(Long before distress and malice became a Republican manifesto, Kansas had a most viable and vibrant government, led by people who helped the state to ascend, to ensure that citizens had better lives. This is the third of several articles about that system, and those who made it work. ‒ JM)
In the past 50 years at least, no Kansas governor has been as open and accessible to the working press as Robert Bennett. The day after his inauguration, in January 1975, Bennett told reporters gathered in his office that he hoped to have daily meetings with the press during the legislative session; when legislators were not in session, the meetings would be weekly.
Bennett was the first governor elected under a new law that changed the terms for several elected state offices from two years to four. It was thought that a governor with four years could control and drive his own programs through threat or compromise if it took a painful two years or more, with the last year or 18 months to mend fences and heal any wounds before the next election.
After the dominant Docking years, Republicans were eager for Bennett, an urbane and articulate Senate President, to take office after two exhausting campaigns. Bennett had won a close, three way GOP primary election by less than 300 votes, then a bruising general election against a popular Democrat, Attorney General Vern Miller.
Bennett’s reputation for intelligence in the classic sense was unquestioned. He was a graceful and persuasive public speaker with a deep love of democratic government, a scholar’s grasp of history, an accountant’s knack for numbers, a thirst and understanding of the political process. He was a gifted essayist, and wrote some of the best speeches ever crafted personally by a Kansas governor. Bennett was a voracious reader, a tireless worker and learner, and he looked the part. At his study off the den at Cedar Crest, the governor’s mansion, he often worked past 2 a.m. surrounded by piles of folders and books and papers under the library lamps, well supplied with Salem cigarettes and fresh coffee; his half-frame reading glasses were always at the end of his nose when he wasn’t chewing on the stems.
Next morning, before 9, he would sweep onto the governor’s office at the Capitol and dump a pile of Norelco mini-casettes at the desk of his longtime secretary, Helen Marshall. She would smile at the governor and when he had disappeared into his chambers, mutter something vicious about the person who had invented the mini-casette. It was Bennett’s habit to dictate letters, memos, speeches, orders, plans and anything else that came to mind any time, anywhere, because of the mini recorder he carried; and it was among Helen’s duties to decipher the tapes, type the transcripts, letters, memos, speeches, orders, and other dicta and have them to Bennett momentarily. All this was, simply, understood between the two. They read each other’s mind. Bennett was well into his work day by the time things began to stir at the Capitol, and this gave him control, especially when it came to the press.
There is no official count, but my guess is that Bennett presided at more open press conferences than any other Kansas governor.
He held court for print, radio and television at 9:30 a.m. every weekday morning while the legislature was in session, and at 10 a.m. at least once a week when the legislature was not in session.
This was in sharp contrast to the last two years of the Docking administration, when the governor communicated almost exclusively through his press secretary. (At least there was communication).
In these Brownback years, reporters are lucky even to have a telephone call returned or an e-mail acknowledged.)
Bennett came to office well-fortified, politically as well as intellectually. His close friend and ally, Richard Rogers (who later became a federal judge) was president of the Senate; another good friend was the powerful Pete McGill, Speaker and supreme commander of the House of Representatives. What Bennett wanted from the legislative branch, he would get. His friends saw to it that their allies ran the most powerful committees.
Bennett’s appointments secretary, Pat Storey, shrewd and savvy, controlled access to the governor and appointments from, and into, his office. Her husband, attorney Bob Storey, was chairman of the Senate Transportation and Utilities Committee, the panel that controlled highway budgets and utility rates, among other things.
Thus did Bennett begin a Kansas governor’s first four-year term ‒ an able, experienced, articulate chief executive with many friends in high places. This was significant, because government in Kansas was moving at a tortuous pace, its agenda piled high with changes. Among them were statewide court unification; completion of sectors in the Interstate highway system; scores of local Urban Renewal projects; statewide energy conservation and fuel allocation; obliging a new Governmental Ethics Commission to enforce campaign finance and public disclosure statutes; coordinating the first massive restructuring of public school finance ‒ for starters. A glorious time, until hope began to fade.
(Next: Mistakes take a toll)