She walked away from public office 20 years ago, and she has been out of the limelight for most of that time. But let’s just say it plainly:
We still wonder what Nancy would say.
What would former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum say about Donald Trump? Gov. Sam Brownback? Politics in America today?
And so I chatted her up on the radio recently and had another long talk with her on the phone. From out there in the Flint Hills, it all came back again: the common sense, the reasonableness, the steady thinking. She and Bob Dole always embodied that traditional Kansas Republicanism that carried the state for all those decades.
Of all the politicians I’ve covered for all these years, she was the one who stood out for the utter lack of guile, for answering questions in about as straightforward a way as a U.S. senator could. And when the going got tough in an interview, she would just wave a hand and say it: “Steve, you know I can’t go there.”
She was so easy to be around, so comfortable just being Nancy.
Dole always referred to her as the popular one. And she was. But don’t think for a moment she was a pushover. Dole himself clashed with his fellow Kansan at times.
In 1989, Kassebaum was the only Republican to vote against the confirmation of Texas Sen. John Tower as defense secretary. Tower faced all manner of allegations of womanizing and drinking, but that’s not what bothered Kassebaum.
It was his way-too-cozy relationship with defense contractors. Kassebaum had concerns about what her fellow Kansan, Dwight Eisenhower, once called the “military industrial complex.”
Tower acknowledged the issue once when he talked to Kassebaum. “If I was secretary,” he told her in a startling admission, “it’d be like the fox in charge of watching the chicken coop.”
“I said, ‘That’s the issue,’ ” Kassebaum recalled.
She voted no.
In 1993, she stood up again to a member of her own party, becoming the first Republican senator to urge Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon to resign amid accusations that he had harassed 21 women.
So of course I wanted to know what Kassebaum would say about Trump and Brownback and politics these days. Here’s a hint:
“I’m more sad than mad,” she said.
Flint Hills living
She’s 84 now and lives near family in Morris County with cattle outside the house (and sometimes peering inside) and the Flint Hills beckoning just beyond. She doesn’t mind the solitude, and she has had more than her share of it in the years since her second husband, former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, died in 2014. Kassebaum came back home after that, and she said to do anything else would’ve been a mistake.
She mightily resists all things digital, taking regular grief from grandkids about her penchant for putting pen to paper and writing something called a letter. (“But they kind of get a kick out of it,” she said). Her son, Bill, and his wife, Jennifer, gave her a laptop not long ago, but she hardly ever opens it. She’ll tell you that she’s stubborn. But then she’ll tell you something else about how computers have changed the world and Washington along with it.
People, she says, spend far too much time on the internet — Facebook and Twitter and all the rest. “It really eats up people’s time.” And that’s a problem, she said, because people don’t have time to think anymore. No one has the luxury to sit back and sort it out and make sense of it all.
“It’s very hard to get a perspective,” she said.
Like so many Americans these days, Kassebaum admits that she, too, is anxious about Trump and the direction of the country. It’s all his big talk that irritates her, all the promises and the frenetic pace. Her disdain is clear. “He’s misleading people by making these grand pronouncements,” she said.
She measures her remarks, insisting that lashing out at him or Brownback is “not for me to do at the moment.”
But then she goes on. It’s the president’s words that bother her most.
“It’s like a bully,” she said. “It’s like somebody who wants to bully you and say, ‘By golly, you dummy. You know, this is the way it is, and we’re going to be great again.’ That may inspire some people, but it’s not the kind of leadership we need today.”
Too much yelling
She’s weary of the all the shouting and the blaming and the president’s “inability to lead people to become involved in constructive ways. Look at the big rally he had (in Florida). It energizes people just to yell and shout.”
All that hot air has carried over to Congress, she said. Republicans all say the same things, and so do the Democrats. There’s no leadership, no reaching across the aisle. Congress needs to spend more time focusing on passing good legislation that will save the courts from having to weigh in so often to clarify what was written.
She won’t say who she cast her ballot for in November, but it doesn’t sound like Trump got her vote. “I just believe he was not the person we needed.” And she is not convinced he’ll last an entire term. “I have said that in a couple of years, he’s going to get tired of being president.”
Of Brownback, you sense more frustration and an equal determination to not say too much. Kansans, she said, are “sooo, sooo upset” with him. “He’s just not been able to realize what’s been happening.”
His strategy of cutting taxes and spending “just hasn’t worked.” But now, it’s tough to shift gears and reverse all that.
“For Governor Brownback, I’m sure it’s difficult for him because I think he realizes how disliked he is now.”
She resists offering advice to Republicans for how they might navigate the tricky waters ahead. The parties are changing in dramatic ways, she said. Voters are eager for something genuine.
Kassebaum was once viewed that way, as someone as real and down-to-earth as the Kansas prairie she loves so much. She said she never considered running for the presidency. Her goal was to do three terms, then come home and play with her grandchildren.
“You always become a lot more popular after you’ve left,” she said, repeating a line that Dole often uses.
She has said many times that she couldn’t win nomination for public office in her own party these days. She favors gun control, after all, and wants Kansas to expand Medicaid. Friends urge her to re-engage in the public arena, but she resists. Right now, she’s content venting her frustrations to her dog.
“He can’t talk back,” she said.