In his farewell speech, Sen. Pat Roberts expressed hope that bipartisanship in the Senate could become a reality. (Screenshot via Sen. Pat Roberts Youtube)
TOPEKA — In what he dubbed his “adios amigos” speech, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts reflected on his path to politics, time spent as chairman of the agriculture committee in both the House and Senate, and the value of bipartisan efforts in passing meaningful legislation.
After nearly 40 years as a congressman, Roberts announced early last year he would not pursue re-election in 2020. On Thursday, he delivered a final speech to his Senate colleagues after serving the longest tenure of any Kansan in the nation’s capital.
“I have done my best to improve the lives of Kansans and all Americans for decades, to accomplish big and small things so that this generation and future generations might live and achieve the American dream,” Roberts said.
The Topeka-born graduate of Holton High School and Kansas State University said his first experience with public service came through journalism. Both of his grandparents were newspaper editors who came to Kansas as “crusading abolitionists.”
“To say I bleed fourth-generation printers’ ink would be close to the truth,” Roberts said.
It was his father, Charles Wesley Roberts, who most influenced him toward a career in public service, he said. The elder Roberts began as a newspaperman like his forefathers, before turning to a career in politics, eventually serving as the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Pat Roberts took a very similar path.
“Like father like son, I graduated from K-State with a degree in journalism,” Roberts said. “My father joined the Marines in World War II. I joined in peacetime and served on Okinawa.”
After his time in the military, Roberts worked in Arizona as a newspaper editor and news director at a radio station.
Roberts noted how their careers came full circle through Dwight D Eisenhower. His father helped elect Ike, and Pat helped commemorate the Kansas native through the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C.
While living in Arizona, Roberts got a call from former Kansas Sen. Frank Carlson.
“I dropped everything and drove to Washington, D.C., when Sen. Frank Carlson asked me to come and work for him,” Roberts said.
His experience in Kansas’ 1st District working under Carlson and Republican Rep. Keith Sebelius led him to run for and win the district’s U.S. House seat in 1980.
“Most sane candidates would not attempt to go door-to-door in a district larger than most states,” Roberts said. “However, with a lot of help, we won a tough primary and a not so tough general election — the first of 24 straight victories.”
In the heavily Republican district, Roberts was re-elected seven times without much difficulty. Each time he accrued at least 60% of the vote.
Roberts recalled how in 1995 when Republicans gained the majority of House seats for the first time in 40 years, he was elevated to chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. He would serve in the role until he jumped to the U.S. Senate in 1997.
Efforts in agriculture
Speaking to his Senate colleagues for the last time as a congressman, Roberts looked back proudly upon his work in agricultural matters.
He highlighted his long-running partnership with Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat who served as Senate agriculture committee chairman before Roberts. Their efforts included the 2018 Farm Bill.
“We knew regardless of what each of us wanted that passing a farm bill was paramount,” Robert said. “We also became friends. I protected her, and she protected me, and we got 87 votes, setting a record for a farm bill.”
Speaking shortly after Roberts, Stabenow noted his importance to farm and food policy. She said he leaves a lasting impression on the nation’s capital.
“Those who have been lucky to work beside Pat on the agriculture committee know there’s no place like it,” Stabenow said. “It’s a place where we leave politics at the door and focus on how we can improve people’s lives and livelihoods in rural America.”
Stabenow joked about his long tenure, saying he may have advised George Washington on agriculture and food policy.
She too looked back fondly on the 2018 Farm Bill but said she knew long before then how unique Roberts is.
“From the moment I met him, it became abundantly clear that he was not the run-of-the-mill politician,” Stabenow said. “Some say it is his unflappable nature. Some say it is his unique sense of humor. To me, Pat Roberts is defined by his loyalty, integrity and his dedication to the people of Kansas.”
The junior Senator from Kansas
When Roberts became Senator, he was succeeded by Jerry Moran in the 1st District. Moran would go on to win a Senate seat in 2011, and the two have represented Kansas in the Senate since.
In his farewell address to Roberts, Moran listed some of the traits that made the elder Senator so popular. Chief among them: his unique sense of humor.
“He always had a way of bringing everyone together, often with a joke, ready to ease the tensions when things get stressful,” Moran said. “So many times, he has been designated the most humorous member of Congress.”
Moran and Roberts met in 1969, well before either was a congressman. Five years later, Moran became an intern in the office of Sebelius, working under Roberts.
From there, the relationship blossomed.
“Pat has been my boss for 45 years,” Moran said. “It’s been the most enjoyable time in my life where I have had the opportunity to be your friend and to listen to what you had to say. … I learned something in every conversation.”
Putting a bow on his career, Roberts offered his thanks to his colleagues, his friends and his family for aiding him in his efforts.
The final words of his speech offered hope that the Senate could become a body where bipartisanship is not such a foreign concept.
“The beauty is that we can decide what our normal is and we don’t have to let circumstances dictate our future. Let us once again become a body of respect, humility, cooperation, achievement and, yes, friendship,” Robert said. “So, as I ride off into the sunset … I will be cheering for the Senate to rebuild the bridges of comity that will create our new normal.”
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