Latter-Day Pragmatist

This column was published Tuesday, September 18, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.

He was a third-grader, ensuring Red Rover fair play during recess while I bucked the system, fighting to stay awake during my afternoon kindergarten nap. Jerry Moran and I shared the same time and space at Plainville Rural Grade School. We lived in the country, he lived across the street from my Mom’s best friend in town.

I didn’t get to know him until we each found ourselves in the Statehouse, him legislating, me reporting. As our professional paths crossed over the years, our shared Rooks County roots seem to run deeper for both of us.

There are two distinct narratives that describe Moran’s public service in Kansas among those who burn oxygen over such things. The first, ‘Plainville, agriculture, heritage, pragmatism.’ Privileged and honored to serve. I’ll employ my God-given talents, skills and abilities in Washington, D.C. to do good things on your behalf.

In this way, Moran’s the natural heir to Alf Landon, Frank Carlson, Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.

I was not around when Landon and Carlson were speechifying, but I remember Dole and Kassebaum viewing government as a vehicle to improve people’s lives. Laws crafted by women and men of good faith and different political persuasions who give and take, and the result is better.

Not perfect, but better. That’s Jerry Moran’s innate tendency and I’ll argue he’s even better than Dole and Kassebaum at connecting pragmatism with Kansas culture and heritage.

The other narrative, right or wrong, is that Moran is too cautious and has a finger-in-the-air, wind-testing reputation which prevents him from getting out front the way, say, Pat Roberts does on farm bills, or John McCain did on calling out presidents. In Washington, Moran is not the most vocal or visible U.S. Senator. Clearly, that’s a calculated choice, and I don’t mean that as pejorative.

My sense is the man is just calculated enough to know better than to get caught up in arguments and actions that result only in more chaos and the hardening of factionalism. Jerry Moran won’t make noise, just for noise’s sake. In that sense, he’s just like Kassebaum, Dole, et al.

Landon Lectures give sitting politicians a chance to burnish their image and Moran runs, even sprints, backward, to embrace his Kansas political legacy. He offered homage to Dole (who was not in the house) and Kassebaum (who was) and perhaps with an eye to the future, gave a shout out to his first Congressional intern, Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann.

The Landon Lecture remains an enduring mainstream Kansas tradition, but it’s more than the State Fair, Bill Snyder or Boeing 737 fuselages. It’s glossy in the way it lends substance and gravitas to people who, by the time they’re invited to lecture, have plenty of each. Presidents of the United States, titans of American industry, Supreme Court justices, even the last of the Soviet Communists, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, have graced the Landon podium in Manhattan.

Jerry Moran did not need legitimizing, but being invited to deliver a Landon Lecture, and the specific thoughts and feelings he shared, offered a sense that, as a latter-day pragmatist, his job today is harder than Dole and Kassebaum’s a generation ago.

Back then, compromise was the outcome that was expected and worked for. Today, it’s not even on the agenda, much less strategically positioned in someone’s back pocket, ready to be deployed at the opportune moment. The political toxins in the atmosphere today are so thick, it’s hard to breathe. Our better angels struggle to take flight, let alone reach the stars.

Surely, the pendulum will swing back to civility and pragmatism. Sometimes I worry Moran may be the last of his kind. The end of an era in Kansas public service. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Midlecture, the former journalist in me texted a friend who knows him well, “Is he gonna make news?” The response, “He might.” The closest he came was an admission that if the time comes to pass congressional judgment on the current White House occupant, Moran will be consistent, hearkening back to a speech on the floor of the U.S. House two decades ago, when another president was in hot water and Moran wanted his kids to know “he stood for high ethical standards, truth, the rule of law and not for party politics or the passion of the moment.”

To do what’s right instead of what’s easy.

He may be cautious to a fault, but Jerry Moran’s motives emanate from the best possible place. He has always been that way. He will always be that way. It’s his standing up and saying those things out loud in a Landon Lecture that make me feel better, that give me a little more peace of mind, when I contemplate the storms to come.