POLITICS JANUARY 13, 2011
The bomber carried balloons. They were silver and purple, and when he stepped inside the parking garage, they flitted and danced around his head—obscuring his face, as well as his intentions.
It was October 2008, just after 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and the workers in the office tower above the garage in suburban St. Louis were still at their desks. Only surveillance cameras saw the man with the balloons as he hurriedly walked to the parking space marked “654,” knelt down, and placed a wicker basket next to the driver’s side door of a late model Acura TL. Then, as quickly as he’d entered the garage, he left. Some hours later, the Acura’s owner, a 69-year-old attorney named John Gillis, arrived at his car. When he picked up the basket, it exploded.
The investigators from the local police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives were baffled. No one came forward to claim responsibility, and the surveillance video, which played again and again on the local TV news, produced no good leads. The bomb’s sole victim, Gillis—who survived the blast but suffered severe burns on his arms, hands, and head—was a mild-mannered mergers and acquisitions lawyer, someone who seemingly lacked the personality, or the caseload, to provoke such an attack.
Eventually, investigators began to consider the possibility that the bomb had been intended for someone else—specifically Richard Eisen, an attorney who did handle the type of messy cases that create mortal enemies and who also drove an Acura, which he parked in the same garage, just a floor away from where Gillis parked his. And one person who appeared to have ample motive to wish Eisen harm was a man named Milton “Skip” Ohlsen.
By the age of 37, Ohlsen, a handsome man whose face always seemed to be wearing a five o’clock shadow and a smirk, already had several lifetimes’ worth of unpleasant encounters with lawyers—from the prosecutors who convicted him of dealing cocaine when he was in his early twenties to, more recently, the attorneys who represented his disgruntled business partners in a failed ultimate-fighting promotions company. For Ohlsen, who always seemed to be running one scam or another, tangling with lawyers was just part of doing business.
But Ohlsen’s legal battles with Eisen were exceedingly personal. In 2007, Eisen served as the attorney for Ohlsen’s then-wife in the couple’s divorce—a particularly nasty dispute in which she accused him of infidelity, abuse, and the theft of an airplane. The next year, Eisen helped the estranged husband of Ohlsen’s new girlfriend obtain a temporary restraining order to keep Ohlsen away from the man’s young daughter. From Ohlsen’s perspective, it might have seemed that Eisen had not only destroyed his old life, but was trying to wreck his new one.
In December 2008, federal agents visited Ohlsen’s St. Louis apartment. According to a search warrant later obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, they were seeking “evidence related to the planning, execution, and/or cover-up of the bombing in Clayton, Missouri.” They didn’t find it. Ohlsen has insisted he played no part in the attack, and to this day the bombing remains unsolved, the identity of the man with the balloons still unknown. But Ohlsen was of interest to investigators for other reasons as well. And, in the course of rummaging through his life, they turned up evidence of other misdeeds. Like the financial documents revealing that he’d committed mortgage fraud. And the five semi-automatic guns and 550 rounds of ammunition that, as a convicted felon, he was prohibited from possessing.
The investigators’ most tantalizing discovery—one that would lead them in a very unexpected direction—was an audio recording that Ohlsen had surreptitiously made of himself talking with a man named Steve Brown. The tape revealed that, in addition to drugs, guns, and ultimate fighting, Ohlsen had also dabbled in political consulting. On the recording, Brown could be heard beseeching Ohlsen to lie to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), which was investigating some skullduggery the two had apparently once engaged in. “We’re prepared to take care of you in this,” Brown told Ohlsen, “if you take care of us in this.” The investigators knew Brown to be the scion of a prominent St. Louis banking family and a member of the Missouri House of Representatives. But when he spoke of “we,” he wasn’t doing so in the royal sense. “Jeff is prepared, as am I, ... to still be your friend, and to show it,” Brown told Ohlsen, “if you keep us out of this.”
The Jeff to whom Brown was referring—and on whose behalf he and Ohlsen appeared to have perpetrated the dirty trick—was the Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith. A thirtysomething academic turned politician, Smith was the brightest young star in the Missouri Democratic Party. Thanks to an award-winning documentary about him, he was also a national political figure—a crusading reformer whose combination of charisma, idealism, and intelligence prompted comparisons to Howard Dean, Paul Wellstone, and even Barack Obama. Although he was only in his first term, no one (least of all of Smith himself) doubted he was destined for greatness. “I’ve been in this game for twenty-five years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a political talent like Jeff,” says Brian Wahby, the chairman of the St. Louis Democratic Party, who had talked to Smith about running for mayor or governor or U.S. senator. “His potential as a candidate was limitless.” Smith was not the sort of politician anyone would ever expect of knowing—much less being in league with—someone like Skip Ohlsen. Which is why he was precisely the sort of politician investigators and prosecutors dream of bringing down.
In the spring of 2004, Frank Popper, a filmmaker from Webster Groves, Missouri, went to see the Democratic political consultant Donna Brazile give a speech in St. Louis. As he waited for Brazile to begin, a short, boyish-looking man in an ill-fitting suit introduced himself. “I’m Jeff Smith,” he said, “and I’m running for Congress.”
For months, Smith, a 29-year-old Washington University political science graduate student, had been showing up seemingly anytime that two or more liberals got together in St. Louis. He was one of ten Democrats seeking to replace Dick Gephardt, who was retiring after 28 years representing Missouri’s Third Congressional District. What Smith lacked in experience and gravitas, he made up for in hustle and passion. His pitch—stridently anti-war and anti-Bush—was aimed squarely at his party’s activist base. When he made it to Popper, it resonated. “Jeff’s politics were the politics I’d been starved for,” Popper says. “When we finished talking, I said to the woman sitting next to me, ‘I think I’m going to do a documentary on that guy.’”
The resulting film, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, is a minor masterpiece of the political documentary genre. After its release in 2006, it broadcast nationally on PBS’s prestigious “Independent Lens” series and earned Popper, a first-time feature director, numerous festival accolades. It’s taking nothing away from the director, however, to credit most of the film’s success to its subject. A child of relative privilege who grew up in the St. Louis suburbs, Smith had been drawn to the problems of the inner-city ever since he was a young boy, when his father would take him there to play basketball. As an undergrad at the University of North Carolina, he majored in African American studies and, while getting his Ph.D. at Washington University, he co-founded a group of charter schools in one of St. Louis’s poorest neighborhoods.
At first glance, Smith made for an unlikely politician. Barely over five feet tall, the shoulders of his Oxford shirts often hung down to his elbows, and he spoke in a high, lisping voice. But he possessed a politically potent mix of other qualities: an egghead’s love of public policy, a ravenous appetite for glad-handing and speechifying, and, above all, a fierce idealism. Nick Adams, who was Smith’s first campaign staffer and eventually his campaign treasurer, recalls a conversation with Smith early in the race: “I said something like, ‘Why do you really want to do this?’ And he gave me a non-answer, and I could tell it was a thing where, if he gave me the answer, he’d feel like he was revealing too much of his heart, like it would have been obscene for him to tell me how much he cared.”
Mr. Smith, at heart, is an underdog story, and the Apollo Creed to Smith’s Rocky Balboa is Russ Carnahan—a rather undistinguished state legislator but a member of the state’s most revered Democratic family. “The Carnahan name in Missouri is like the Kennedy name in Massachusetts,” a political analyst tells Popper. As such, he is assumed to be unbeatable. While Carnahan’s mother—former U.S. Senator Jean Carnahan—helps him raise money, Smith’s family is so skeptical they advise friends not to donate to his campaign.
But Smith proves to be an exceptionally industrious candidate. For fund-raising help, he turns to his rich friend Steve Brown, who, through his family connections, has an impressive Rolodex. More critically, Smith recruits to his campaign an army of young people, many of them his former students at Washington University, whose devotion borders on the cultish. Two of his most committed acolytes are Nick Adams and Artie Harris. The 23-year-old Adams is a cerebral yoga devotee and a recent Wash. U. grad. He lacks campaign experience, but moves from Chicago back to St. Louis because, as he tells Popper, “I wanted to work with someone who agreed with me but also had the right spirit in the way they were pursuing politics.” The 25-year-old Harris, Smith’s communications director, is also a campaign neophyte but a much less soulful presence. A manic, perpetually rumpled New Yorker, he shows up for his job interview and cannot believe that Smith is the candidate. “He’s short, he looks like he’s twelve, and sounds like he’s castrated,” he tells Popper. But after ten minutes with Smith, he’s won over: “This motherfucker might just do it.”
Together, Smith, Brown, Adams, Harris, and a growing cadre of volunteers mount a classic grassroots campaign. Smith hosts nearly 100 coffees and knocks on thousands of doors with Popper’s camera following him in the soft summer twilight. “I firmly believe this whole campaign is predicated on the belief that a person’s vote, when they close that curtain, is going to be determined more by someone who comes to their door and says, ‘I want to tell you about my favorite teacher,’” Smith exhorts volunteers at one rally. “That is going to be twenty-thousand times more effective than another TV commercial. ... It is you all who are going to win this for me.” His signs begin popping up in more yards in St. Louis; Howard Dean comes to town to offer his endorsement. By Election Day, when Smith dribbles a basketball through the black neighborhoods of St. Louis—“to try and get people to be like, ‘Wow, this is weird, maybe we’ll go out and vote,’” he explains—he’s running neck-and-neck with Carnahan. It isn’t enough: Carnahan hangs on to win by a mere 1,800 votes. Still, viewed through Popper’s camera, the campaign is a triumph—one that a reviewer from The Boston Globe gushed, “might restore your faith in democracy.”
But there was a darker side to the campaign that is largely missing from Mr. Smith. At the beginning, when no one believed Smith had a chance, optimism propelled his bid for office. But as he began catching up to Carnahan, something changed. “The whole campaign was fueled by desperation,” Adams told me. “That was the darker side of the hope.” Smith and his followers could see that, without some dramatic gambit, they were going to fall just short. “We felt like we were doing everything we could possibly do,” Adams says, “and this guy Russ Carnahan had the name Carnahan, he wasn’t working nearly as hard, and it was Jeff’s judgment that the only way now to go ahead and win it, after all the positive stuff we had done, was to pull Carnahan down a peg or two.”
The Smith campaign, like all underdog efforts, had been approached by second- and third-tier political consultants—the kind of operators that no well-funded candidate would dream of hiring. One particularly persistent suitor was Skip Ohlsen, who, Adams says, presented himself as “a plumber” and “this guy [who] does the dark arts.” Smith’s campaign had repeatedly turned down his solicitations, but now it seemed his services might prove useful.
Carnahan’s biggest vulnerability was his voting record as a state representative—specifically, that he didn’t do it as often as he should have, missing more than one-quarter of roll call votes in 2004. Harris had shopped this information to reporters, but found no takers. In consultation with Smith, Adams and Harris met with Ohlsen to discuss how to raise the issue without linking the attack to their campaign and tarnishing Smith in the process. The proposed solution was that Ohlsen would produce a mailer criticizing Carnahan’s absenteeism on behalf of a newly created independent group called “Voters for Truth.” The mailer would be sent to some 25,000 voters, whose names and addresses would be supplied by the Smith campaign. To pay the $13,000 for Ohlsen’s services, Brown would pony up $5,000 and persuade a few of his friends to donate similar amounts. All of which made the mailer an illegal coordinated campaign expenditure, according to FEC rules. “I knew it wasn’t right,” Smith says, “but I also knew [John] Kerry had just gotten swift-boated, people were doing it everywhere, and we were trying to get out truthful and accurate information.”
For weeks, Smith, Adams, and Harris delayed making a decision on the mailing. Finally, late one night in Smith’s apartment, he, Harris, Adams, and another young campaign worker debated the plan over spaghetti and canned tomato sauce—the only meal Smith knew how to cook. Eventually the group put aside their doubts, Adams recalls, in large part because of Smith. “He put on his professorial cap, and he was talking about FEC rules and regulations and how they were basically created by politicians who were already in office,” Adams says. “We didn’t know what was inbounds or out-of-bounds. We knew politics was a little seamy; there were gray areas. We all believed that our president lied us into a war, and most of what we saw on TV was bullshit. So, when Jeff said this is how the game is played and if you can’t play it, you’re not going to go anywhere, it felt weird. It didn’t feel right, but it seemed like it was probably correct.” The plan was given the green light, and a few weeks later, Harris approached Smith in the campaign office. “The eagle has landed,” he said.
Alas, the mailings Ohlsen produced were hopelessly amateurish. Not only is it doubtful they had any influence on the race, but they didn’t even include the mandatory disclaimer that Ohlsen and the Smith campaign had agreed upon: “Paid for by Voters for Truth.” The missing disclaimer provided the Carnahan campaign with the opportunity to file a complaint with the FEC. Two days after his defeat, Smith met with Carnahan and his brother Tom at Carnahan’s campaign office. Smith offered his endorsement and fund-raising support in the general election. Then he asked Carnahan for a favor. “I told him that I hoped, given the fact that he won, that he would drop the FEC complaint,” Smith recalls. “And he looked at his brother, and his brother said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid the missile’s already left the silo.’”
On September 8, 2004, a few weeks after his meeting with Carnahan, Smith submitted a sworn affidavit to the FEC denying any knowledge of or involvement in the mailings. He justified his actions with Clintonian rationalizations: “Artie had said to me, ‘Skip’s doing this through six different places.’So I literally did not know who did the postcards, I did not know who disseminated the postcard, I did not know who produced the postcard, I did not know who did the graphic for the postcard.” More than anything, Smith says, “I just wanted it to go away.”
And, for a time, it did. In the aftermath of his near-victory over Carnahan, Smith’s political prospects were bright. In 2006, he ran for the state Senate seat that represented St. Louis’s West Side, which included the city’s predominately black North Side and its predominately white South Side. Previous candidates had run racially polarizing campaigns, but Smith’s theme, which he coined with Harris’ help, was “One St. Louis.” (One of his opponents, an Italian-American from the South Side, went with “From the Neighborhood, For the Neighborhood.”) “I’d knock in North St. Louis one day, South St. Louis the next day,” Smith says. “I’d send white kids [to canvass] in North St. Louis and black kids to South St. Louis.” He was also determined to atone for the Ohlsen mailing: “I just said, I’m never doing anything like that again. We’re just going to have to do this one so perfect, so by the book, because I can’t deal with that again.”
Smith won his election handily. And he proved to be a remarkably effective legislator, giving a voice in government to people who don’t often have one. He worked to get incarcerated family members of his constituents moved to prisons closer to home. His signature legislative accomplishment was a pair of bills that reformed Missouri’s child-support system: one creating “fathering courts” that helped deadbeat dads get back on their feet and resume payments; the other ensuring that men who’d been falsely accused of paternity were entitled to DNA tests. When he wasn’t in Jefferson City working on legislation, he was back in St. Louis, attending four or five community meetings per night. “I told them how the sausage got made, probably in a way they weren’t always accustomed to,” he says.
Thanks to Mr. Smith—which was released in July 2006, a few weeks before Smith’s victory in the state Senate primary—he now had a national profile, as well. He became a regular at documentary film festivals and on the university lecture circuit, speaking everywhere from the University of Arkansas’s Clinton School of Public Service to Harvard. A Harper’s reporter asked Smith whether it was “impossible for a progressive candidate to win office by running a genuine grassroots campaign.” Smith reassured him: “There are significant obstacles, but it’s not impossible.”
But Smith was not able to completely leave behind the misstep of his first campaign. For nearly two years, the FEC’s investigation had proceeded at a snail’s pace. Carnahan’s accusation was not particularly serious: If Smith were found guilty, he would likely face, at most, a fine. But in 2006, the FEC intensified its probe. Why it did so is something of a mystery. An FEC spokesperson refused to comment, but some in Missouri politics speculate that the Carnahans worked through the commission to damage Smith. In April 2006, Carnahan’s campaign director sent a letter to the FEC with information on six persons of interest in the investigation. “I think the Carnahan camp always had an eye on [Smith], because he was a guy that bucked the system,” says one Democratic legislator and Carnahan ally, “and it was always a possibility, in the backs of their minds, that he might take [another] stab at Russ.”
One of the people the Carnahan campaign had supplied information about was Skip Ohlsen. In November, Ohlsen called Steve Brown to tell him that he’d been subpoenaed by the FEC. Smith was sucked back into the morass. He instructed Brown to meet with Ohlsen—which is when Brown, unaware Ohlsen was taping the conversation, promised Ohlsen he’d be looked after if he lied to the FEC. In his FEC testimony, Ohlsen partly kept his end of the bargain, telling investigators he had been working for Voters for Truth, not the Smith campaign, and that an anonymous person had paid him cash. He did mention, however, that he’d met with Adams and Harris.
Wanting to stay one step ahead of the FEC, Smith began entreating his two former aides to lie to the investigators. In Smith’s recollection, Harris, who had just taken a job with Andrew Cuomo, didn’t hesitate: “I just remember Artie saying something like, ‘Well, it’s not just me here, Jeff. It’s Steve, it’s Nick, it’s you.’” On March 1, 2007, Harris told a FEC investigator that, while he did give Ohlsen some publicly available information, he had nothing to do with the postcard, nor did he have any knowledge that anyone else on the campaign was involved in its production.
Adams seemed to be a more reluctant accomplice. He had left politics to pursue a sociology Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley and was apprehensive about lying to a federal agent. Adams says Smith assured him that it was not a big deal—that he would “be doing this investigator a favor” by letting her close the case. But what ultimately convinced Adams to lie was his faith in Smith and Brown. “What would I be accomplishing by telling the truth?” he recalls thinking. “I’d be ruining the careers of two skilled politicians who cared about the right things and were moving in the right directions, and for what?” Two weeks after Harris’s interview, Adams told the FEC the same false story.
The cover-up worked. In December 2007, the FEC’s general counsel issued her final report on the Carnahan complaint, recommending that the investigation be closed and that no action be taken against Smith or anyone who worked for his campaign. Noting that Ohlsen’s testimony had been “vague, contradictory, and lacking in credibility,” the FEC concluded that the “circumstances suggest that Ohlsen paid for the postcards with his own personal funds and created Voters for Truth to conceal his involvement in the negative attack on Carnahan.”
Smith, Adams, and Brown celebrated their good fortune. But Harris was unable to do the same. In May, two months after he testified to the FEC, he killed himself. Harris had recently broken up with his girlfriend and was unhappy about moving to New York to take the job with Cuomo; he also had a history of depression. “There was always this part of Artie that was a little tortured,” says one of his friends. But this friend, along with several others, now believes that lying to the FEC may have pushed Harris over the edge. Harris had kept his testimony a secret, but Richard Luthmann, another friend, recalls that Harris was unusually stressed around that time. “He said he’d done some stuff that wasn’t kosher, that wasn’t above board, that he could get in trouble for it, and he said he was getting pressure because it was stuff that could affect Jeff,” Luthmann says. “I think he almost worshipped Jeff.” After Harris’s funeral, when the mourners—who included Smith and Cuomo—returned to his mother’s house in Westchester County to sit shiva, a number of them gathered in her den, where a DVD of Mr. Smith was playing on the television.
For seven years,Smith and Brown spoke almost every day. Their relationship was rooted in politics, but it was also a deep friendship, with Smith viewing the older Brown—who was married with two children—as something like a big brother. One morning in June 2009, Brown called Smith with some troubling news: Skip Ohlsen had just pled guilty to mortgage fraud and firearms charges. Brown was worried that, in a bid for a shorter prison sentence, Ohlsen might start talking to the feds about the anti-Carnahan mailer.
Soon afterward, Smith, Brown, and Adams—who’d recently returned to St. Louis to finish his dissertation—gathered at Smith’s house to figure out what to do if the FBI came calling. The previous day, Smith had broken a couple of ribs playing basketball, so he lay in his bed, while Brown perched on its edge, and Adams sat on the floor. Brown said he was inclined to come clean, since lying could cost him his state representative’s seat and his law license. Adams was confused by that logic. “It was like, if you tell the truth, you’re going to lose your license and your seat. If you lie, you might,” he recalls thinking. Smith was even more adamant that Brown stick with the cover-up. “None of us are going to get the fucking Nobel Peace Prize for our interaction with [Ohlsen],” Smith told Brown and Adams, but if they hung together they would be okay. A shady character like Ohlsen, he reminded them, “against the three of us is not even a contest.”
Almost two weeks later, FBI agents paid early morning visits to Smith and Adams. The agents explained that they were investigating Ohlsen and needed to check out some of his outlandish claims. “It’s nothing you should be too worried about,” Smith remembers an agent saying. Smith and Adams told the agents they had nothing to do with the mailings and that they hadn’t tried to cover up their involvement.
A few hours after the agents departed, Smith and Brown met at a Starbucks. Brown said the FBI had visited his house when he wasn’t home; now his wife was freaking out, and he didn’t know what to do. Smith panicked. “You’re going to go home, and [she] is going to tell you that you’ve got to just tell them exactly what happened,” Smith said. “Steve, I really fucked up, I think,” he continued. “I filed a sworn affidavit with the FEC saying that I had no knowledge of this. My career’s over.” He begged for Brown’s help. “Can you shade it at all?” he asked. “Can you just put it on Artie?” Then Smith laid it out for his friend in stark terms: “I hate to say this, but I think the only way they can get me is if you or Nick says something.”
That evening, Smith gave a speech at a fund-raiser in a downtown loft. He found it difficult to focus. “As I was talking, I had an ominous sense of foreboding about what was to come,” he says. “I looked around the crowd and thought to myself, ‘This is going to be our last fund-raiser.’” Afterward, he met with Brown and Adams at a nearby outdoor plaza. Worried that they might be under surveillance, they stood near a fountain so that their conversation would be hard to overhear. Once again, Smith and Adams pleaded with Brown to lie to the FBI. “I’m alive and Artie’s dead; can we emphasize this was Artie’s deal?” Adams asked. Smith added, “Artie would totally want us to throw him under the bus here.” They were incredulous about their predicament. “Jeff, all of that shit was totally not worth it,” Adams said of the postcards. Smith replied, “I know you did it for me. Ever since the second the campaign ended, I was like, I can’t believe we did that.” Before they parted, Adams had a suggestion. He’d been watching “The Wire” and thought they should conduct future conversations on “those pay-as-you-go cell phones.” Smith approved: “Buy three at WalMart and meet tomorrow to pass them out.”
The next day, however, Brown vanished. Whenever Smith and Adams called his cell phone, he didn’t answer. After about a week and a half, Brown sent them a text message saying only that his attorney had advised him not to speak to them or anyone else. A few days later, two FBI agents arrived at Smith’s house. He refused to talk with them and went to see his lawyer. While Smith waited in her office, she called the local U.S. attorney to ask if her client was the target of an investigation. Smith vividly recalls what happened next: “She said, ‘It’s not good. Your buddy Steve has been wired for the last couple months.’” After the investigators discovered Ohlsen’s recordings, they’d approached Brown with a deal: Help them get Smith, and he might be spared jail time. From the moment Brown called Smith to tell him that he feared Ohlsen was a snitch, he was the one who had been cooperating with the feds.
Smith drove to his parents’ house in the St. Louis suburbs. “I said, ‘I’m in more trouble than you could have ever imagined and probably am going to have to go to jail, and it’s going to be a terrible few months here.’” Prosecutors offered Smith his own deal: Wear a wire to help them with some other Missouri politicians they were investigating in exchange for a lighter sentence. He refused. “I wasn’t going to go put a wire on against someone I thought to be a good person to help their fishing expedition if they didn’t have anything,” he explains. Smith began withdrawing from the life he knew, canceling the class he was slated to teach at Washington University that fall. Some of his friends and students assumed he was preparing to take an important job in the Obama administration. Instead, in late August, Smith announced he was resigning from the Missouri Senate and, along with Adams, pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. Brown, who also resigned his legislative seat and surrendered his law license, pled guilty to one count of obstruction of justice.
In November 2009, the three men stood before Judge Carol E. Jackson in St. Louis’s federal courthouse. In light of his cooperation, Brown was given two years probation and a $40,000 fine. Adams received two years probation and a fine of $5,000. Smith’s attorneys presented Judge Jackson with dozens of letters from friends and supporters attesting to his character and good works, and asked that he be spared jail time in favor of community service. Jackson was unmoved, sentencing him to a year and a day in prison and a $50,000 fine. “Reading these letters, then reading these transcripts,” she observed, “leads me to wonder: Who is the real Jeff Smith?”
The first time I met Smith was a few hours after his sentencing. He was in the living room of his small house in a gentrifying neighborhood of St. Louis, sipping from a coffee mug. He offered to get me something and I asked what he was drinking. “I’m drinking Jack and Coke,” he replied, “but I just got told I was going to jail.” During the course of that afternoon, the next day, and in a series of subsequent phone conversations before and after he went to prison, he talked to me about his life, his crimes, and his political career. “I never sold myself as an angel,” he said that day. “Perhaps, as a function of the film, there were people who projected that on to me.”
Hal Goldsmith, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Smith, said the politician’s crimes were “a classic case of corruption.” But that’s not quite right. Smith did not seek to use his office to enrich himself; his vote was never for sale. What’s more, the first link in what Smith ruefully called the “very unusual chain of events” that led to his ruin—the illegal coordination with an independent expenditure campaign—was a civil rather than criminal violation, and one that countless politicians have bounced back from. (Ironically, Carnahan’s Republican opponent in the 2010 congressional race has filed an FEC complaint accusing Carnahan of the same offense.) Were it not for Skip Ohlsen’s various and unrelated malfeasances—for which he is serving 30 months in prison—the FBI would likely never have revisited the FEC’s probe and then launched a sting operation to bring down two elected officials.
Indeed, Smith’s crimes had less to do with corruption than with its opposite: idealism. So convinced was Smith of the righteousness of his cause that he came to view everything—even his friends—as means to an end. Ultimately, his idealism led him to embrace the most corrosive kind of cynicism. Sitting in his living room, Smith recalled how Barack Obama, in his first race for the Illinois Senate, worked to get his opponent, who was a political mentor to him, bumped off the ballot. “He was like, ‘OK, where are the election lawyers? We’ve gotta get this chick off the ballot fast. I don’t need to deal with this bullshit. I need to get into the Senate,’” Smith said. “And like, at that moment, all the idealism, all the wonderful things he wanted to accomplish, there was a means to that end.” He viewed the anti-Carnahan postcards in a similar light. “The irony has been called to my attention of the fact that this is all over the attempt to disseminate very basic and truthful information about an opponent. It was not done in a way that was legal, and that was our mistake.” He didn’t sound entirely convinced, however, that he had really done anything wrong.
Last August, Smith was released early for good behavior from a federal penitentiary in Kentucky, and in November he was allowed to move out of the halfway house in St. Louis where he’d been living. He has recently gotten engaged, applied for several teaching jobs, and told me he hopes to lead a more “balanced” life. He’s still obsessed with politics, but he knows that he himself has no political future. And yet, even Nick Adams, who paid a steep price for his hero-worship of Smith, believes that politics is probably a poorer place without his erstwhile mentor and friend. “It would be very difficult for someone to convince me that his goals in politics were totally ignoble, or more ignoble than noble,” Adams, who now works for a nonprofit in California, told me. “His goals were about bringing more people up, giving people more opportunities, and eliminating some of the inequalities that make life so hard for people at the bottom of the ladder. When you look at a system where the rules are set up to favor the people who already have wealth, influence, and power, the rules are made by people who already have power, and there’s no reason they’d make rules in a way that distributes that power equally—you put all that together, and you got a guy like Jeff who says, the system isn’t right, and I’m not going to make myself perfectly adhere to it in every instance while I try to fix it.”
Watching Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? today is an unsettling experience. Artie Harris’s constant comic relief is now suffused with melancholy, and it’s hard not to wince when Smith’s mother tells Popper’s camera, “I’m so conflicted in wanting my child to do what I think is best in the world and from knowing what goes on in politics and some of the awful things that have to occur to get there.” Perhaps the most uncomfortable scene comes near the end of the movie—the day after the election—when Smith is meeting with a group of the college students who’d worked on his campaign. They are standing outside a smoothie shop near the Washington University campus and Smith is crying as he apologizes to them for losing the race. “I’m just sorry,” he says. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” Eventually, Smith gathers his emotions. “Everyone this morning is saying, ‘Well, you know, there’s going to be another campaign, ... stay involved, keep running,’” he tells the students, who are looking at him with what can only be described as adoration. “It’s like, you don’t want to spoil it by trying to do this twice. ... It’s like you catch lightning in a bottle ... and you can’t—I just don’t think it’ll ever be like this again.”
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the February 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.