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Bob Dole, Nancy Kassebaum teach timeless lessons in Kansas politics

Donald Trump draws the ire of Nancy Kassebaum at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics

Former U.S.Senators Nancy Landon Kassebaum and Bob Dole appeared together on Saturday, September 17, 2016, at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence.
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Former U.S.Senators Nancy Landon Kassebaum and Bob Dole appeared together on Saturday, September 17, 2016, at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence.

In 1996, Kansas lost both of its incumbent U.S. senators. Nancy Kassebaum decided not to run for a fourth term, and Bob Dole resigned so he could devote all his energies to running for president.

Twenty years later — last Saturday, in Lawrence — Kassebaum and Dole talked about their time together during an enthralling discussion at the Dole Institute of Politics. (You can hear the whole thing on Deep Background, the Star’s political podcast. It’s available for free on iTunes.)

The room was packed. The two colleagues exchanged stories and compliments, praising one another for their work in Washington. Both extolled the benefits of collaboration and compromise. Dole called Kassebaum a “stateswoman” and the most popular politician of her time, in either party.

That may still be true today. Kassebaum and Dole have achieved iconic status in Kansas politics, beloved by voters in both parties (dozens of Democrats attended Saturday’s discussion). Dole joked he was thinking about running again. “When you get out of politics, your numbers go up,” he said, chuckling.

His comment made me think of the two politicians who replaced Dole and Kassebaum in the Senate in 1997: Sam Brownback, now the governor, and Sen. Pat Roberts.

Brownback and Roberts are incredibly unpopular, among the most disliked officeholders in America. A recent poll showed Roberts was the second-most unpopular senator in the country. Brownback? Almost three out of four Kansans view him unfavorably, an astonishing result in a Republican state.

Why are Roberts and Brownback as despised as much as Dole and Kassebaum are admired?

Time is an easy answer, as Dole recognized. And Dole’s penchant for deal-making, along with Kassebaum’s moderate views, certainly appeals to voters’ longing for a functioning government. Politics and media have changed, too.

Yet something more fundamental may be at work. At one point Saturday, Dole came close to nailing it: “We were proud,” he said, “to be traditional Kansas Republican conservatives.”

Kansas has indeed been a conservative state for decades. Yet it’s a practical conservatism, humble in the face of uncertainty. Kansans are independent and self-reliant, but when things go wrong, they’ll ask for help: from family, a neighbor, a church, even sometimes from the government.

Failed crops and dry oil wells teach that kind of humility, and patience. So do grievous war injuries.

Dole and Kassebaum had healthy self-esteem, like most politicians. Dole was often stubborn and disagreeable.

But he and Kassebaum understood Kansas. No man or woman has all the answers, Kansans know. Good ideas can come from anywhere. Compromise isn’t just one way to get things done, it’s the best way.

Roberts? He began his Senate career as a Dole acolyte, urging moderation. By 2012, he voted against ratification of a largely symbolic disability treaty as Dole, the treaty’s champion, sat a few feet away in a wheelchair.

And Brownback — well, let’s just say humility may not be his strongest suit.

I thought of all of this while watching Kassebaum and Dole Saturday. Ten years from now, when Roberts and Brownback share a stage, will anyone show up?

A handful of people, maybe. Or the two may end up explaining themselves to the Kansas wind.