TOPEKA — Pat Roberts offered a fervent pledge to Kansas voters in 1980 that he’d be the kind of politician who refused to bend under pressure to forces intent on raising taxes.
Then, two years later, President Ronald Reagan negotiated a handshake deal with Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill to snag $100 billion in tax revenue in exchange for spending reductions of twice that amount. Roberts was a hard “no,” even with Reagan turning screws during a White House meeting that elicited backing for the president from every GOP hardliner in the room except Roberts, a newcomer to the U.S. House.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, I did not come to the Congress to raise taxes,’ ” Roberts recalled.
He realized that as the lone holdout at the meeting a more detailed explanation was expected. In the moment, Roberts made things more complicated by telling Reagan that he was swayed by his mother’s objection to a banking provision in the tax bill.
“I just made it up,” Roberts said. “And he said, ‘I see.’ And, said: ‘Well, we want to thank you all for coming.’ “
Roberts’ escape from Reagan’s political vise was brief.
“I went back to the office,” Roberts said, “and the office informed me that the White House had called and the president would like to see me and my mother at 10 o’clock the next morning. I call my mother. I said, ‘Mom, get on your best stuff. We’re going down to see the president.’ She says, ‘Son, what have you done?’ ”
Pat and Ruth Roberts arrived the next day to find Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and a dozen other high-ranking GOP officials prepared to take part in round two of the pressure campaign targeting the congressman. There was a bit of awkwardness, Roberts said, because his mother wasn’t a Reagan fan.
“The president absolutely charmed my mother,” Roberts said. “And I remember one exchange they had: ‘Well, if you could tell your son to come along with us, he would really help the Republican Party.’ He said, ‘I know that you have been a strong Republican because of your husband and everything else.’ And she looked at him and said, ‘Well, yes, Mr. President, but I have always been a Republican, as opposed to you.’ And he really got a belly laugh out of that.”
Roberts said he was unmoved, despite the charismatic overture. On his way out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Reagan adviser Lyn Nofziger chased him down to express dismay in “short, jerky sentences. Language I can’t repeat. That made me mad, made me even more determined to vote ‘no.’ ”
Fast-forward to the vote in the House. The White House had Keith Sebelius, who was Roberts’ predecessor in the U.S. House, call from a hospital bed to urge Roberts to back Reagan on the tax bill.
“So, with tears in my eyes I went in and I voted ‘yes,’ ” Roberts said. “That lobbying effort with Reagan was something else.”
Roberts, 84, and a rarity after serving 40 years in the House and Senate and as agriculture committee chairman in both chambers, isn’t running for re-election in 2020. He shared with the Kansas Reflector a look back on a career preceded by service in the U.S. Marine Corps and work as a journalist. He found his calling in 1967 as a member of U.S. Sen. Frank Carlson’s staff. For more than a decade he was part of Sebelius’ congressional office. The Topeka-born graduate of Holton High School and Kansas State University won election to the U.S. House in 1980. He was the state’s 1st District representative until prevailing in 1996 in the race for U.S. Senate.
He never received less than 60% of the vote in a dozen general election contests until dipping to 53% during the Senate re-election campaign in 2014 that turned out to be his last.
It’s a political life that followed an arc of events that included the Vietnam War, Watergate, moon landings and explosion of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles, assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and wounding of Reagan, fall of the Berlin Wall and breakup of the Soviet Union, the Persian Gulf War, creation of the World Wide Web, 9/11, the Iraq War, impeachment of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Ten presidents — six Republicans and four Democrats — held sway during his career as a federal officeholder and congressional staff member.
He looked back with fondness at President Dwight Eisenhower, who he met for the first time as a teenager during the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago. Roberts’ dad, Wesley, was chairman of the Republican National Committee under Eisenhower.
“I’m one of the few in the Congress today that could say that I actually met President Eisenhower,” Roberts said. “That’s one of the first people I met that you knew he was in the room even though your back was to him. He had a very ruddy face, a brilliant smile.”
Roberts said other mentors included President Reagan; former U.S. Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas, Ted Stevens of Alaska, and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii; former U.S. Reps. Kiki de la Garza and Charlie Stenholm, both Texas Democrats; and his father.
‘When it’s time’
Roberts, the longest-serving member of Congress in state history, set off a wild political scramble Jan. 4, 2019, in Manhattan by announcing he wouldn’t seek re-election to the Senate. In the Kansas Reflector podcast interview, Roberts didn’t dwell on the 2020 calculus that led the senator and his wife, Franki, to a lectern at offices of the Kansas Department of Agriculture to end the suspense 20 months prior to the November general election.
“You know when it’s time,” he said. “I’m not saying I’ve done everything that I want to do. It’s just that it’s pretty obvious for me and my wife and my family that it was time to step down.”
He said the toxic construction of modern campaigns throughout the United States and the escalating degree of partisanship in the Capitol were disturbing.
“I have to admit that the state of politics — and going through a tough election in ‘14 — has just gotten worse with outside money,” the senator said. “I could remember sitting there watching one of the commercials run against me back in 2014, and I looked at Franki, and she said, ‘That was awful.’ I said, ‘Yeah, if I believed that I wouldn’t vote for myself either.’ And so it’s kind of so personal, and so negative and so much outside money.”
Roberts didn’t hesitate when asked if at this moment in U.S. history a 30-something person, perhaps with a Kansas State degree and military pedigree, should invest himself or herself in politics as he did a half century ago.
“You bet,” he said. “We need good people who go into public service.”
Roberts said life for the 435 representatives and 100 senators serving in Washington, D.C., has been transformed by forces that undercut ability of members to find space for bipartisanship. Look no further than conflict about responding to COVID-19, which has been a factor in the death of more than 188,000 Americans in six months.
“We not only have a pandemic, with COVID-19, we have a pandemic of partisanship and it’s terribly difficult to get something done under the circumstances,” he said.
He said early in his congressional career many of his peers maintained a residence in their home district and had an apartment or house in the Washington area. This allowed lawmakers to regularly socialize with each other. That familiarity carried over to the workplace and proved useful in smoothing over differences and crafting compromises.
No more, Roberts said. Many in Congress work in Washington from Tuesday to Thursday, jump on a airplane and spend three days telling their constituents that people in the other party were to blame for the nation’s festering problems. He said too many politicians grab their personal surfboard and declare, “It ain’t me. It’s the guys behind me.”
“As such, they know you only on the floor,” said Roberts, a consistent conservative. “And if you’re down there making partisan speeches all the time, very difficult to get something done.”
He said the remedy for Washington involved senators and representatives getting to know each other as individuals rather than exclusively through their political posturing.
With better insights in people unlike themselves, he said, perhaps there would be a newfound sense there was something more important than partisan attacks.
“This is not the Senate that I came to, and it’s very discouraging where we are now. But we just have to keep working at it,” he said.