In all my years of interviewing people for articles, there have only been two people whose charisma made an immediate impact. When I say “impact”, I mean that upon meeting them I wanted to run through a wall for them and be part of whatever they were doing.
The first encounter was with Chad Pregracke, the founder of Living Lands and Waters, an organization that plies the inland rivers of America cleaning up decades of refuse. I spent a day with Pregracke on the Mississippi hauling out refrigerators, Styrofoam coolers and other garbage. Despite my fear of snakes, it was one of the best twelve hours of my life.
The second person that I would have followed into battle was Eric Greitens. Yes, that Eric Greitens, the disgraced former governor of Missouri, and the star of the recent “hunting RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only) campaign ad in his doomed quest to resurrect his dismal reputation and become the Republican candidate for Senator from the Show Me state.
“The RINO feeds on corruption and is marked by the stripes of cowardice,” bellows Greitens in the ad, while brandishing a shotgun. “Get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”
More than two million people viewed the ad before it was pulled from Facebook and flagged on Twitter.
This is the same Eric Greitens who was accused of sexually assaulting a woman and then blackmailing her. Recently, his ex-wife alleged in a sworn statement that he physically abused her and their children.
I met Greitens in 2011 at his office in St Louis for a feature assignment for the now defunct in-flight magazine “American Way.” At the time he was launching The Mission Continues, an organization that, according to its website, works to “deploy veteran volunteers to work alongside nonprofit partners and community to improve educational resources, tackle food insecurity, foster neighborhood identity, and more.” Greitens is no longer affiliated with The Mission Continues, and while governor he was accused of stealing the charity’s donor list.
I also interviewed Greitens by phone for an hour-long radio interview for Illinois’ NPR affiliate WILL to discuss his well-received memoir, “The Heart and the Fist.” On the cover is a blurb by Tom Brokaw that reads: “Meet my hero, Eric Greitens. The Heart and the Fist are just the combination we need.”
Greitens told me that “at its core it’s a book about what it take to live well.” Few could have predicted the latter part of that title would define his future downfall. I certainly did not. Greitens ticked off all the right boxes for instant stardom and for a bright political future. He is handsome, energetic, a former Navy SEAL, and a veteran who was wounded in Iraq. To top it off, he is even a Rhodes Scholar.
Looking back on my reporter’s notes from those interviews, I wrote that in his St. Louis office he had a bookshelf with volumes by Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, two of my favorite authors. The largest photo on his shelf was of John and Robert Kennedy as young men. There were also replicas of two Grecian urns. Greitens explained, “One of them has a scene from the Iliad, where Achilles is fighting Hector. The other is an urn with an athletic theme; it has Greek runners on the front and boxers on the back. As you know, marathon running and boxing were my two primary sports.”
Red flags to this journalist? No, I was enthralled by his energy and by the great work he was doing on behalf of veterans. He told me that there were too many veterans ignored and discarded after the initial parade to welcome them home: “We’re working with wounded and disabled veterans with the intention of helping them transform their lives and become citizen leaders again here at home.” Over the next couple weeks, as I worked on my article, I spoke with men and women whose lives had truly been transformed through The Mission Continues.
So what happened over the last 11 years to this promising man with a bright political future? Perhaps in the same way that PTSD had crippled so many of the veterans he was saving, had the effects of war also taken its toil on Greitens? Or was he simply another violent creep who was devious enough to hide his dark side? After all, the best conmen are the ones you never suspect.
Back in St Louis, when Greitens signed my copy of “The Heart and the Fist”, he wrote this inscription: “For Stephen, Follow your heart.” In this instance my heart was wrong, so very wrong.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of five books of essays and journalism. His forthcoming book, “Searching for A Way Home: Misadventures with Misanthropes and Family,” will be published in summer 2023