It won’t be long now.
We fold the bunting on America’s poisonous presidential campaign with notes of a gathering six weeks ago that told of our nation in far more intelligent times. In mid-September Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum appeared in Lawrence at the Dole Institute of Politics to lament, at times deeply, the current state of politics in America. The event itself – the rush to find more chairs, the anticipation in the room, the voltage of an audience crowded with notable Kansans – recognized two of the country’s foremost public servants, Republican icons of an era when the American political process could actually lead to something worthwhile.
Dole and Kassebaum, with more than 45 years of combined service in the U.S. Senate, are from a time when Washington worked, and often well. Kassebaum, 84, the daughter of former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon (the Republican presidential nominee in 1936) served in the Senate from 1978 through 1996. She had been married to the late Howard Baker, a distinguished senator from Tennessee and former White House Chief of Staff for President Reagan. Kassebaum, among other major accomplishments, was the first woman to represent Kansas in the Senate, and the first woman to chair a U.S. Senate committee (Labor).
Dole, after eight years in the U.S. House, served in the Senate from 1969-96, and was the chamber’s Republican leader for more than 20 years, was twice majority leader (1985-87 and 1995-96) when the party had more than 50 of the chamber’s 100 members. He left the Senate in 1996 to become the Republican nominee for president.
Dole’s appeal to citizens and legislators and his commitment to service stretched over the nation and much of the globe. For the same reasons he appealed to Kansans he appealed to others, so we had to share him.
Dole and Kassebaum were a near-perfect compliment to each other during their time in the Senate, he more conservative, she the moderate, the most popular pair to represent Kansas in Washington and elsewhere. They share a passion for their home state, for their political party, for the government that they long served. They now share a deep sorrow for the crude and selfish politics that has crippled governing and decimated American government.
During the Lawrence event, Kassebaum could barely contain her contempt for Donald Trump, his bald ignorance, his mockery of decency and grace, his savage penchant for selfpromotion and the lies that are its footing.
Dole was guarded. He recited a considerable list of Trump’s shortcomings, among them his cynical pandering, his audacity and smugness, his unabashed affection for Vladimir Putin. But out of party loyalty, Dole said at the time, Trump remained “my man.”
But what drew the overflow crowd on that muggy September afternoon was not discourse on contemporary American political failure, but a longing to see and hear, perhaps for one last time, two leaders who take the complexities of democracy seriously.
“Kansas sent us to Washington to do a job, not call each other names,” Dole said. What struck home that day, as they talked, was the respect that they inspired, the reason we voted at all. Dole and Kassebaum are moved by principle, not motive. Their mission was to improve lives rather than to control or dominate them. We were confident of their character and their judgment, even if their politics didn’t always fall in line with ours. Their kind of Republicanism inspired even their adversaries, prompting Democrats to produce their own celebrated
Kansans such as Bill Roy, Jim Slattery, the Dockings, Dan Glickman, Martha Keys, John Carlin.
Candidates or office holders who defy popular opinion for the common good are people of courage. Today they would be condemned as elitists, or traitors – Bob Dole and George
McGovern working for food stamps; Nancy Kassebaum and Ted Kennedy on labor reforms. Kennedy and Dole for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for the Martin Luther King holiday. These and more are the profiles in courage, as John Kennedy would have said, that gave our nation lift, helped the citizens to ascend, to have better lives. What we see today – given public opinion that pleads for health care reform, and tough gun laws, and overall a general bipartisan effort – are profiles in cowardice, the weakest kind of legislator.
For one lovely moment last September, we enjoyed hearing, in the flesh, the inspiration that moved us to participate in government, to vote, to select those with good judgment. And we had them, once, people committed to the common cause over the special interest. Here was the stimulus for all those votes for Kassebaum and Dole. We miss it, and them, terribly.