Kassebaum at 80

A just and reasonable modesty does not only recommend eloquence but sets off every great talent which a man can be possessed of.

-- Joseph Addison

October 1978, Wichita

I’m a couple of months shy of 21, just back home from a year of tech school in Minneapolis with this dream of somehow building a career in journalism or politics. Maybe politics through journalism. My foot-in-the-door job loading overnight movies at KAKE-TV offers proximity to journalists (if you define ‘proximity’ very broadly.)

So now, gotta meet some politicians. I corral a friend and make for a campaign rally in the courtyard of what was then the Bank IV building at Douglas & Broadway.

Almost lost in a sea of green t-shirted supporters is a diminutive 46-year old woman wearing glasses and a huge smile. She looks like somebody’s Mom. The green t-shirts and the placards hoisted by those wearing them carry the message.  

“A woman’s place is in the House… and in the Senate.”

“Run, Nancy, run.”

Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker’s career in the United States Senate paralleled the coming of age of a generation of Kansans now approaching the precipice of middle age. In her own understated and uniquely Kansas manner, she was our Bobby Kennedy.

Health insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions? Thank Nancy Kassebaum. A shift in the way American policymakers view and subsequently deal with Africa? Thank Nancy Kassebaum.

Buffeted on all sides by other people’s expectations and white-knuckled social activism, she never took the bait. Surrounded by men who wanted to be president: Her father, Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, Howard Baker.

Never a blowhard. Never a bleeding heart. Never about her. Striking the balance seemed so effortless.


September 1994, Topeka

During life history comparisons early in our courtship, Kassebaum admiration tops the list of things Jackie and I have in common. Turns out when she was just a couple of months shy of 21, my wife interned for Sen. Kassebaum on the Hill.


When we married in ‘98, Sen. Kassebaum sent us a Kansas-crafted butcher block rolling pin, along with a distinctly Kassebaum-esque note:

“Jackie, if Mike gets out of line, bop him over the head a time or two with this rolling pin.”

That rolling pin still hangs proudly in our kitchen.   

Along the broad highway to the precipice, I was fortunate to fulfill those career aspirations that sparked my dreams at 20. As a political journalist, I interviewed her dozens of times, but only after transitioning into politics and actually getting behind the closed doors, did I get a real sense of the subtle, quiet influence she wielded.  

May 2012, Rock Springs 4H Center, south of Junction City

I’m asked to head up a volunteer communications group to gin up some pub associated with the rollout of a significant Kansas 4H Foundation fund raising campaign.

Hey, Nancy Kassebaum’s a huge 4H supporter…  spoze she’d be willing to do something? I get the duty. No email, btw. All on the phone. Like many of her generation, Sen. Kassebaum’s relationship with technology plateaued with the fax machine.

“Why, I’d be delighted to help out.”

Her voice is as strong as ever. Her hearing’s not what it was, but c’mon, she’ll celebrate her 80th birthday this weekend.

A rolling pin. 

No email. 

There’s something poignantly 20th century about the woman.

Next week, she’ll get in a car, make the 55-mile trip from her home in Huntsville, Tennessee to the Baker Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, sit down and record a 2-minute video that the Kansas 4H Foundation will use in their (our) Growing Kansas Leaders campaign.

Long before she was a United States Senator, long before she served on the Maize school board, Nancy Kassebaum was a 4H mom and club leader. 4H had meaning in her family. If she can lend her voice to benefit another few generations of Kansas kids, of course, she will.

Again, natural. 

A lot of us think about acting this way. For too many of us, it’s all just wind and good intentions.

When she was in office, I self-identified as a “Kassebaum Republican.”  

Today, my view has widened.

I strive to be a Kassebaum human being.