Nancy Kassebaum Baker

Straight shooter. Respectful. Passionate. As I listened to her talk at the Dole Institute, I couldn’t help but wish the two current Senators from Kansas had a portion of her good qualities.  Oh, their slickly produced media releases, and finely crafted speeches will hailed their virtues, efforts and Kansas values, but it’s been awhile since we had an elected official representing Kansas in Washington with her honesty, sense of collaboration and spunk.

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The daughter of Alf Landon, former Kansas Governor and Republican nominee for President in 1936.  Her Kansas roots are deep and the Landon name was a big help in her campaign to replace retiring Senator James Pearson, who she worked for.

She was only the fourth woman elected to the Senate, and when she was elected in 1978, no other women were members of the body. When she ran for the open Senate seat, I voted for her opponent, Dr. Bill Roy.  I don’t know if she was better than Dr. Roy would have been in the seat, but in her three terms in the Senate, she more than earned her right to be there. If she was running today, I’d likely vote for her.

Interesting how a person’s views and experience evolve over time. I caution to use the word change because times are different and circumstances are different. The political environment and society are not the same as forty years ago. What hasn’t seemed to change are the views and tenacity of Nancy Kassebaum Baker.

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Senator Kassebaum being sworn in.

As I listened to her I heard a common sense moderate. In her day, she was very much a Republican, but very moderate on social issues, and sometimes called a maverick.  As I listened to her talk, I heard someone that many Republicans today would dismiss as a RINO, too liberal for a Kansas Republican. By the way, I HATE labels, these are usually unfair categorizations, designed to isolate and dismiss. I was impressed by her logic, fair mindedness and respect for people with different views. She said people today do not like to listen, particularly for views differing from their own. True. We are not a culture of good listeners.

To be fair, not everything position she had I agreed with.  Her support of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court is a head-scratcher, and she did not support sanctions against South Africa over Apartheid.  She is more fiscally conservative than I am, at least she was 40 years ago.

Senator Kassebaum swam in the same political waters as anyone of her era but I doubt she was owned by lobbyists, big banks, dark money groups, the NRA or the Koch Brothers.  In fact, while she is pro second amendment, she has always advocated sensible controls including background checks, banning assault weapons and limits on large ammunition magazines.  She even voted against a big farm bill, which Kansas Senators just don’t do.

She also did something that is less common today; she actively worked with members of the opposite party to pass important legislation.  Working with the opposition will be used against you in re-election campaigns, but that was a different time, when the mission was public policy to benefit Americans, not policy to benefit special interests.  Sen. Kassebaum didn’t intend to make a career of the Senate, three terms was enough and even one more than she had planned.  Instead of taking a cushy, lucrative job as many do after leaving office, she got married and focused on her life with the late Howard Baker.

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Nancy Kassebaum Baker and husband Howard Baker.

After she retired from office, I remember Sen. Kassebaum walking the House district with a candidate who was running for Congress.  I know the candidate and she came to my door. Instead of just lending her name, she used shoe leather to talk one on one to voters.  This was a few years ago but imagine a retired U.S. Senator doing that today.

The difference between current Kansans in Congress and her, she has Kansas common sense every day of the week instead of only boasting about it during election campaigns.

There are those who will dismiss her as not a true Republican, particularly because of her views on abortion, guns, and bipartisanship.  Others will dismiss her for simply being a Republican.  Anyone dismissing her is truly underestimating her.


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