the process.”
But state Sen. Scott Rupp, a friend of Smith’s, remembers him meeting with all of the senators and humbly asking what he should know: “He was very much the student.” Smith’s naiveté had more to do with theory than protocol, Rupp says: “He came in, I think, with a predisposition of knowing how things worked, because he was a professor of political science. It’s a different ballgame.”
When I mention another legislator’s complaints that at first, Smith “didn’t know how to make motions or how to ask for attention—he would raise his hand!” Rupp chuckles. “I don’t think that’s accurate. We tend to pick on the new person; it’s kind of a ritual. And one time I wasn’t recognizing him on purpose, so he was probably waving his hand. It was right after he had gotten in trouble at the casino—left his ID at home, so used someone else’s ID, which was a violation of the state gambling laws. He was trying to be called on, and I waited until he was the only one left and called him by that other person’s name. And he called me an SOB!
“He made some poor political calculations early on and got schooled,” Rupp continues. “Especially with the election of the leaders in the minority caucus. He told [then-Sen.] Maida [Coleman] he wouldn’t vote for her [as minority floor leader], not realizing the deal had already been struck and she was unopposed, and that created a lifelong enemy. Rule No. 1: Keep your powder dry.”
“I didn't come into politics in this city the traditional way,” Smith likes to point out. “I wasn’t a Slay or a Carnahan or a Clay. I came from the outside. In my first campaign, nobody would even take my call. None of the committeepeople, the aldermen—90 percent of them wouldn’t even talk on the phone.”
The second factor, he freely admits, was his personality. “If there were things I wanted to do, I did them. I knew I didn’t have long, in this age of term limits, so I didn’t worry much about the political implications of things. I supported teacher testing, merit pay, charter schools, open enrollment—all positions that were generally anathema to the other Democratic senators.”
Still, he proved his genius for good-natured disagreement. Note his tweets about Republican state Sen. Jason Crowell: March 26, 2009, 12:52 a.m.: “Sen Crowell offering amendment tinkering w/ school building fund. I usually disagree w/him, but he’s a serious and seriously smart senator.” May 11, 2009, 7:48 p.m.: “The Gov and First Lady had the Legislature for dinner 2nite. Very gracious hosts. Sen Crowell stepped out in his seersucker, to much praise.”
Even Republican state Sen. Chuck Purgason, whose tribute to his dead mule Nellie Belle (May 13, 2009) placed him about as far from a young urban Dem as you can get, says he always found Smith to be “a very pleasant, forthright person to work with. We didn’t have a lot of common interests, but he would always listen.”
Indeed, he might have gotten connected too fast. “He quickly became such an integral player with a lot of powerful personalities in the building, and that maybe made black and white areas a little more gray,” reflects Rupp. “He had strong personal relationships with some of the major power brokers—[former state Speaker of the House] Rod Jetton, other elected officials. He was privy to a lot of information and strategy, and I think that gave him maybe a false sense—the beginnings of maybe an overinflated sense?—of impunity. You have a climate with a lot of power and influence, and on the surface, such a tiny little infraction—‘How could it become a factor? Plus, we’re doing so many good things, I’m doing good things for the inner-city youth…’”
Smith also worked for distinctly unsexy, tough reforms on child support, pushed through legal recourse for men falsely accused of paternity, and fought almost single-handedly for the city’s historic tax credit, even though there was enormous pressure on him to cave. Consistently, he seized the moral high ground: In spring 2008, he told the Post his fellow legislators should be ashamed of themselves for repealing campaign-finance limits: “We subverted the will of the people of Missouri.”
Irony’s a cheap shot, after the fact. But Smith’s accomplishments were real. In the fourth district, he came up with an annual three-on-three basketball tournament that included a community fair with free lead-paint testing, eye exams, voter registration, and other services. The idea was to respect people, drawing the community together for something fun instead of saying, “Here, you might need this.” It worked so well that Burger and Alderman Antonio French are making sure it happens again this summer.
“Jeff’s achievements,” says French, “will far outlive his mistakes.”
Smith's an usual blend: an introspective extrovert who’s internally driven, yet feeds on interaction. Drebes recalls the day Smith pleaded guilty: “That night, he had people over to his house, and he did the same thing the day he was sentenced. I think that’s part of how he copes. His family was in the living room, and in the kitchen were his political friends, handicapping who was going to get his seat.”
Now he sends tweets from prison. The Riverfront Times mocks them. His enemies think it’s proof of his lack of remorse. His admirers are delighted.
He wants people to know he’s sweating, loading and unloading trucks, and undergoing the usual mortifications (“bunking across from a dude with untreated sleep apnea def not conducive to sleep. but at least we have heat now”). He’s not giving up: “In the last two days I’ve seen the truth of the words on the sign at the city limits, Manchester, Kentucky is the city of hope.” He’s not shutting up, either; as he wrote January 10, “Reporters: i am e-mailing my tweets to @kaileyburger and she is posting them. @jmannies @chadlivengood @jakewagman @tonymess @johncombest.”
Back in his unfettered days, the tweets were a mix of media-and-politics junkie, social issues, connecting with people just for the sake of it, sucking up, his daily agenda, sarcasm, playing in a band, playing hoops, playing with kids, self-deprecation (“why on earth would u not think I was hip?”) (“Got parking tickt. Got home. Jogged. Sore as hell. Ran hot bath. Zoned out, flooded most of the upstairs. Not my best day.”) He was wry even about politics: “Going to a neighborhood Easter egg hunt to grip and grin…” But always, the sarcasm was sweetened: “Always fun to watch kids hunt for eggs.”
Smith was the consummate elected official, unbelievably responsive to his constituents, almost uninterested in having a personal life apart from them. He drew people in, made hundreds feel like he’d return their calls—and that sense of easy intimacy, albeit unearned, only heightened their later disappointment.
He’s been vilified for tweeting from prison, but the tweets from before he was charged are now far more jarring: “Great ride up to the Capitol with Rep. Steve Brown, who might be the most loyal person I know in this business—or in this world” (two months before Brown wore the wire).
“Cheezy I know, but I smile every time I’m driving back home from a road trip east and I see the Arch’s outline in the distance. I love stl” (four days before Adams suggested the pay-as-you-go cellphones).
“@ Cards game w/ my brother. He’s listened 2 every game for 24 years straight. He has his headphones on like Rain Man or something.” (the night Adams passed the phones out).
“A day of pretty-much nonstop fundraising. Wiped out. But damn I am blessd 2 have great supporters even in tuff times” (July 9—three days before he learned about the wire).
A brief silence followed. But after pleading guilty, Smith gamely resumed posting links to thoughtful articles, and soon he was tweeting media appearances and his last gig with the Dave Drebes Players.
There’s a resilience to it, this contant living-out-loud.
Now Smith’s in prison in rural Kentucky, loading and unloading trucks, shooting hoops, and working on a book about the gap between ivory-tower political theory and real-world politics. Academe “does not even resemble the real world,” he exclaims. “One of my objectives is to try to explore ways to better connect poli sci with real-world politics. Political scientists sit in offices or libraries and perform statistical analysis of campaigns and voting behavior. They would be much better served to get out and observe campaigns from the inside. There’s no way to quantify the energy that enthusiastic volunteers can bring to a campaign. There’s no way to understand city politics and how gritty and tough the hardball can be from looking at a spreadsheet. And there’s no way to understand how grueling the demands of fundraising are.
“Political scientists spend decades creating models of optimal outcomes,” he says. “It has nothing to do with that. It’s about relationships. Relationships make the legislature work or not work. And there’s no model I’ve seen that takes that into account.”
I ask if he’s done any political organizing, campaigned for any reforms, inside. “It’s considered smarter to keep your head down,” he replies. “But I have taught some impromptu seminars on the use of game theory—in particular, an exercise called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which shows that the ‘dominant strategy’ for co-defendants is to snitch—as a means of introducing inmates to the conceptual foundations of political science, through a prism they can relate to.”
BlackBerry withdrawal has actually been a relief, Smith confides: “By my third session in the Senate, I was getting over 1,000 emails a day. I would wake up several times a night, awakened by phantom buzzes on my body near where I carried my phone.”
Asked what blurb he’d write to market his book, he says, “As a tale of a naive academic learning how the political game is really played, a tale of a rising star needlessly laid low by participating in a deception over a silly episode.”
Which sounds more rueful than sorry.
It’s not clear whether Smith could ever run for office again: Missouri statutes are—here’s a shock—muddy on the subject. There’s a statute that forbids anyone with a federal misdemeanor or felony conviction from running for elected office. But according to Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff, “It’s an open question. The statute exists, but there are claims it is invalid.” In a prior case, Wolff explains, “the Court avoided the issue by holding that the bill in which the section was enacted contained more than one subject and therefore was invalid.” Another bill contained identical language, but when it was used to keep Henry Rizzo off the ballot, he sued and won. “The trial court read our case as finding the statute was invalid rather than finding that the bill was invalidly enacted, and the candidate was permitted to file. The case was not appealed.”
“Anyone who ever agonized over Jeff’s political manipulations will have a chance to be frustrated by him again,” predicts King at the American. “He’ll rise.”
And if he does? Responses are mixed. Norm Pressman, a lawyer who supported Carnahan, suspected that the Smith campaign was behind the postcard from the start and challenged them on it. Still, he later wrote a letter of support for Smith, saying, “I see their actions as those of exuberant young people trying to do good as opposed to bad people trying to line their own pocket… Put in the vernacular, this was a college prank gone amuck.”
Not according to the media. In the Post, Jake Wagman wrote that Smith: “clung to a five-year lie even as his friends abandoned their deception to help investigators.” His friends roll their eyes: “All this talk about how this was some big five-year cover-up! It was a five-hour cover-up.”
And it failed.
Smith likes to think it was mainly the prosecuting attorney demanding that he abase himself, once his lies were made public. But what bothers the general public is the glib recklessness they read between the lines.
“He’s a young Wash. U. guy,” one onlooker says, “of it and above it at the same time.” A bit of schadenfreude feels justified, and so does the exhilaration of taking the moral high ground. Even a few cynics dropped their guard with Smith—and cynics hate getting burned. “Oh, grow up,” say those who stayed comfortably jaded and now feel vindicated. “This surprises you?”
“I don’t think it’s immature for us to be disappointed,” retorts a political observer. “I think it’s a natural and human reaction. Talented political individuals who are in this for the right reasons are not a dime a dozen. There are precious few people who come from a privileged background and are willing to ring doorbells on the near North Side. So when someone like that captures people’s hopes and dreams, it’s not just some sort of goofy hero worship. We have a right to be disappointed.”
Asked whether Smith is, at the core, a decent and moral guy, a friend hesitates. “It’s complicated. He wanted to be a good politician. He was clean. He wasn’t taking money from people. His intent was to be a good state senator, and he was, he was a great state senator. But when push came to shove, he was willing to do whatever it took to save his ass.”
Is he someone who lies easily? “No, I don’t think you could say Jeff’s inclination was to lie. But if he gets to a situation where he feels he has to, like this, yes. Jeff wanted to be one of the good guys. He has supreme confidence in his own abilities to do good things for society. From time to time, did he believe that the ends justify the means? Yes. He believed that this thing should not derail him, because he had too much good to do in the world.
“He was so idealistic that he was willing to do exactly what it takes.”
Editor's Note: This version reflects three corrections made to the original print version. Jeff Smith was 29, not 31, when he ran for the U.S. House of Represenatives. After reading "The Fall," Jeff Smith wrote to note that authorities did not ask him if he knew a "Skip Ohlsen"; they asked if he knew a "Milton Ohlsen III," and he said no. He says he only knew a person named Skip and did not know his last name. Also, he was not part of the famous steam room conversation; the participants were Steve Brown, Nick Adams, and Skip (which would be Milton III) Ohlsen.