Former Sen. John Danforth

Why is “St. Jack” helping Arthur Andersen?

Arthur Andersen—whose PR strategy seems to be Today is bad—let’s make tomorrow even worse!—committed a miraculous act of good sense last week. On Thursday, at the same time it admitted destroying documents related to Enron audits, Andersen hired former Sen. John Danforth to review the firm’s “records management policy and to recommend improvements.”

What a sweet gig for both sides! Danforth, who has an angelic reputation, won’t have to sully himself by examining any of the actual garbage from the Enron scandal. His assignment is not to judge who screwed up and how. All he has to do is examine processes, then prepare a 600-page, perfect-bound, obesely footnoted report that—we already know—can be summed up in this single sentence: “Hey, next time you do a sleazy audit, don’t shred the records.”

Andersen basks in the reflected glory of St. Jack. St. Jack will bask in the unreflected glory of a huge Andersen paycheck.

Still, it’s a mistake to be cynical about Danforth, who is a politician of genuine decency and integrity. Before his 1994 retirement, the Missouri Republican served 18 sincere years in the Senate. Missouri Democratic Sen. Thomas Eagleton called Danforth “the least-phony politician that I know.” Democrats admired Danforth for bucking his party on the death penalty, school prayer, and civil rights. Republicans admired Danforth for his firmness against abortion, loyalty to Clarence Thomas, and willingness to tackle important-but-unrewarding issues. And all admired Danforth, an Episcopal minister, for his essential humanity and warmth. “St. Jack” is not an ironic nickname.

Even most Democrats think he has atoned for his lone gross act: his disgusting behavior during the Thomas nomination battle. Danforth, Thomas’ mentor and former employer, fought dirtier than anyone against Anita Hill, trying to smear her with unsupported and insupportable speculation about her supposed sexual pathology. But in Resurrection, his 1994 book about the hearings, Danforth flagellated himself for his zeal against Hill.

Since leaving the Senate to practice law and devote himself to St. Louis’ civic welfare, Danforth has emerged as one of America’s free-lance holy men. In 1999, Attorney General Janet Reno asked him to reinvestigate the Waco affair to determine if government agents were responsible for Branch Davidian deaths. This was as miserable an assignment as can be imagined. Six years of civil suits and federal probes had only inflamed the Waco obsessives. Danforth’s 14-month investigation and definitive verdict—government agents did not start the fire or shoot at Branch Davidians—finally settled Waco in a way Democrats never could. In September, President Bush asked Danforth to try another impossible task: mediating the Sudanese civil war, which has been raging for two decades and killed millions. (Danforth is visiting Sudan this week. He’s not optimistic.)

The ex-pols who are called on to settle disputes, end wars, and clean up dirty companies are a small group who share odd qualities that suit them to the job. The most successful of them is former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, tried to negotiate it in Israel, investigated the Salt Lake Olympic bribery scandal, and is cleaning up the American Red Cross’ image post-Sept.-11. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher periodically shuffles out of his law office to analyze a riot or the like. Former President Jimmy Carter jets off every few months to nurture democracy overseas. Cyrus Vance’s death last week deprived the group of one of its lions. The former secretary of state mediated in Croatia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Cyprus; calmed Detroit during its ‘67 riots; and investigated corruption in New York City. (Some part-timers: Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young studied sweatshops for Nike. Former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin parachuted into Mitsubishi during a sexual harassment probe.)

When most political giants retire from government, they happily devote themselves to making zillions and ignoring the public welfare. (See Henry Kissinger, Al Haig, Edwin Meese …) So what makes these few decide to play secular saints? Several are animated by noblesse oblige. Danforth and Vance were prep-school boys and Yale law grads who came from wealthy families. (Danforth is an heir to the Ralston-Purina fortune.) They are obsessed with their obligation to serve the public.

These mediator types are all modest and self-effacing. They have exceptionally small egos (for politicians). They like sharing credit. They are also incredibly dull. They burn like 40-watt bulbs. Can you remember a single word uttered by Mitchell, Christopher, Vance, or Danforth? Danforth devotes himself to organizations like the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Concord Coalition, arguably the two most tedious institutions in American politics.

The holy men are embarrassed by their political careers. They think of themselves as a little too good and too principled for the dirty political world. Danforth, for example, strongly resisted when George W. Bush considered him for vice president and also demurred when Bush recruited him to litigate one of the Florida recount cases. Mitchell turned down a Supreme Court appointment. Vance quit as secretary of state over principle. Their nicknames reflect this high-mindedness: “St. Jack”; Vance’s “Mr. Integrity”; Christopher’s “The Cardinal.”

The mediators are naturally uncomfortable with conflict. Most are lawyers, but they are not contentious ones. (They have judicial temperaments.) Danforth is a minister, and he says, “I don’t like myself when I’m embattled.”

For such distinguished people, they have had surprisingly undistinguished careers. Vance and Christopher are the two most forgettable secretaries of state in recent American history, and Mitchell an unmemorable majority leader. About Jimmy Carter, enough said. Danforth has a short list of accomplishments. (It’s appropriate that his two principal achievements negate each other: the 1991 Civil Rights Bill and the appointment of Thomas to the Supreme Court.)

They have beige careers because, fundamentally, they don’t believe in anything. All are moderate or apolitical. No ideology quickens them. No issues rouse them to fury. They are incapable of offending anyone, incapable of taking offense. They are generous, always willing to listen to the other guy’s view. They never hold a grudge. It makes them good friends, great colleagues, and uninspiring leaders.

But it does explain why Mitchell, Danforth, and Co. excel at negotiating between enemies. They aren’t trapped by ideology. They are willing to see the good in everyone, to soothe the brutes over here and the thugs over there. When the world needs deals between two evils—Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, Irish Protestant paramilitaries and the IRA—the holy men can make it happen, because they let the monsters be monsters.

This vague ambivalence makes Danforth an excellent envoy to the Sudan, where he must assuage mass murderers on both sides. But it may make him an ineffectual choice for fixing Andersen—and that is almost certainly why the company hired him. All evidence so far suggests that Andersen’s executives should be fined millions of dollars, then hauled into the town square and flogged. Andersen approached Danforth because they know he will merely give the company a nice scrubbing. Andersen wants Danforth to make dozens of recommendations for document handling, and then to walk away, leaving the world with the impression that St. Jack has given Andersen a gold stamp. He is Andersen’s plaster saint.