Why Our Best Don’t Run for Office

I served with now former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens. In 2004 we were both assigned to be Officers in Charge of Naval Special Warfare small boat detachments in the same squadron. It was his first assignment as a newly pinned SEAL.

Greitens was the first encounter I had with a brand of Special Operations leader I would come to know over the years as a sort of intellectual warrior. They wore the Special Operations hardware, but they sounded more like academics. They had PHDs or MBA’s from Ivy League or other elite institutions. They spent as much time reading as they did training. They insisted on informing their opinions on war multi-dimensionally—as a clash of geopolitical, economic and cultural forces colliding in a complex system. That system, as all complex systems, required study and observation to be understood. And it needed to be understood in order to win.


In my time outside that community, I’ve worked for Wall Street, Silicon Valley and a few places in between and I’ve never come across the equals of what I found in the higher intellectual echelons of the Special Operations community. Unquestionably, Eric Greitens was one of them.

I lost track of him in the years after we worked together but I found him one night on the Colbert Report. He was talking about his book The Heart and The Fist. The message of the book was a philosophy of life balancing the warrior ethos of a SEAL and the compassion of a humanitarian.

“The world needs many more humanitarians than it needs warriors, but there can be none of the former without enough of the latter.” Greitens says in the book.

I read the book. I liked it.

It was a message entirely consistent with the Greitens I knew. A Rhodes Scholar with a PHD from Oxford, Greitens’ doctoral thesis was titled, Children First: ideas and the Dynamics of Aid in Western Voluntary Assistance Programs for War-affected Children Abroad. Before he joined the Navy and made it through the grueling training to become a SEAL, he’d been to places like Croatia, Rwanda, and Bolivia observing first-hand the impacts of war on non-combatants and the cruelness of outcomes for refugees and children.

In a community that took pride in toughness and lethal skills, Greitens had a different tone.

“In the name of “force protection,” the military often rolls up windows, builds walls, and points rifles at the outside world. The best force protection, however, is to be surrounded by friends and allies.” From the book, and again, entirely consistent with my experience with Greitens behind closed doors. He once pulled me aside during a training evolution in which he thought my team was playing fast and loose with safety regulations and told me, leader to leader, that I needed to be the “moral compass” of my team. Without it, my operators were a liability, not an asset.

I was two ranks his senior.

Greitens made enemies in community in which he served. On his one and only deployment with Naval Special Warfare, he turned in more seasoned operators who were abusing drugs. He also accused another of war crimes. The former was true and people went to jail. The latter was never proven. Coupled with his unusually short duration in the community, Greitens’ campaign for governor highlighting his background as a former Navy SEAL prompted a group of other former and active SEALs to produce a video titled, The Heart and The Myth criticizing Greitens.

Though Greitens claimed the criticism was politically motivated, the tone was consistent with the opinions that some from the community I worked in expressed of him with no cameras rolling to no political end. Despite those opinions, Greitens claims of service, his description of why he didn’t spend more time in the community and how he conducted himself on the deployment in which we were both involved are entirely consistent with what I saw, first person. Those with license to criticize his service have lived a hearty life of war and sacrifice in the Special Operations community. Anyone else has little standing.

By 2011, when Eric Greitens popped back up on my radar, the Greitens that I knew was still in-tact and gearing up for what appeared to be, an important and impactful public life. “Meet my hero—Eric Greitens. His life and this book remind us that America remains the land of the brave and generous.” said Tom Brokaw of Greitens.

The Greitens arc was at its zenith. Then something remarkable happened.

In his 2015, Greitens left the Democratic Party. In a Fox News op-ed, he gave his reasons. He was disillusioned with a Democratic Party leadership that had lazily been satisfied with playing identity politics while doing nothing of meaningful benefit at all for their constituents. Greitens wrote of his experience as a Democrat, “As I got older, I no longer believed in their ideas. Even worse, I had concluded that liberals aren’t just wrong. All too often they are world-class hypocrites.”

Politically, the shift made sense. If one were to lean into a background of service as a Navy SEAL, the Republican primary in Missouri circa 2016 was a strong place to do it. Principally, as late as 2015, it was also still reasonable to believe that a message of strength and compassion was still consistent with values that existed within the conservative party of an America still aligned on the values of western liberal democracy. Greitens turning Republican wasn’t remarkable. What was, however, was the ideological distance the Eric Greitens that I knew had to travel to not only tolerate but campaign for Donald Trump. It was more than remarkable. It was incomprehensible.

On June 1st, Eric Greitens resigned as Governor of Missouri amid accusations of sexual misconduct and campaign indiscretions. The best accounts of Greitens’ admitted behavior would call into question his suitability to hold office when running on a platform of ethics and reform. The worst are potentially criminal.

The neat political commentary that Greitens was a typical Trump misogynist Republican, a mini-Trump as some have called him, miss something important. While the failures that led to Greitens’ political end are troubling and serious, they are his own. Near history shows us, they’re not specific to one party. The decay that wouldn’t allow for the Greitens of the past to exist in conservative politics is the subject of the broader political commentary of our times that is just as damning of our politics as Greitens actions may have been of himself.

The notion that contemporary American politics are tremendously polarized is not a deep insight. Neither is the impact on our legislative processes. The last two major pieces of legislation, the Affordable Care Act and the Trump Tax reforms, were passed with ZERO votes from party opposition. For frame of reference, 80% of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act and more than half voted for the Social Security Act. What the Greitens case study shows us though, is a lesser observed impact polarization has on our candidates.

Whether Eric Greitens had a change of heart and truly followed it or whether this was an exercise in moral flexibility that allowed for one to literally write the book on compassionate treatment of refugees and then align with an administration that campaigned on and then acted quickly to deny access to refugees is more a study in psychology than politics. That there is no room for a candidate in American politics that holds the fully formed principles Greitens once did is a commentary on American political decay.

The troubling personal failures that led to Eric Greitens resignation and perhaps the end of what could have been a meaningful public life don’t rewrite that narrative. The lack of diversity of thought and the sheer impossibility of any fledgling candidate to challenge the most impassioned fringes of either party is why so few with principled leadership experience will run today.

5 replies »

  1. Sean, I agree with almost all you conclude in this piece. However, I beg to differ with your last two paragraphs. As a VN War era reserve officer I was staunchly conservative, and lost my faith in the GOP when the Gingrich revolution (take no prisoners) became the norm of the right. Roughly 1994. I think the radically John-Birch inflexibility of the forever-farther-right movement’s takeover of the Southern (racial?)-led GOP has made the country’s polarization inevitable. Intelligent analyst officers like the one you describe no longer find a home in the white-Christian-only military. Even later in life, they cave to the hate and isolationism of the career warrior. I’m glad you didn’t stay for the 20 or 30. The depth and self-determination of your columns shows your independent thought. Keep on thinking and writing!

  2. Neither party can articulate a clear vision or party ideology that can be considered “centrist”, “moderate”, or “uniting” .. yet any potential candidate who tries to be one of those gets scalded by the ideologues who espouse extreme single issue views and brand candidates with their position on that view as a moral compass.

    I’ve struggled with this for a while … how do we as a society incentive people to run who have the greater good in mind. Compromisers who will work with legislators across the spectrum for societal win-win solutions sets. I hate identifying problems without at least proposing a solution, but this one has me flumoxed.

  3. Sean Patrick Hughes, thanks a lot for the article post.Much thanks again. Fantastic.

  4. Sean, thank you for your insight on this matter. I”d wondered about the “deep story” around Greitens, and your post supplies useful details.

    I also like the comments of the “anonymous” Vietnam-era commenter and of Ross Romer. I don’t think we’re looking at a new phenomenon in American politics, though. Wish I had something more insightful to add!