Capitol Perspectives: A personal perspective of Todd Akin

October 18, 2021 11:51 am

Todd Akin during his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign against Sen. Claire McCaskill (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

I write this column about Todd Akin hoping it provides readers a better perspective about journalists and public officials, but also that it might encourage politicians and public officials to be less hostile about journalistic motivations.

Akin’s Oct. 3 death reminded me of the special relationship we had which I suspect will surprise many of my journalistic colleagues and conservative Republicans.

The former Missouri House member and then a U.S. representative always will be remembered by many for his “legitimate rape” comment that sunk his campaign against U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

But for more than a dozen years, Akin was one of my most important sources to understand the growing religious right movement. His candor will remain as my deepest memory of him.

During his 12 years in Missouri’s House, he regularly shared lunch with me and my wife at a restaurant across the street from the state Capitol where we had off-the-record conversations in which he discussed his values and agenda.

As others have written, Akin was a religious conservative.

He was a strong advocate for controversial views about home schooling, abortion restrictions without exception and allowing concealed weapons almost anywhere.

Yet, he eagerly responded to my probing questions during our lunch sessions.

On home schooling, I questioned him about the consequences of restricting exposure of growing children to those with different backgrounds.

Abortion restrictions and gun rights were obvious probing questions for me.

But rather than being defensive or angry, Akin defended his views with detailed explanations I’ve rarely encountered from public officials.

That candor was tremendously helpful for me to better understand the values and motivations of religious conservatives who were becoming a growing force in government and politics.

Our discussions were a demonstration of the value for reporters to seek off-the-record conversations to better understand the values of those whom you are covering.

It also may be a demonstration for public officials to be candid in off-the-record conversations by explaining the foundation for their beliefs and positions.

Before ending this column, I must acknowledge a couple of factors that probably contributed to my relationship with Akin.

At about the same age, we graduated from competing St. Louis County prep schools — Akin from John Burroughs and I from Country Day.

A bigger factor was Akin’s background working for IBM. I was trained by IBM to develop computer applications and network systems under an IBM grant I helped write for my journalism school.

I even had an IBM technical assistant to facilitate my efforts.

It is not as strange a connection as you might think.

Computer wonks always focus on what might be. After all, you cannot write reliable code or design network systems without fully considering every possible outcome.

My IBM training actually helped my journalistic reporting efforts to consider every possible cause and outcome of a story I was covering.

For Akin, however, that approach may have been a factor in voicing what he considered possible outcomes from rape.

Akin had a habit of often thinking out loud without full investigation.

Another connection may have been that Akin knew I had been a member of Youth for Goldwater, a Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter chair and officer of a college Young Republican organization.

However, before our relationship, I had completely left political/ideological advocacy after I became a journalist.

Only a very few times have I disclosed my prior background to Republican or Democratic lawmakers.

Although it helped make connections by correcting possible false perceptions, I remain unsure whether that disclosure of my long-ago background was ethical or not.

It may be a lesson for conservatives who have told me they do not trust reporters because of assumed political values of journalists.

As Todd Akin learned, you will not really know someone’s background if you are not willing to have a meaningful and open conversation.

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Phill Brooks
Phill Brooks

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.