Last November, the Kansas State Historical Society inducted former Gov. Alf Landon and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum into the Kansas Walk of Honor on the grounds of the State Capitol – citation, set in bronze, for those committed to crucial public service on a state and national level and with significant connections to Kansas. Here are brief reminders, in two articles, why the former governor and his daughter were selected for this notable award. – JM
In the final autumn of Nancy Kassebaum’s remarkable 18-year tenure in Washington, I spent several days poking around her office in the Russell Senate Office Building. I had gone there, in October 1996, to sense the emotion in an office about to close. For most of the staff, these final days would incubate a dreadful sentience, a kind of stoic mourning, a countdown for dissolution of a family. This spoke volumes about the woman who had led it.
“Other senators will let you work yourself to death and they don’t care,” Nancy Briani, Kassebaum’s office manager, told me at the time. “With Senator Kassebaum, you want to work yourself to death for her, she means that much.”
Kassebaum’s “office” was actually nine offices in five interconnected chambers along the third floor of the building. From these rooms, her 18-member staff affected the service and carried the mission of one of Kansas’ most popular public figures and, at the time, among the Capitol’s most popular and respected senators.
Even today, 20 years after her retirement, things happen (the Walk of Honor, an appearance with Bob Dole…) to bring Kassebaum from the seclusion of her ranch near Burdick and back into the news.
Kassebaum’s record of Washington service brims with official accomplishment, recognition, awards. But her tenure was braced with a staff that believed she was special far beyond any definition of the term. For instance: “You know, Senator Kassebaumn never allowed a folding machine in the office,” Briani told me one night. “We do thousands and thousands of letters, and she signs them and they are folded by hand. A machine would make a kind of backward fold, so you could use it for window envelopes.
“She always believed it was a matter of etiquette that letters be hand-folded. And so when there is a huge mailing – we respond to all correspondence, even postcard campaigns – we all pitch in and divide up the stacks. And here we are, secretaries, economic advisers, domestic policy experts, the chief-of-staff, foreign affairs advisers and, of course, the senator, too, all folding letters.
“We order out for pizza. We don’t have a folding machine, we have folding parties.” One afternoon, Dave Bartel, Kassebaum’s chief of staff, interrupted an anecdote he was telling to say that above all, Kassebaum’s integrity would be greatly missed. “Even people who dislike her moderate, compromising and reasoned approach, which runs against the popular aggressive approach, know that she’s never going to mislead them.” Then he told a story from 1982, when Kassebaum was chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on African Affairs. The racist government of South Africa and its laws of apartheid had become her specific, personal concern…She believed that apartheid was wrong…She cared about Nelson Mandela when he was rotting in prison and not a lot of others seemed to notice. She was never going to be diverted. …She worked and worked…doing something important not only for Kansas but for the world…”
Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, paid tribute to Kassebaum’s work in South Africa. “She fought to break down barriers that oppress and divide people. She applauded the fall of apartheid on 1993 and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. People and governments worldwide will thank Senator Kassebaum for her work.”
“South Africa is a different place today,” Bartel said at that time. “It’s been given a second chance because of what Nancy Kassebaum did, and it’s worth five years of my life – just being her coat-holder – to be able to do that.”
There were, and are, hundreds of similar stories of Kassebaum’s personal and political magnificence. And the best have come unvarnished from her staff, the people who hand-fold envelopes or hold her coat, professionals who comprise a foundation of government, and who can dismiss a phony in an instant or embrace a leader for a long time, long enough to become family.
Over the years her incredible popularity stemmed from a basic, inviolable belief that she could be trusted.
No agenda, no issue, no crowd, no person was too small or too large for her study. By her evenness, her decency, her reasoned beliefs, she inspired a faith among constituents and colleagues – unique then and unheard of now, in today’s crude and ruthless political arena.
We were unsettled at the thought that Nancy Kassebaum would leave Washington, leave us for another life, but it didn’t take us long to understand.
Washington was no longer much a place for her, or anyone like her.
(Next: An original liberal)
– JOHN MARSHALL