Talent for Deception

Back in 1984, a single radio broadcast forever changed the life of James Talent, a young lawyer in Missouri making his first foray into state politics. It was the peak of the Reagan era. God and country were hot topics, and religious broadcasters were cranking at a fever pitch. James Dobson, who heads Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization, was hosting his daily radio show from Colorado Springs. His guest that fateful day was Luis Palau, an evangelist and author of It's a God Thing. After a heated religious broadcast, Dobson wound up his program by entreating his listeners to "trust Jesus Christ" as Palau led them in "a simple sinner's prayer."

Over in west suburban St. Louis, Talent, in the midst of a campaign that would eventually earn him the job of state representative, was listening to the program on his car radio. At Dobson's exhortation, Talent pulled over into a school parking lot, got out of his car, went down on his knees, bowed his head and accepted Christ.

"Today, this young man from Missouri is a United States Congressman who shares the Good News of Jesus Christ in the political arena," reads the conclusion to Talent's conversion drama on the Web site for the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association. Talent himself has said about Dobson and his own religious awakening, "He is the instrument through which I committed my life to Christ. It is the single most important thing that has ever or will ever happen to me."

Fortunately or unfortunately, that story isn't known to most of his constituents, although Talent is now in his 10th election campaign, trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, the incumbent Democrat. In fact, Talent's electoral successes have come about partly due to his image as a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, rational-thinking policy wonk who would never raise his voice, utter a mean word about his enemies or take God's name in vain. Much as with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose lost Senate seat Talent is trying to recapture for the GOP, one imagines Talent muttering "dadgum" when he gets angry or frustrated.

But unlike Ashcroft, who is an unabashed conservative, Talent has consistently presented himself as a moderate, even a centrist, and most Missourians are unaware that his voting record places him squarely among the far right of the Republican Party. Talent has represented the state's wealthiest congressional district, which includes sprawling exurban communities liberally sprinkled with strip malls and identical subdivisions. It's a population that elects both Republicans and Democrats who are not given to provocation or boat rocking. Jim Talent has always fit that image.

But his actions last year, after he left public office, are enough to defile his squeaky clean, morally chaste image.

Talent, who turns 46 this year, grew up in a middle-class family in suburban St. Louis, majored in political science at Washington University, followed that with a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1981 and clerked for Judge Richard A. Posner in Chicago. He returned to St. Louis, got married and was elected state representative in 1984. And for the next 16 years, he held public office -- eight years as the Republican state representative (four as House minority leader), eight more as a U.S. congressman from Missouri's 2nd District. In 2000, while serving out his last year in Congress, Talent ran for governor against Bob Holden, a relatively unknown Democrat from rural Missouri. Talent lost by only 21,000 votes.

Among his critics, Talent's legislative record has long been known and has crystallized over the years into a handful of facts and statistics. To wit:

  • He twice co-sponsored a Right to Life Act that would have guaranteed a definition of life as being "from the moment of fertilization," in effect banning abortion -- with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health or life of the mother.
  • He repeatedly voted against raising the national minimum wage, including its last increase from $4.25 to the current $5.15 per hour.
  • He voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, which allows employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave for significant family or medical reasons.
  • He proposed cutting off all Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- the primary welfare program at the time -- and food stamps to unmarried women under 26 who have children. Instead, his 1993 bill proposed spending money on adoption programs and orphanages.
  • His conservative voting record has consistently received a near-perfect (95 percent-100 percent) rating from the Christian Coalition, the American Conservative Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. Conversely, his record has been dismally rated (below 20 percent) by the League of Conservation Voters, Americans for Democratic Action and the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • He supported a bill in 1993 that would have partly privatized Social Security by requiring a portion of funds to be diverted to private investment accounts.

  • He voted in 1998 for a constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed a right to pray in public schools while he also supported vouchers to divert tax money to private and parochial schools.

And yet to watch Talent's TV ads, read his campaign literature or scroll through his Web site, one finds a concerned public servant who wants to "work across party lines" to make life easier for working Americans, protect Social Security and Medicare, help the elderly with prescription-drug benefits, create jobs in Missouri and improve national security. "For 16 years, Jim Talent has been fighting for the people of Missouri -- putting partisanship aside -- offering hope," says his recent radio ad. "A leader on the Armed Services Committee, Jim Talent stood up against his own party to save the F-18 Hornet program. ... As chairman of the Small Business Committee, he earned the respect of both parties for his ability to bring people together to find solutions on tough issues."

Talent has successfully camouflaged his far-right Republican record. And the conventional wisdom in Missouri for some time has been that one must campaign as a centrist -- that wide comfort zone in the middle, occupied by both "moderate Republicans" and "conservative Democrats." But getting enough traction with his moderate image is made harder for Talent by the fact that he is running against a real centrist in Carnahan. Her campaign touts the fact that she voted with President Bush 71 percent of the time in 2001, including for his controversial tax cut.

As a bellwether state, Missouri is said to reflect the national demographic in racial and age breakdowns, the rural-urban divide and even party affiliations. "Missourians are notoriously nonideological -- they're perfectly capable of electing a Republican or a Democrat," says Kenneth F. Warren, a local pollster and political science professor at St. Louis University. "It's a perfect microcosm of the nation. And so candidates tend to move to the center."

Meanwhile, the campaign itself -- the clash of ideas between the candidates -- has devolved into infantile accusations about irrelevant subjects, with the mainstream media dutifully reporting each charge with plausible denial. These have included whether Talent has been fishing for bass without a valid license (he has), whether Carnahan really engages in skeet shooting with a shotgun (she does), whether Carnahan would attend a California fundraiser with Hillary Clinton (she would) and whether Talent had the moxie to attend a California fundraiser at the Nixon library (he did, but it was canceled).

And then, of course, both candidates have been debating whether to participate in debates. The impending war on Iraq -- or any other foreign-policy matter -- hasn't registered as a campaign issue, presumably because both candidates are solidly behind the president's gun-slinging sheriff approach.

For a few days in the spring, Talent's brief but lucrative lobbying career threatened to become a campaign issue after a news story in The Kansas City Star revealed the details. Much to Talent's relief, that cloud passed quickly when it could have rained on his electoral parade.

Talent's activities in 2001 were such a radical departure from his virtuous image that even his worst critics were astonished. The facts are, in essence, the following: Out of office for the first time in 16 years, Talent did three ethically dubious things in 2001 -- two of them brought him $320,000 in income, along with an undisclosed amount of pay for a key campaign staffer, and the third raised $100,000 through a state political committee, which employed another campaign staffer. Talent and both staffers are back this year, working together on his Senate campaign.

All of this has led some to conclude that Talent knew when he lost the governor's race in 2000 that he would run for the Senate this year, and so his benefactors stepped in to carry him financially while he prepared his campaign. If that is true, then it is a violation of campaign-finance laws, as the Missouri Democratic Party has formally alleged. It would also mean that Talent's benefactors would expect favors if he were to reach the Senate.

Trouble began in January 2001, the month that Talent left Congress, when Washington University in St. Louis named him to a two-year teaching position. Although this is hardly an unusual appointment, Talent's class load was low and his pay was high. Talent taught "Thinking Like a Congressman," a three-credit class in the spring, to about 20 students, and again as a two-credit class in the fall, this time to about 20 students. The university paid him $90,000 for those two classes. Former three-term U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton also taught two classes in 2000 at the same university and was paid $68,000.

Add to that the fact that one of Talent's -- and the Republican Party's -- major benefactors is St. Louisan Stephen Brauer, chairman of Hunter Engineering Co., who happens to be a Washington University trustee. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Brauer, now U.S. ambassador to Belgium, has given about $272,000 to the Republican National Committee since 2000 and has been a regular campaign donor to Talent throughout the 1990s, usually donating the maximum allowed under the law.

Brauer also backed a state committee called Missouri Renewal that Talent chaired in 2001. Set up as a "continuing committee" under state law, something usually done by corporations, labor unions or associations, Missouri Renewal could accept unlimited donations. It raised $100,000, of which $10,000 came from Brauer's company. "In the aftermath of losing a close election, I thought Republicans could do better, and Missouri Renewal was a vehicle to help Republicans win campaigns statewide, regionally and locally," Talent told reporters.

The trouble is, Missouri Renewal may have helped Talent (and his campaign) more than anyone else. The committee was run out of offices used previously by Talent campaigns; it provided employment for Rich Chrismer, who worked for Talent in Congress and in the governor's race and who is now his Senate campaign spokesman; and the committee bought computer software that it then sold to Talent's Senate campaign. Besides Brauer, other donors to the committee were previous and future donors to Talent's campaign, including May Department Stores Co. ($5,000), Gary Schell, co-owner of Diamond Pet Foods ($20,000), and the Missouri Republican Party ($40,000).

The plot thickened when, in March 2001, Talent landed a lucrative job with the Washington lobbying and legal firm Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin and Kahn. He was paid $25,000 a month and had collected more than $230,000 by the time he left the firm last December, even though he was not licensed to practice law in Washington and even though he was barred from lobbying Congress during his first year out of office. The firm also hired Jennifer Woodbury, a lawyer who worked for Talent in Congress and who now serves as his deputy campaign manager. Arent Fox registered five Missouri firms and a national association with ties to Talent as new clients last year; Talent represented three of them, and Woodbury represented all six.

Talent's clients at the firm included UniGroup Inc. of Fenton, Mo., which owns United Van Lines and is headed by Republican activist Bob Baer, a donor to Talent's Senate campaign; the National Federation of Independent Business, which has been one of his strong supporters, donating $10,000 this year to his campaign; and Mid.Tec, a Missouri firm headed by Talent's friend, former state Rep. Brent Evans (R-Manchester). The other three Missouri firms were the Missouri Hospital Association, which gave money to Talent in his governor's race (and also gave money to his opponent); the Logan College of Chiropractic, headed by Talent donor George Goodman; and the HBE Corp., which owns the Adams Mark Hotel chain and whose president, Fred Kummer Jr., is a campaign donor to Talent.

Exactly what Talent did to earn his keep at Arent Fox is a bit of a mystery. Spokespeople for the firm would not return calls but have said that Talent was hired as "a part-time counsel" and for his ability to bring in new clients. Everyone involved -- Arent Fox, its client companies and Talent -- has denied that his hiring was related to his Senate campaign. "It's fair to say I got a lot of money," Talent acknowledged to The Kansas City Star in March. "It didn't have anything to do with the Senate thing." Critics find the denials hard to swallow, seeing as there was widespread speculation in early 2001 that Talent would oppose Carnahan. In August 2001, Talent set up an exploratory committee; in October, he formally announced his candidacy. He left Arent Fox on Dec. 31.

Talent also taught a course called "Congressional Ethics" this spring at Washington University. "It's a class he shouldn't be teaching, he should be taking," says Mike Kelley, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party.

Talent's image survives despite his voting record and extra-congressional activities because, says Warren, in elections, especially ones in Missouri, "Image comes first, partisanship second and issues are dead-last." And there is too much dissonance between the staunch, straight-arrow image of Talent and that of a calculating political contortionist; his poll rankings thus still show him more or less even with Carnahan. She is trying to hold on to the seat she was named to two years ago, after her husband, former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash three weeks before the election but still beat Ashcroft. The winner of the Carnahan-Talent race will not only serve the remaining four years of Mel Carnahan's term but could also determine which party controls the Senate.

Warren believes the race is still a toss-up, partly because Talent has been successful in projecting the clean-cut, centrist image. "Missourians are not right wing, they're middle-of-the-road," Warren says. "In order to win, Jim Talent is headed right to the center. And Jim Talent has to fool most of the voters that he is not right wing, even if his record is."