Nancy Kassebaum Baker, seen as a moderate Republican even when the party’s politics were more centrist, spoke Friday about a GOP and a political scene she barely recognizes.
The former U.S. senator spoke of a public confused and divided into isolated worlds of selective digital news sources and politicians increasingly so fearful of losing primary elections that they’re unwilling to venture into bipartisan compromise.
“I’m more sad than mad, because I think we have to find ways to get together,” she said on public radio station KCUR’s “Up to Date” show. The program is hosted by Steve Kraske, who is also a Star columnist and member of the newspaper’s editorial board.
Kassebaum spoke almost incredulously about President Donald Trump’s free-wheeling Thursday press conference where he belittled reporters and complained that “fake news” was creating a misleading narrative of his four-week-old administration.
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She said Trump’s presidency appeared to have gotten off to a chaotic start.
“It just looks like turmoil,” Kassebaum said.
His approach to the press conference struck her as odd.
“Why did the president even bring up that he had more votes in the Electoral College? Then it was pointed out that he was wrong. … Who even cares?” she said. “There are far more important issues to address.”
Domestic spats over health care and changes to Obamacare — she wishes Kansas had used the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid eligibility in the state — are stuck in partisan sniping. That’s regrettable, Kassebaum said, but not cataclysmic.
But she said America’s position in the world suffers when Washington and the new administration look to be in disarray.
“We can deal with things at home. … My grave concern is how things must look abroad,” Kassebaum said. “I worry about Pakistan. I worry that maybe we’re going to support a one-state Israel.”
She said America can’t let foreign leaders “feel that we’re not really in control.”
She found some of Trumps press conference quips about how he could boost his political support at home by firing on the Russian spy ship off the East Coast as problematically flippant.
“To just say that we can bomb that Russian spy ship that’s off our coast? That was silly,” she said. “Well, they could bomb our ship off of the Russian coast.”
Kassebaum has long been a popular pol in Kansas, serving 20 years in the Senate from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. She would ultimately marry Howard Baker, a fellow Senate alumnus, and lived for several years in Washington and his home state of Tennessee. He died in 2014 and she returned to Kansas, and a ranch in Morris County that same year.
In the interview Friday, she often sounded like a confused anthropologist from the Reagan years dispatched to observe 21st century politics. She doesn’t do email, or Facebook. Instead, she said, she reads a lot and talks with her neighbors.
Kassebaum worried that the immediacy of a modern digital media culture doesn’t allow time for in-depth study of public policy or compromise.
“There’s so many outlets of what people listen to,” she said. “So many of those outlets are targeted one way or the other.”