Thomas battle highlights Danforth's steadfastness

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The craggy face could be hewn from Mount Rushmore. The hair, with its bright white flash, is equally signal. The voice, deep, clear and resonant, is nothing less than cavernous. Even the nickname is impressive -- "Saint Jack."

By any measure -- and he is 6 feet 3 inches tall -- Sen. John Claggett Danforth, 55, is a patrician presence, never more so than during the confirmation hearings of Judge Clarence Thomas.


But the Republican from Missouri will be seen in a surprisingly different political posture tomorrow, turning from resolute champion of a conservative Supreme Court nominee to enthusiastic sponsor of a liberal civil rights bill.

He will introduce in the Senate the sort of legislation that 'N Clarence Thomas might seek to restrain as a Supreme Court justice -- if it ever gets that far. President Bush, who publicly thanked Mr. Danforth for his confirmation efforts, is now poised to veto his legislation.


The White House believes that the bill, strengthening laws against bias and easing claims by workers, would create "quotas" in the workplace. Mr. Danforth will be relying this week on support from most of the Democrats who opposed him on the Thomas confirmation last week.

There is political paradox aplenty here. For further confusion: Mr. Danforth, the civil rights advocate, is an enduring opponent of a woman's right to choose an abortion.

But there is also a constant: In each case, he has followed his conscience.

"I'll say one thing about him," said John Powell, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party from 1980 to 1983. "He's very determined. If he gets his mind set, he won't change it for hell or high water."

Mr. Danforth was Judge Thomas' patron, sponsor, defender and constant companion. He started his protege on the path to power as legislative assistant in his Senate office 12 years ago. In the bitter final stages last week, he escorted him, every dramatic and lurid inch of the way, to the Supreme Court.

It was, in the eyes of Mr. Danforth's admirers, a classic example of the loyalty and steadfastness that are part of his breeding and character.

Alex Netchvolodoff, lifelong friend of Mr. Danforth's, godfather to his children and until recently his chief political aide for 23 years, said: "I don't think Danforth is unwavering without justification. Clarence Thomas, seen through Danforth's eyes, is a truly admirable character, worthy in every sense of the consistency that Danforth gave him."

Through the eyes of his critics, Mr. Danforth's role in the Thomas imbroglio was a lamentable lapse by a decent politician into unfairness and zealotry that helped elevate an unfit candidate to the nation's highest bench.


Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said: "I think he has been so loyal to Thomas, he has participated in debasing and denigrating the institution of the court.

"I was quite shocked at the role he played in the administration's assassination plot against the character, integrity and credibility Anita Hill," Ms. Michelman said. "It was an insult to women in this country, and I think it was a shameful performance. I think we have seen a different John Danforth."

"He took the kid gloves off"

Mr. Danforth's performance as a principled chameleon does not surprise home-state Republicans such as Mr. Powell, a self-proclaimed conservative.

He recalled warning Mr. Danforth in 1979 not to buck sentiment in Missouri by voting to hand over the Panama Canal to Panama: "People here just didn't like the idea of giving away the Panama Canal. I told him, 'My God, you're going to be hard to elect.' But he was very adamant about it."

In 1982 he ignored another warning from Mr. Powell. He was running for re-election to the Senate but stayed in Washington.


"He felt secure," recalled Mr. Powell. "I kept calling him, saying, 'Look, they don't want to hear me. They want to hear you. You get out here; this thing's going downhill.' "

A newspaper poll that showed him trailing finally shocked Mr. Danforth into action. Said Mr. Powell: "That got him out. He took the kid gloves off and started slugging. He saved his own skin."

His Democratic opponent in that campaign was Harriett ("Give 'em hell") Woods, a state senator who now heads the Washington-based bipartisan National Women's Political Caucus. Mr. Danforth's victory margin over her was less than 1 percent.

"I think he wanted to be able to ride into office like a white knight, never saying an unkind word. He found himself threatened, and he said as many unkind words as he could think up," recalled Mrs. Woods, accusing Mr. Danforth of retreating from his disavowal of negative campaigning.

"My campaign did Danforth a tremendous favor. It humbled him somewhat. That was a wising-up and a maturing politically for him."

Priest and public figure


Mr. Danforth's politics have been influenced as much by his personal beliefs as by experience. He is an ordained minister of the Episcopal Church. He presides over the 7:30 a.m. Communion service every Tuesday at St. Alban's Church in Washington and regularly administers Communion to the homebound of the parish. He has been called "the conscience of the Senate."

The Rev. Francis Wade, rector of St. Alban's, said, "The fact he likes so much to take Communion to the homebound, and these people know him as their priest rather than as a public figure, is indicative of the kind of person he is.

"I experience him as being a very clear, simple person. He is deeply committed to his friends and family. He is committed to truth as he understands it, committed to what he sees to be the better principles of the country."

That commitment he learned from his grandfather, William H. Danforth, founder of the Ralston-Purina Co., whose fortune has made John Danforth one of the richest men in the Senate.

William Danforth, the senator's older brother and chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, recalled, "We had a grandfather who had a profound influence on all his grandchildren. He was very dedicated to helping young people do great things with their lives, make important contributions and devote themselves to worthy and worthwhile goals.

"He had lots of slogans like: 'My own self at my very best all the time.' He was a very dramatic person."


John Danforth graduated from Princeton University and Yale Law School. He worked in prestigious law firms, first in New York and then in St. Louis, where he settled down to a comfortable life as the scion of one of the state's first families. It all suddenly changed the day he was urged by a federal judge to defend a penniless insurance sales manager in a locally celebrated fraud case. Mr. Danforth won the case.

Afterward, he told his friend, Mr. Netchvolodoff: "It really has wakened me to the fact I don't want to give my life over to wills and tax plaintiffs. I would like to do something bigger."

Onto the Missouri political scene stepped a candidate straight out of Camelot: young, handsome, rich, Ivy League-educated, coat-over-the-shoulder casual, the bright white flash already emblazoned in his dark hair.

"He had all the qualities that were part of the Kennedy phenomenon, that people were attracted to, and he was elected," said Mr. Netchvolodoff, who joined him in the attorney general's office.

"It was a sea change. The concept of politics that Danforth brought was bipartisanship, getting the best people and trying to run government on the basis of service rather than rewarding political friends and handing out spoils."

The new attorney general's staff included Christopher S. Bond, who became governor and is now the junior senator for Missouri, and John D. Ashcroft, the current governor.


Mrs. Woods, his 1982 challenger, said, "Clearly there is a tension between the Episcopal minister from a patrician, rather puritanical background, and the sharp-elbowed politician who literally transformed the politics of Missouri and put himself into the Senate. I have sharp differences with him, but I think he is a quality person."

Mr. Danforth told the Washington Post in a recent interview that the Senate was as far as he wanted to go politically. He is not interested in the presidency. "I really love being in the Senate," he said. "But it's only a part of my life that occupies a fraction of my life. You know, I wasn't born a senator and probably I won't die a senator, but if you're president that's all you ever are for the rest of your life. That's it. And everything else is secondary to that."

Revived GOP in Missouri

On his way to the Senate, Mr. Danforth is widely credited with revitalizing the Republican Party in Missouri, home of President Harry S. Truman and traditionally a conservative Democratic state. As attorney general, he was the first Republican to hold statewide office for more than 30 years. Today five of the six statewide elected offices in Missouri are held by Republicans.

In the Senate, he has also made his mark. He has introduced the principle of reciprocity against protectionist U.S. trade partners, particularly Japan, pressured the Department of Transportation into agreeing to support air bags for auto safety and sponsored $150 million in food aid to famine-stricken Africa a year before pictures of starving children shocked the nation.

He has pursued the interests of his state in general and the military-industrial complex in particular. Missouri is the home of several major contractors, including St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Corp.


Said Bob Watson, Danforth-watcher for the Jefferson City News and Tribune since 1974: "He generally does things that serve the people of the state."

John Claggett Danforth

Born: St. Louis, Mo., on Sept. 5, 1936

Family background: Grandson of founder of Ralston-Purina Co. Married to the former Sally B. Dobson; they have five children.

L Education: Princeton, Yale Divinity School, Yale Law School.

Profession: Attorney, Episcopal minister.


Politics: Republican. Missouri attorney general, 1969-1976. Elected to U.S. Senate in 1976, 1982, 1988.