Magazine | July 10, 2017, Issue

Eric Greitens’s Rising Star

Eric Greitens (Roman Genn)
The remarkable career and bright future of Missouri’s governor

Jefferson City, Mo. — ‘Follow me! Let’s go!” shouted Eric Greitens to a cheering crowd on May 23. Then the Republican governor of Missouri left his podium and led several busloads of people up a curving stairway on the north side of the state capitol, through his office, and into the building’s dim halls. They waved signs, plastered doors with petitions, and urged lawmakers to pass a bill that Greitens says will bring jobs to the state’s southeast corner, its beleaguered “Bootheel” region. Their rally culminated with speeches and ovations on the third floor, just outside a room that holds a set of murals called “A Social History of Missouri,” one of the most celebrated works of art by the painter Thomas Hart Benton.

Missouri’s annual legislative session had ended less than two weeks earlier, but Greitens ordered lawmakers back to Jefferson City for a special session to focus on a single issue that had stalled earlier in the spring: allowing the state’s utilities commission to slash electricity rates for factories in the Bootheel, in the hope that a shuttered aluminum smelter will reopen and a new steel mill rise up. “When people have jobs in a thriving economy, it solves a lot of problems,” says Greitens.

Three days later, the legislature gave Greitens the bill he wanted. “We won this fight . . . for all the families who need quality, high-paying jobs,” he said in a statement. The victory functioned as a kind of encore performance for the governor, whose rookie season began with a series of conservative reforms. This marked a refreshing break for Missouri’s Republicans, frustrated for the previous eight years by the incessant vetoes of Democratic governor Jay Nixon. Now Greitens is drawing interest from outside the Show-Me State. In just a few months, he has rocketed from political obscurity to become one of the most fascinating figures in public life today. What’s more, he’s an ambitious man — and conservatives may come to take a keen interest in his future.

The 43-year-old Greitens (rhymes with “tightens”) boasts an astonishing, almost too-good-to-be-true résumé. Born and raised in St. Louis, he attended Duke University, where he studied philosophy with the renowned professor Alasdair MacIntyre, became a skilled boxer, and won a Rhodes scholarship, which led to a Ph.D. at Oxford. Along the way, he volunteered at refugee camps in the Balkans and Rwanda and examined the lives of the poor in Bolivia, India, and elsewhere. Then, in 2001, Greitens made a startling decision: He joined the Navy. He earned his trident as a Navy SEAL, deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service. When he mustered out in 2007, he founded The Mission Continues, a nonprofit group that helps veterans adjust to life after the military. It won a series of awards for excellence.

As if that weren’t enough, this scholar-turned-humanitarian-turned-warrior-turned-entrepreneur also wrote a bestselling book: The Heart and the Fist, a 2011 memoir. It reveals an ability to tell a story and draw a lesson, and its pages show the fruits of a classical education, with regular references to antiquity, from Pericles to Plato. “There’s a lot of wisdom from the classical world that we can apply to the problems of today — so many lessons about how we use models and confront challenges,” he says. As governor, Greitens says he remains an avid reader. He recently finished a biography of Napoleon by the historian Andrew Roberts and plans to start Dreamland, an account of the opiate crisis by the journalist Sam Quinones. He keeps a set of books by Winston Churchill on the credenza behind his desk.

Greitens is the son of a Jewish mom and a Catholic dad. His parents agreed to bring up Greitens in the religious faith of his mother and in the political faith they both shared. “I was born and raised a Democrat,” he says. “I was a Democrat as a kid for a very simple reason: People told me that Democrats were the ones who cared about people.” He cast his first presidential vote in 1992, for Democrat Bill Clinton. Even so, he remained remote from partisan politics: “When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, I never once turned to someone before a raid on a house and said, ‘Hey, man, are you a Democrat or a Republican?’”

His political evolution took time: “It was not a single moment but an accumulation of actual experiences.” It started in the refugee camps in the 1990s. “I came to see that it wasn’t enough just to care about people. You also had to build systems in which you could ensure that there are results and accountability,” he says. “That was the beginning of a change in my philosophy — realizing that caring and compassion are good and that they’re even better when they’re matched with a focus on responsibility.”

Then came another shift in his thinking, which he described in The Heart and the Fist: “I had become an advocate for using power, where necessary, to protect the weak, to end ethnic cleansing, to end genocide. But as I wrote papers to make this argument and spoke at conferences, my words seemed hollow. . . . How could I ask others to put themselves in harm’s way if I hadn’t done so myself?” Up to this point, he had not given much thought to the military. Suddenly, he felt called: “The world needs many more humanitarians than it needs warriors, but there can be none of the former without enough of the latter.” So he resolved to become a warrior and worked his way into the elite ranks of the Navy SEALs. “The experience brought me face to face with what I had seen in humanitarian work — the necessity to fight evil, that there is evil in the world, and good people need to stand up and fight it,” he says. Around this time, he began voting for Republicans on the presidential level.

His political conversion continued after active duty as he began his regular dealings with the Department of Veterans Affairs. “I watched the VA bureaucracy destroy the lives of my friends,” he says. As the chief executive of The Mission Continues, he observed the VA’s failures up close — and he recognized a root cause. “The dominant philosophy that we ran into was that it was the VA’s responsibility to help veterans to reintegrate, as if only the government has a role to play,” he says. “I saw that liberal ideas didn’t work. They hurt people. If you really cared about people, you needed to care about the results you’re getting.”

As he searched for solutions, he discovered the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, a pair of conservative think tanks. “I saw the power of conservative ideas put into action,” he says. “I developed a conservative philosophy first. I’m a conservative not by birth but by conviction. Later, I became a Republican.”

In 2015, this newly minted Republican announced his candidacy for governor. Greitens had not spent years on Missouri’s Lincoln Day dinner circuit, so Republican primary voters hardly knew him — and he looked like an underdog in a field that included a longtime lieutenant governor, a former statehouse speaker, and a wealthy businessman. Greitens reminded everyone of his service as a Navy SEAL but often seemed to avoid discussions of policy, raising concerns that he wasn’t quite up to the demands of the governorship. To doubters, he was all biography and no conviction. He ran a couple of cartoonish, Rambo-like television commercials in which he fired an AR-15 at an explosive target and a riotous, six-barreled M134 minigun into a small lake. They looked like Saturday Night Live skits that sought to spoof the primitive passions of red-state Republicans.

In the GOP primary last August, Greitens carried only a little more than one-third of the vote, but it was a plurality — and enough to capture the party’s nomination. Heading into a November contest against Democrat Chris Koster, a popular two-term attorney general, Greitens continued to face skepticism. The Missouri Farm Bureau and the National Rifle Association, both usually loyal to the GOP, backed Koster. Missouri Right to Life opposed Koster but remained wary of Greitens, refusing to endorse him even as he professed pro-life views. Despite these obstacles, Greitens won with 51 percent of the vote, probably riding the coattails of Donald Trump, who took Missouri by nearly 20 points.

At his swearing-in ceremony in January, Greitens became the second-youngest governor in the country and sounded like an old-fashioned conservative. “No matter how well we do in government, there is a limit to what government can do well,” he said in his inaugural remarks. Over the next four months, he pushed conservative policies. He signed a law that made Missouri the nation’s 28th right-to-work state. In another blow to unions, he revised project-labor agreements, cutting the cost of public construction. He enacted tort reform and approved a bill to ease restrictions on rideshare companies such as Lyft and Uber. He set in motion a couple of endeavors whose political payoff will come in a year or two: the creation of a tax commission whose goal is to propose a simplified code and lower rates, and the launch of an 18-month review of every state regulation. He also repealed a controversial policy that had blocked churches from participating in a state program that pays for the resurfacing of playgrounds with rubber-tire mulch. A religious-freedom case against the prohibition had worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in April.

“We promised people during the campaign we’re going to do things differently,” says Greitens. Yet his different way is almost as much about style as it is about substance: “I’ve never been involved in politics before,” he says, meaning that he wouldn’t know how to behave as an ordinary politician even if he wanted to. But clearly he doesn’t want to. Rather than courting lawmakers, he routinely berates them as “career politicians” who “serve their petty political agenda.” On May 12, a reporter asked him to assign a letter grade to the state’s senators and representatives. Greitens answered with a rhetorical jab: “What’s the grade I would give the legislature? Frankly, sometimes it looked like the third grade.”

When he talks this way, which is often, Greitens strikes at members of his own party. That’s because in Missouri, Republicans don’t merely control the statehouse; they command supermajorities in both chambers. The brashness that led him to invite hundreds of angry Bootheelers to the state capitol on May 23 has compelled local reporters to note the governor’s “needlessly aggressive approach” (Kansas City Star) and his “bellicose attitude” (Springfield News-Leader). Yet Greitens also has won plenty of fans. Farmers like his stance on regulations, gun owners see him as an ally, and the pro-lifers are pleased. “He’s been vocal on our issues,” says Susan Klein of Missouri Right to Life. On June 12, in fact, lawmakers reconvened at his insistence for another special session, this time to consider pro-life legislation.

To be sure, Greitens didn’t get everything he wanted this spring: The legislature refused to pass education savings accounts, failed to take up welfare reform, and ignored an ethics package that Greitens had campaigned on. The governor also encountered what might be called Missouri’s deep state — an administrative bureaucracy in the grip of outmoded habits. “One of the things that was really frustrating when I came into office was that when we were looking at the first budget, they’d show me a program — for prison recidivism, school-bullying hotlines, and so on — and they’d tell me what it did. Then I’d ask, ‘Well, what are the results?’ There were no answers, no metrics or measures so we can hold programs accountable for creating results.” He means to fix that, too. Brenda Talent, head of the Show-Me Institute, Missouri’s free-market think tank, raves: “We’re now talking about all the right things.”

One of those things is crime control. In 2014, the country watched riots overtake the city of Ferguson, just outside St. Louis, in the wake of a police shooting. As governor, Greitens has embraced police officers in every way possible, exercising with them as he travels the state and hailing them in his rhetoric. “We have men and women who leave their houses every night, put on body armor, strap on sidearms, say good night to their families, and step into the night to do dangerous work,” he says. “The profession of policing is built on the willingness of every police officer to make a hundred difficult decisions every night. Should I pull this car over or not? Should I talk to the guys on this corner or not? They need to know that they’re supported.” When they sense that they’re not, says Greitens, they’re less likely to take these actions — a reluctance that has become known as the “Ferguson effect,” and one that possibly has caused an uptick in crime. The governor cites the work of Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, who has documented the troubling trend.

For Greitens, crime isn’t a theoretical problem: In December, his wife was robbed at gunpoint in St. Louis. In February, vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery just outside the city. Greitens led a restoration effort, assembling an ecumenical cleanup crew that included Vice President Pence. Yet it all comes back to cops on the beat. “Our law-enforcement officers deserve support through the whole chain of command, from sergeants and chiefs of police to mayors and governors,” says Greitens. “That’s how we create peace in communities.”

The University of Missouri also has suffered from recent unrest, and Greitens has had to deal with the ongoing fallout, which includes plummeting enrollments at the state’s flagship school. “Just like Ferguson was Ground Zero for a lot of the anti-police movement, what happened at the University of Missouri was in many ways Ground Zero for this unthinking liberal idea that you should intimidate people who disagree with you,” says Greitens. “I come from a perspective where I worked with 18- and 19-year-olds who were putting on 40-pound rucksacks, walking around the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, and fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda. And then I come back and I hear 18- and 19-year-olds in Missouri complaining that life is just too tough on campus. We need to bring back some core values of hard work, responsibility, and respect.”

Greitens says he hopes to do for Missouri what Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana, accomplished for Hoosiers: “He did an extraordinary job. I read his book Keeping a Republic at least three times, maybe four. It was required reading for our transition team.” He mentions another inspiration. “Everybody talks about Alexis de Tocqueville,” he says, pronouncing the name “Alex-ee,” the French way. “His insight was that what has made America great is the power of Americans to come together. Government has a role to play, but we can’t look to government to solve all of our problems. We need to have leaders in government who recognize the power of the private sector, philanthropic and civic institutions, and our citizens. If we respect and recognize that power, we can solve problems and create a freer and more prosperous society.”

It sounds like Missouri may have a bright future. What about Greitens? He’s been optimistic for a long time. Eight years ago, he registered an Internet domain name: “”

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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