Why Joe Biden reminds me of another leader known as ‘Mr. Kansas Republican’

Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden addresses a crowd at Wilson High School on October 26, 2019 in Florence, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Mike Hoeflich is a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law.

I have had the fortune to serve as dean of two law schools: Syracuse University and at the University of Kansas. Law school deans get to know the alumni. Thus, I have met many politicians. And as Joe Biden prepares to take office, I’m struck by the fact that his decency and dedication to public service reminds me of a Kansas politician named Glee S. Smith, Jr.

I met Biden in 1988 during his ill-fated presidential campaign, which ended after three months amid allegations of plagiarism. Much to my surprise, he was an ordinary guy struggling with an unfortunate scandal trying to protect his family from the public reaction.

We became friends even though our politics were different. I also got to know Jill Biden and was delighted when their son Beau decided to attend Syracuse Law. The Biden family and mine spent a good deal of time together in those years. We had dinners at small country inns around Syracuse and spent hours talking about everything from politics to what it was like to dress like a senator. Our friendship developed during the Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings, since I knew both Thomas and Biden. We often spoke during those difficult days. Indeed, Biden invited me to serve as a special counsel to the Judiciary Committee for the hearings, but I declined, not wanting to spend the summer in Washington.

In the past few years I have heard terrible things said about the Bidens — especially Joe — and assume that the negative chorus will only get louder now that he will be president. But these naysayers don’t know him. I do and I can testify that he is a good man committed to serving the nation and its citizens. I remember one weekend when we went to dinner at a small local restaurant. Joe hadn’t eaten all day, but when the folks in the restaurant recognized him he spoke to every single one of them about whatever they asked. It only takes one discussion with Joe Biden to feel that he is your friend. And he is.

I witnessed Biden’s deep and abiding faith in God and in the nation he has served for decades. I remember how proud he was when Beau went overseas with his National Guard unit. Joe Biden is a man who cherishes his family, and as a result of losing two children, his empathy for the pain of others is amazing. When I resigned as dean at Syracuse, he called and asked if he could help me to get a new job. He had spent hours telephoning people to find job leads for me! When I told him that I was moving for a job at the University of Kansas he was genuinely relieved. America needs empathetic leaders now more than ever. Joe Biden is one.

Glee S. Smith, Jr., in 1956. Smith served 16 years in the Kansas Senate, with eight years as president of the Senate. (KansasMemory.org, Kansas Historical Society)

Glee Smith was another. He was one of the first people I met when I arrived in Kansas in 1994. Glee was truly “Mr. Kansas Republican.”

As president of the state Senate from 1965 until 1973, Glee was a voice of reason, moderation and tolerance, who fought for the interests of all Kansans regardless of party or politics. Besides serving in state government, he assisted many charities and educational institutions and was counselor to hundreds of Kansans both through his law practice, which he maintained almost until his death, and to the huge number of politicians, university administrators and others who sought his informal wisdom and advice.

Glee grew up in Western Kansas — his father was a cattle broker — and after service in the Army during World War II and graduation from KU Law, he and Gerry moved back to Larned where they raised their family until they retired to Lawrence.

I had lunch with Glee on many Thursdays for more than a decade. One day, he told me of his unlikely friendship with Hillary Clinton.

Both had served on the board of the Legal Services Corporation and had become friends. Many years later, when Bill became president, Hillary gave Glee her direct number in case Glee ever needed to reach her. Glee thought that was quite delightful. To me, it was just another example of how Glee’s decency bridged the political divide.

The United States needs to heal. We are divided in too many ways; millions of Americans are in pain and poverty. There is rage abroad in the land. Now more than ever, our republic needs leaders who can overcome partisanship, bridge differences, and work together to bring us together.

We need more men and women like Joe Biden and Glee Smith, men and women committed to serving the nation, putting the people ahead of partisanship and bringing selflessness, decency and humanity to our great nation’s leadership.

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