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Home / Books / The Heart and the Fist · LRB 24 May 2018

The Heart and the Fist · LRB 24 May 2018

‘Have I told you about my old friend who’s married to the Republican governor of Missouri?’ Too often, the answer was yes, I had – sometimes more than once. My Sheena story was my best story, the anecdote that rarely failed, which was fortunate, because I couldn’t stop telling it, usually in the same way, even with the same pauses and hand gestures. At the end, I would play on my phone one of Eric’s earliest campaign ads, in which he shoots a machine gun into a field as he promises to take ‘dead aim at politics as usual’. ‘If you’re ready for a conservative outsider,’ he says, ‘I’m ready to fire away.’

I would tell how Sheena and I came to England together, on a plane with all the other Americans who’d won a Marshall Scholarship. Some of them were politically ambitious: ‘No photos!’ they’d say at parties. Sheena and I weren’t like that, but then I don’t remember going to many parties. Instead, we drove around Scotland, and went to a lot of plays – my first piece in the LRB was about seeing Happy Days with her at the National. ‘In as much as I thought I could know someone, I thought I knew her,’ I’d say, though when I Google her now, I still learn things about her. A few months before we met, she told her local paper that although one of her professors at Stanford had been Clinton’s defence secretary, William Perry, her ‘dream job’ was to be national security adviser. She knew Korean and was studying Mandarin: as a student she had published articles about North Korean counterfeiters and smuggling networks. So on paper she fitted in with all the other prizewinners; what made her exceptional, I thought at the time, was her kindness. When she was growing up, her parents in Washington State – Presbyterian doctors – had adopted a girl from South Korea. Sheena had learned Korean for her.

After Oxford, Sheena got a PhD in political science at Harvard, with a focus on the ‘politics of democracy and dictatorship’. She met Eric Greitens when he spoke on a panel about political leadership, and it seemed that no sooner had they started dating than they were engaged. He was a Jewish Navy Seal Rhodes Scholar. How many of those are there in the world? He wrote his DPhil on how to protect children more effectively in war zones; he’d wanted to serve because he loved his country enough to risk dying for it:

I walked into the rotunda at Rhodes House – a fancy mansion on the Oxford campus – and looked up at the names etched into the marble. Those were the names of scholars who left in World War One and World War Two to fight and die overseas. I stood there thinking that if they hadn’t made that choice I wouldn’t be here. I believed that everything in my life, everyone who invested in me along the way, had prepared me to serve and make a difference.

After two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, he started a charity called the Mission Continues, which helped veterans adjust to civilian life. When he went on The Daily Show to talk about his book Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Leading a Better Life, he told Jon Stewart that he’d been inspired by his ‘buddy’, a war hero, who after returning home had become an unemployed alcoholic still afraid of sniper fire. ‘I started writing him a letter about resilience, about how you deal with hardship and become better, about how you deal with pain and become wiser, how you move through fear and build courage.’ It became a bestseller, and also helped Eric get support for the Mission Continues, which has received donations from Bank of America, Disney, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, Starbucks, as well as thousands of people. (This becomes important later.)

I won’t go on about how wonderful he seemed. Not because there’s a lack of material. Here’s Eric talking to another talk-show host, Charlie Rose: ‘Oxford had these long breaks so I could leave Oxford and I could go to work with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. I could go to Cambodia and work with kids who lost limbs to landmines. I could go to Albania … ’ Look him up in the New York Times archive and there’s someone complaining that he’s such a ‘paragon of virtue’ that he scuttles Joe Klein’s book Charlie Mike: A True Story of Heroes Who Brought Their Mission Home – the ‘heroes’ are Eric and a few others, but mostly Eric. It’s not that the reviewer doubted Eric’s wonderfulness, just that he seemed a little dull:

Consider Eric Greitens, a former Rhodes scholar who ‘spent almost all of his school breaks working in refugee camps’. Later, while in the Navy Seals, he decided to redecorate the office cubicle he inherited, replacing ‘pictures of near-naked women on Harleys’ with quotations from Churchill, Patton and Thucydides.

That’s the way I usually told the first half of the story. I didn’t mention that some friends had said that Eric had made them feel uncomfortable, or that I’d been disappointed when Sheena agreed to limit her job search to Missouri, because that’s where Eric wanted to live. Blaine Greteman, now an English professor at the University of Iowa, was in the Rhodes class after Eric; he wrote on Twitter that even then Eric was ‘talking about how he would be governor or president’. Greteman and another classmate had ‘found him so creepy we made him a villain in a screenplay we wrote … It was a pretty bad screenplay. But also maybe we were just ahead of our time?’

I didn’t go to the wedding: because of what I had heard about him, or because I didn’t want to fly out to the West Coast? A bit of both. I sent Sheena a couple of cake tins from her list.

And for a while, that was it. I got their Christmas cards; I cooed over pictures of Sheena’s baby on Facebook. When Sheena asked me to suggest potential reviewers for Eric’s memoir, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy Seal, I sent names and addresses. In the first four years after their wedding, if his name came up, I’d say: ‘At least he’s a Democrat.’ We all knew he would eventually run for office: why else had they moved to his home state? I had almost stopped thinking about him when he published an article on FoxNews.com in the summer of 2015 with the headline ‘Former Navy Seal: Why I am no longer a Democrat’, a prelude to his running for governor.

I am a conservative Republican, but I didn’t start out that way. I was raised as a Democrat. I was taught that Harry Truman was the greatest president ever because he was strong, stood up to the communists, and most important, he was from Missouri. I was taught to stand up for the little guy, and that bigger government was the best way to do that … There was one rather large problem. As I got older, I no longer believed in their ideas. Even worse, I had concluded that liberals aren’t just wrong. All too often they are world-class hypocrites. They talk a great game about helping the most vulnerable, with ideas that feel good and fashionable. The problem is their ideas don’t work, and often hurt the exact people they claim to help.

It might also have been the case that the Democrats were less keen on running Eric for higher office, at least right away. Obama spent seven years in the Illinois state senate before going to the US Senate – that’s how it usually works. The Democratic Party was drowning in ambitious Rhodes Scholars who wanted to work for Obama, or to be him; less so the Republicans. One of Eric’s advisers would later testify that Eric wasn’t interested in running for anything less than governor; he said ‘he wasn’t somebody that ever climbed ladders. Indicating that he didn’t have to.’ The incumbent, Jay Nixon, a Democrat, was term-limited, and it was more than time for the seat to change parties: Missouri is very white, and rural, and the state had voted against Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, though it hadn’t been particularly keen on Mitt Romney either. (Google ‘undecided voters Missouri 2012’, and up comes the line: ‘Who are you going to vote for, the Muslim or the Mormon?’) To secure the Republican nomination, Eric first had to see off all the Missouri state representatives – ‘crooked career politicians’, he called them – who had been waiting, some of them for their entire careers, for Jay Nixon to stand down. They tried to persuade the party faithful that Eric wasn’t nearly as conservative as he pretended. Then Eric released an ad:

I knew that career politicians would lie about me. But Obama supporter? That’s not just false it’s offensive. So let me be clear, and I’ll say this slowly, so even the career politicians can understand. Barack Obama is the worst president of my lifetime, maybe ever. I’m Eric Greitens, I’m pro-life, pro-gun, conservative to the core.

He didn’t have to explain why he thought Obama was the worst president maybe ever. To his base, it was self-evident. This was all happening while Trump was running for president, and sometimes it seemed as though the two men shared the same campaign. Rather than drain the swamp, Eric swore to ‘blow up’ Jefferson City, the state capital, while also promising – presumably this would happen first – to throw out all the lobbyists, ‘even if in sight of the statue of Thomas Jefferson I have to throw you down the steps of the Capitol myself’.

Around this time, I had been reading books about the Clintons for a piece I never wrote; Hillary had been told that if she didn’t change her last name from Rodham, her husband would never be re-elected governor of Arkansas. I wrote to Sheena that I had been thinking about ‘how difficult/gruelling/bonkers a gubernatorial race can be. I can’t tell you how much I wish you would just fly to London for a long weekend of anonymity, museuming & hot chocolate.’ Most of my notes were like that: telling her that I missed her, sympathising with how busy she must be, but not mentioning Eric, or saying that I hoped he would win. They never asked me for money, which I thought was odd at the time. Every American I’ve known, however slightly, who’s run for office, even in places I’ve never visited, has asked me for money. That year, the American husband of a South African Rhodes Scholar was running for the Executive Council of New Hampshire; I hadn’t seen them since we left Oxford, but they hit me up for $50. That’s just the way it works. But Eric was raising millions of dollars without, it seemed, having to stoop to ask. One of the political action committees that spent more than $2 million to support him was Seals for Truth; Eric claimed that this was being run by his fellow Navy Seals, although its lone donor was an entity called the American Policy Coalition Inc. – a non-profit that exists in name only, and was incorporated by a lawyer who has also helped the Koch brothers, Republican billionaires, funnel money to their favourite candidates. Meanwhile, actual Navy Seals put a video on YouTube criticising Eric for exaggerating his service: he’d completed Seal training, but had never actually served in a Seal platoon. Also on YouTube, a waitress uploaded a short video: she wanted people to know that Eric had once grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around because he was angry that his food had taken too long to come. He had yelled at her and wouldn’t stop touching her after she asked him to stop. ‘I’m not a very political person,’ she said, but she wanted people to know what he was like. I found the video after I typed ‘Eric Greitens’ into the YouTube search box – something I did a lot – but I didn’t see it mentioned elsewhere.

After Eric won the Republican nomination, his campaign ads were more muted. To beat the Democratic nominee, the popular state attorney general Chris Koster, Eric would have to appeal to the college-educated suburban women that Ivanka was trying to win for her father. A new ad showed him walking down a leafy street with Sheena, both pushing prams: ‘If you want more government, higher taxes, billions in Obamacare expansion, and corrupt career politicians as usual,’ Eric says, ‘then vote for Chris Koster. That’s what he’s been doing 22 years.’ Sheena says nothing, but she shakes her head ‘no’ when Eric mentions Obamacare. She’s not wearing a cross in this video, though she does in others. Did this placate anyone who worried about electing a Jewish governor? The state had never had one before.

The only charge that seemed to stick was that Eric was already looking beyond the state, with the domain ericgreitensforpresident.com already registered. A St Louis Magazine reporter was sent to interview ‘his brilliant young wife’ who ‘looks a bit like Kate Middleton’. She asked Sheena ‘when it first occurred to her that she could wind up as the nation’s first lady’; Sheena said she’d never thought about it before – ‘“Not until this very moment,” she says, blinking rapidly.’ The reporter didn’t believe her. Sheena joined Eric’s Mission for Missouri bus tour, usually holding their new baby; Koster, single and childless, took to posing with one of his nieces. When Eric refused to release his tax returns, his campaign adviser said that it was because Eric had to make the decision ‘with Sheena, as a family’, whereas ‘Chris can make it for himself.’

On election night, while I waited for the returns to come in, I kept tweeting at the writer Curtis Sittenfeld – other than the Greitenses, she was the only person I could think of who lived in Missouri. What was she seeing on the ground? In Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, the character modelled on Laura Bush decides she can’t be blamed for what her husband did in office: ‘All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.’ But she also knows that he wouldn’t have won without her.

In his inaugural address, Eric spoke about government being ‘the wrong place to look if you’re seeking compassion. Caring comes from individual people.’ It was time for Missourians to start doing more for themselves. The ‘most important anti-crime programme ever known is a dad playing ball with his son’. Of course his vision for the state would mean great effort, even sacrifice, but weren’t they up to the challenge? The West was won in Missouri. The first mile of the Interstate was laid in Missouri. In Missouri they built steamships ‘that plied’ the Mississippi. It was a Missourian who first flew solo across the Atlantic, and it was Missourians ‘who built the capsule in which an American first orbited the Earth’. He asked the people of Missouri to pray for him and his family. Two weeks later, he flew with Sheena to Washington to see Trump sworn in.

I cancelled my Google news alerts for ‘Eric Greitens’ because suddenly there was too much news: Eric had changed the gun policy at the statehouse – any visitor or employee could now bring in a concealed firearm. He went to Washington to meet with Mike Pence, to Israel to meet with Netanyahu. He overturned a by-law forbidding landlords and employers to discriminate against women who used birth control. He lowered the minimum wage in St Louis. There was only a single abortion clinic in the state, and Eric tried to regulate it out of existence. He slashed funding for the state’s public universities, including the one at which Sheena taught. He signed a bill that made it almost impossible for anyone to sue successfully for racial discrimination. The NAACP warned black people to ‘exercise extreme caution’ before entering Missouri, the first time they’d ever issued a travel warning for a specific state. Eric was now often referred to as Mike Pence’s favourite governor, very likely his future running mate, or his pick for vice-president if Trump didn’t complete his term.

I sat in London obsessing about what was happening back home, feeling furious and powerless. The day after Comey was fired, I went to Grosvenor Square to join the protest, but there was no one there. I read the news on my phone, then went to Selfridges. On the fundraising website
DonorsChoose.org, Missouri teachers were begging for school supplies. I bought a set of books for one class and gave the website Sheena’s office address so that she would be sent the thank you notes. I didn’t criticise her more directly: a friend’s attempt to school her on reproductive freedom hadn’t gone well. Then, on 17 August last year, I linked to an article on Facebook from the Amnesty International website: a man called Marcellus Williams was scheduled to be executed in Missouri five days later.

Williams had been convicted of the murder of a St Louis Post-Dispatch reporter. He’d always maintained his innocence, and no physical evidence connected him to the crime. (An ex-girlfriend testified that he had confessed to her, and received a cash reward.) Civil rights activists were interested in the case because Williams was black, but had faced an almost all-white jury. There was a Twitter campaign to free him, and the nun from Dead Man Walking had made an appeal. Eric had already presided over one man’s execution, and I hadn’t said anything, but this time I tagged Sheena so that the post would appear on her Facebook page too – something I could do, because we were friends. I wrote: ‘I desperately hope that Eric Greitens won’t allow this man to be executed on Tuesday.’ Friends posted beneath or emailed her. She was at the Missouri State Fair that day, and the post stayed up for several hours before she saw it and deleted it from her page. She was angry that I’d put a ‘political post’ on her wall for everyone to see; I told her I wouldn’t do it again. Three hours before Williams was scheduled to be executed, Eric granted a stay. I sent Sheena a row of emoji kisses, as though she’d done me some small favour.

In January, Eric delivered the annual ‘state of the state’ address in Jefferson City. He promised to continue cutting taxes and to repeal regulations. He thanked his kindergarten teacher for being in the room, and thanked Sheena for her great work helping Missouri children in foster care. At Christmas, she had decorated the governor’s mansion with gold stars, each one representing a child in the system. I didn’t watch the speech at the time, and when I watch it now I’m not sure whether it’s only because I know what’s going to happen later that night – Eric knew the story was about to break – that I think he appears less commanding than usual.

A woman – her name protected – had been Eric’s hairdresser. She said that during the campaign, when Sheena was out of town, she’d gone to the basement of his house, where he kept his exercise equipment: Eric had offered to teach her ‘how to do a proper pull up’. Instead, he had tied her up, blindfolded her, pulled off her clothes and taken her photograph with his phone. She had been sobbing when he put his penis in her mouth. Eric told her that if she told anyone, he’d send the photograph of her ‘everywhere’. He has said that there was ‘no blackmail, there was no violence, there was no threat of violence’. He claims they had a consensual sexual affair, which he calls a ‘personal mistake’. Sheena released a statement: ‘We have a loving marriage and an awesome family; anything beyond that is between us and God. I want the media and those who wish to peddle gossip to stay away from me and my children.’ She and Eric spent a few days away from the cameras, in the office of Eric’s political action committee, reassuring their donors and state legislators that there wouldn’t be any further scandals, and that Sheena was sticking by her husband. She said she’d already known that Eric had had an affair, and had long since forgiven him.

Eric was indicted for ‘criminal invasion of privacy’. The Missouri Republican Party issued a statement accusing the St Louis prosecutor who brought the charges, a black woman, of being a puppet of George Soros: the governor was the victim of a liberal globalist conspiracy. ‘Missourians should see this for what it is: a political hit job.’ Two months later, Eric was indicted on another felony charge: he’s accused of having stolen lists from the Mission Continues containing the names and addresses of everyone who had donated more than $1000 to the charity, to use for his own campaign fundraising purposes. It’s not nearly as sensational as the rape allegation – Missourians, inevitably, are calling that ‘Fifty Shades of Greitens’ – but there’s an overwhelming paper trail, and it’s probably the easier case for prosecutors to make. A special session of the state legislature will consider whether to proceed with an impeachment trial.

Eric says that he’s been the victim of a ‘political witch hunt’, just like the president. ‘This is exactly like what’s happening with the witch hunts in Washington, DC.’ A jury is being selected for his first trial. He refuses to resign: in the age of Trump, why should he?

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