This senator from Kansas protected the White House — now he’s rolling in his grave

May 30, 2021 3:33 am

James H. Lane led a brigade of Jayhawkers and later represented Kansas in the United States Senate. (Library of Congress)

When the nation’s capital was being squeezed by secession and revolt early in the Civil War, a senator from the newly minted state of Kansas organized a frontier guard to protect the White House.

Sen. James H. Lane was a wild-haired scoundrel who indulged in some bloody cross-border ransacking, but he organized a company, composed mostly of Kansans, to protect President Lincoln. Before being put out-of-doors for their rough ways, Lane and his men bivouacked in the East Room for a night.

After this year’s Jan. 6 insurrection, Kansans once again protected the seat of our nation’s democracy. This time it was the Kansas National Guard, deployed to help secure the Capitol. They slept on floors in the building and, for a time, had a rough billet in a nearby parking garage — but unlike Lane’s men, these lowly accommodations weren’t punishment for bad behavior.

I’ve been thinking about this history as the twilight of American democracy appears to be just around the corner, and the GOP majority of the Kansas Congressional delegation has done nothing to stop it. These are the same folks that, less than five months ago, were hiding from a violent mob aimed at derailing the most basic and important function of government: certifying a presidential election.

Now, they would rather us forget that mob — who had taken to heart the conspiracy theories and hate-filled rhetoric spewed by the leaders of their own party — and instead of having a bipartisan 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection, they’d like us to move on.

Why? Because it is politically expedient.

Because, according to a new Ipsos/Reuters poll, more than half of Republicans believe the lie that Donald Trump is still the actual president.

And because the Republican Party — the party of Lincoln, Alf Landon and John McCain — has morphed into a fact-denying personality cult devoted to one man, a man who not only defies but defiles traditional Republican values. There is no room to list Donald Trump’s sins here, for they are legion.

But what the GOP majority of our Congressional delegation should remember is that Kansans have historically been among the first responders to protect the sanctity — and the safety — of our union, however imperfect.

This spirit of frontier can-do and dedication to ideals bigger than any one individual, state or party has defined public service for generations of Kansans. During the Civil War, that ideal was preserving the union and ending slavery, which had been a stain on our nation from our founding, and before.

Back then, Lane was a “Jayhawker” when the term meant a pro-Union guerilla who crossed the Missouri border to loot and kill the enemy. He was vain, fierce and fanatical. He and his men burned Osceola, Missouri, to the ground and executed nine of its citizens after a show trial. He hid in a cornfield while Quantrill burned Lawrence. In 1865, he fell out of favor with his fellow radical Republicans over Reconstruction and exited the political stage by shooting himself in the head.

As radical and crazy as Lane was, he managed, most of the time, to be on the right side of history. The same will not be said of most of our current GOP delegation to Congress.

When the Civil War began, several soldiers slept in the East Room and White House hallways until proper housing could be found in the nation’s capital. In this image from 1865, Union soldiers relax in the East Room, their baggage in a pile on the right. Five soldiers are playing cards in the center of the illustration. (White House Historical Association)

In 2021, the ideal was to safeguard the buildings and infrastructure of government, so the will of the people — as expressed by popular vote — could be done.

But the Republican Party, drunk on the most toxic conspiracy fantasies yet spun by their feckless leader, have mobilized in state legislatures across the country to suppress, disenfranchise and disempower voters. In some cases, they seek to overturn the results of elections already certified. In Arizona, for example, GOP lawmakers have voted to take the process away from election officials and instead trust a do-over to the sketchy group called the Cyber Ninjas, which hopes to overturn the results by finding “evidence” — perhaps in the form of bamboo particles or ultraviolet ink or some other kooks-are-us theory — that ballots were tampered with.

This is the stuff of banana republics, yet that’s where politics in this country has landed. Don’t like the facts? Deny, deny, deny. Don’t like the results of the presidential election? Storm the Capitol in an attempt to stop the count. Break in through windows and doors, batter and mortally wound law enforcement officers, call for the vice president of the United States to be hanged because he won’t share the fantasy.

Remember how it felt to watch those televised scenes from Jan. 6? Be prepared to watch this sort of scene again and again, because these political vandals aren’t finished. Next time, they just might succeed in suspending our legitimate elections and replacing them with the kind of old-school authoritarian regime we used to pity other countries for.

On May 19, the resolution to create a Jan. 6 commission to investigate the insurrection passed the House, 252 to 175, with 35 Republicans breaking ranks. None of those 35 was from Kansas. Only one Kansan, Rep. Sharice Davids, a Shawnee Democrat, was in support.

Parroting the party line, Republican Rep. Ron Estes of Wichita said he didn’t support the resolution because he felt it was weighted in favor of Democrats, even though the proposed commission would have an equal number of members from both parties. Some GOP members had initially suggested, in a particularly brazen act of political legerdemain, that any commission should be broadened to include investigations of acts by Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Estes suggested something similar when he said the commission should be charged with investigating the shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise and others by a lone gunman during a baseball game in 2017, to show how “poisoned the election environment is nowadays.” But what really shows how poisoned things are is Estes’ refusal to support a bipartisan commission. His false equivalence in comparing the storming of the Capitol to a single homicidal left-leaning nutjob is a weak attempt at deflecting blame from Trump.

Freshman Rep. Jake LaTurner, a Topeka Republican, also opposed the resolution, even though he had supported a similar GOP proposal earlier in the year. Tracey Mann, a Republican from Salina, also voted against it.

All three — Estes, LaTurner and Mann — voted early on the morning of Jan. 7, with shattered glass and other debris still littering the Capitol, against certifying the results of some states that went for Biden. So did freshman Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican from Great Bend, in one of his first official acts.

Of our state’s GOP delegation, only Sen. Jerry Moran did not object. Moran said there was no evidence of fraud that would change the election, and that the efforts of his colleagues to block certification of the electoral college results threatened to “undermine our democracy.”

The fate of the bipartisan commission was in the hands of the evenly divided Senate, where Republicans closed ranks in order to keep Donald Trump’s culpability from closer scrutiny. On Friday, a vote to advance the bill failed, 54-35. It would have needed 60 votes to overcome the threat of a filibuster. Both of our Kansas senators joined the GOP majority in shielding Trump.

Moran had already demonstrated he could do the right thing and place the interests of democracy first, but Friday his conscience failed him. He voted no. For Marshall, nobody expected anything but opposition. He’d already proven he is always playing to a partisan base. Remember those Kansas National Guardsmen in that parking garage back in January, before the inauguration? Marshall brought them lunch one day. But he couldn’t even allow this small act of kindness to be free of partisan spin, because lunch was a hundred Chik-Fil-A sandwiches.

Yep, the official Bible-thumping, anti-LGBTQ, two pickles on a buttered bun “Handmaid’s Tale” dystopian sandwich of the GOP.

We can expect no courage from Marshall or any of the GOP members of the Kansas delegation. Less than six months after January’s bloody insurrection, in the defining moment of their political careers, they have forever chosen the wrong side of history. They aren’t going to buck the cult of personality, and they aren’t worthy to carry on the tradition of Kansas Republicans who have gone before.

For them, R now stands for insurrection.

It’s enough to make old Jim Lane spin in his grave at Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.