S. Lee Kling gets accolades for service to state, nation

A side benefit of service in public office is the great friendships you can develop over the years, including those that cross party lines. This is about one of those.

S. Lee Kling is a national figure in the Democratic Party, at home in these lofty precincts since the mid-1970s. Sifting through rubble of the 49-state, 62-percent landslide 1972 victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern, national Democrats turned to a wily Texan, the legendary Robert Strauss, to begin the long road back. Strauss was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Within a few years, at Strauss' side at the DNC was the personable Kling, a St. Louis insurance executive and banker, as DNC finance chairman.

In these posts, Strauss and Kling helped lead the campaign of former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who defeated the hapless Gerald Ford 25 years ago next week. The Carter era -- wilderness years for us Republicans -- were salad days for Kling, who moved in and out of the White House, dining with the rich and powerful and serving as a special Middle Eastern envoy for Carter during the days of the Camp David Accords. A historic November 1980 photo shows Kling standing directly behind President Carter as a rueful Carter concedes defeat, and the loss of 44 states, to Ronald Reagan.

(The joy felt on my side that night was unrestrained: Reagan's election culminated a couple of decades' worth of work by us foot soldiers in the American conservative movement, who had finally elected one of our own to the pinnacle of power, and not a moment too soon. On a local level, it also ended 52 years of drought for Southeast Missouri Republicans, who elected Bill Emerson to Congress, the first GOPer to represent us since 1928. That win began the conversion of this region, for so long the bedrock of Missouri Democrats.)

Fast forward three years, to my tenure as staff attorney for Drury Industries Inc. A December closing on a $3 million loan to build a Drury Inn on I-44 at Fenton took place at Landmark Bank of St. Louis, S. Lee Kling, chairman. A staggering amount of work had been done leading to this closing, and with all the documents finished, some of his lieutenants said, "Peter, we want you to meet Mr. Kling."

As we waited for him to arrive, I renewed my gaze at the photos on the walls: Teddy Kennedy, signed to "My good friend, Lee." Ditto, Tip O'Neill. Another, in the Rose Garden, of Kling with Carter and the prime minister of Israel.

The folks I had been working with said, "Peter, what did you do before going to work for the Drurys?" Looking at these photos on each wall, I hesitated. Sensing my unease, they tried to lift it: "Hey what's the worst thing you could be -- a competing banker?" To that I replied: "Worse. I'm a Republican!"

Kling came in, we met, instantly became friends amid jokes about good people in each party, and so it has remained ever since that cold New Year's Eve day in 1983.

Wednesday evening, friends, family and associates of Kling gathered at the posh St. Louis Club for a tribute dinner for the chairman of the highway commission on the occasion of his retirement from office. This writer held forth, assigned to a table of hardy Republicans amid the sea of Democrat bigwigs that included the governor and Joyce Aboussie, lead political enforcer to House minority leader Dick Gephardt. I was there with a Senate resolution paying tribute to Lee Kling's service to his state and nation. From a friend who disagrees with you on many issues and personalities, here's looking at you, pal.

Peter Kinder is assistant to the chairman of Rust Communications and president pro tem of the Missouri Senate.