Former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas talks about her Senate career, relationship with the late U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and erosion of a commitment to bipartisanship during an appearance at the Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)
LAWRENCE — Former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum shattered a glass ceiling to become the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate who didn’t follow in footsteps of a male spouse.
The Kansas Republican went from Maize school board member to U.S. senator by winning the 1978 general election with 53% of ballots cast. She easily prevailed in two re-election campaigns with more than 73% of the vote before retiring from the Senate in 1997.
“I know full well I could not be re-elected today,” said Kassebaum, who spoke Wednesday at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “It’s not that I’ve changed so much.”
Kassebaum’s political lineage included her father, Alf Landon, who was a Kansas governor and the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1936, and a son, Bill, who served as a Republican in the Kansas Legislature.
She was the choice of Kansas voters four decades ago while expressing support for abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and ending apartheid in South Africa. She worked in the Senate to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday. She voted for the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, including an override of President Ronald Reagan’s veto. She endorsed a ban on assault weapons and the imposition of a waiting period for purchase of a handgun.
She has spoken against GOP President Donald Trump and endorsed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier.
Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Kassebaum’s instincts about Kansas politics were sound. Kassebaum had a front-row seat as state Rep. Bill Kassebaum lost the 2004 GOP primary for re-election to the Kansas House after working with Democrats on school finance.
“She knows of what she speaks,” Sebelius said. “It’s hard to tell if she would be challenged by a conservative and whether or not the party has become that divided.”
School board to Senate
Before the Senate, Kassebaum’s only personal experience in elective office was time served on the Maize School Board. She also worked one year in Washington, D.C., as a caseworker for U.S. Sen. James Pearson, a Kansas Republican. The decision to run for Pearson’s open seat followed a recruiting effort by people who wanted a woman to represent Kansas in the U.S. Senate, she said. Landon, her father, was skeptical of her candidacy. Her mother, Theo, had other ideas.
“It was a big leap,” Kassebaum said. “I talked to the family about it, who all sort of rolled their eyes. My father did not want me to run. I think he thought I would lose. My mother, who cared not very much about politics, said, ‘Yes, I think you should.'”
She said U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas quietly assisted her campaign by speaking to Kansas Republicans about the type of senator that Kassebaum was capable of being.
She prevailed in a nine-person GOP primary with 30.5% of the vote. She was convinced the crowded field gave her an edge. Other Republicans in that race polled from 1.1% to 24.6%. She went on to defeat 53% to 42% former U.S. Rep. Bill Roy, a Democrat who previously lost a Senate campaign to Dole.
“People were simply surprised to see a little woman running around, going door to door in every town I went to,” Kassebaum said. “People wondered. Will she stand up and be counted?”
Kassebaum chose not to seek a fourth term in 1996 and married former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, who was known in the Senate for brokering compromises and advocating civility. In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Baker to be U.S. ambassador to Japan. Kassebaum and Baker lived there for four years. He passed away in 2014.
Kassebaum resides at a family ranch near Burdick, northwest of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve that she helped establish.
Dole’s sense of humor
Kassebaum said Dole had the mental toughness to persevere when others would have quit. He was severely wounded in combat in Italy during World War II. She considered Dole an “exceptional leader,” who could let his understudy know what he thought with the glance of a “steely eye.”
“He always had a sense of humor, even when he might strongly disagree. That’s something he carried forward with his dialogue with other senators,” Kassebaum said.
Bob Blaemire, who published a biography of his former boss U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, moderated the conversation with Kassebaum at the Dole Institute in Lawrence. Dole was the GOP’s 1996 nominee for president in the race won by President Bill Clinton. Dole’s campaign for president in 1980 didn’t even survive the primary.
Blaemire recalled Dole’s witty remark after getting only 600 votes in New Hampshire. Dole was quoted as saying that he “slept like a baby” after the votes were counted because “every two hours I woke up and cried.”
Kassebaum remembered joining Dole at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson for two hours of interaction with voters. The backdrop included a hay stack. Long lines snaked around their booth. After it was over, one of her sons asked if she knew why the lines were so big.
“He said, ‘Because the championship pumpkin booth was right next to yours.’ Everybody wanted to see who had the champion pumpkin.”
Kassebaum said she appreciated politicians who understood the value of bipartisanship to a healthy democracy. She emphasized the point by referring to President Abraham Lincoln’s comment about tension of a nation split by slavery, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“Today, if you ask who I would admire, it would be someone who was trying to reach across the aisle, both Republican or Democrat, and certainly Bob Dole was one who knew how important it was,” Kassebaum said. “He has said, I have heard him say, you cannot achieve significant legislation that will last without a compromise.”
“I think today we have forgotten. It doesn’t mean you give up something. It means you work together to get something even better and stronger,” she said.
She worked as a senator with U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa on controversial bipartisan legislation — it didn’t pass — that would have imposed a one-year federal budget freeze in response to Reagan’s deficits.
“It was known as the KGB Act. That’s Kassebaum, Grassley and Biden,” she said. “I haven’t sent a note to President Biden to remind him of that piece of legislation.”
Kassebaum also collaborated with U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts on a bipartisan proposal known as the Kennedy-Kassebaum Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It included coverage of pre-existing conditions and opportunity to transfer health coverage from state to state. It was a major piece of legislation, but not as pivotal as the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“I had left the Senate by the time we got to the ACA, the major big health care bill, which became so controversial. I talked in favor of it,” said Kassebaum, who supports expansion of Medicaid eligibility in Kansas under the ACA. “I think it’s one of the most important issues for us to address as well here in Kansas.”
Kassebaum said she was concerned with decline of traditional news sources and the public’s reliance on organizations providing echo chambers for a listener’s or reader’s ideology. She regretted financial challenges faced by much of the newspaper industry. She’s not a fan of Zoom or Facebook.
“I don’t do email either,” she said. “I get all these calls about someone wanting to know how I would vote on this or that. I say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate your call,’ and hang up.”
She prefers in-person conversations and debates, but the nation’s strident politics made it increasingly difficult to conduct meaningful exchanges. Too many Republicans and Democrats take a black-and-white approach that doesn’t leave room for nuanced reality, she said.
It was “hard to believe” only three Republicans supported confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, Kassebaum said. Jackson was confirmed 53-47 and will become the first Black female justice on the high court. Presiding over the vote was Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to reach that office.
“How can we have a dialogue today if it isn’t even possible in the United States Senate?” Kassebaum said. “We cannot have people who are just going to be this way or that way. It’s the Democrats here and the Republicans here.”
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