The news of Tom Docking’s death, on August 24, stirred a fond memory of a meeting long ago in Hutchinson. We were having coffee late one morning in a corner of the lobby of the Holiday Inn, and he had just lit a large cigar, a Churchill – “an old politician’s cigar – perfect for a young candidate,” he said, smiling through a great aromatic cloud.
That was in 1986. The pleasure of such smoking was about to be banned, but Tom Docking would enjoy the cigar while he could; he was the unopposed candidate for the Democratic party’s nomination for governor, an impressive stroke but not unexpected, even at his age. He was winding down a four-year term as lieutenant governor for the retiring incumbent, John Carlin, and was the scion in a family long-established in politics, the son and grandson of former governors, acquiring the experience and credentials – and fine cigars – of a veteran far more than his 32 years.
Tom Docking was a determined candidate with no problem in name recognition. Most voters knew who he was, theor what the name meant. In 1956 his grandfather, George Docking, became the state’s first Democratic governor in 20 years – and in an election that had returned Kansas’ favorite son, Dwight Eisenhower, to the White House in a Republican landslide. Ten years later, Kansans would elect another Docking, Tom’s father, Robert, who would become the only Kansas governor elected and reelected to four consecutive two-year terms. In 1974, a constitutional amendment ordered a four-year term for governors with a limit of two successive terms. Robert Docking declined to seek a fifth (4-year) term; four elections and eight years had been enough.
The Docking name in 1986 continued to ring familiar in Kansas, and Tom, strongly endorsed by Carlin and other powerful Democrats, was an eloquent, energetic candidate with strong convictions; he hoped to expand upon the success of Carlin’s eight years, into the ‘90s. Although he was experienced and credentialed and had the Docking name, Tom’s fresh look seemed a distraction, an invitation for critics to disparage his youth. During a joint appearance in the early fall of 1986 his opponent, Mike Hayden, the Republican Speaker of the House, acknowledged Docking’s appeal, with an exception. “I’d even vote for him,” Hayden said, “but not this time.”
Docking lost, with 48 percent (403,927) of the vote to Hayden’s 52 percent (435,533). It was blip along an odd cycle of history, one of a Republican state that seems to elect more Democratic governors than not. In the 20 elections for governor since George Docking won in 1956, Democrats have won 11, Republicans 9. Why, and how did it start?
George Docking won twice because Republicans were too busy fighting among themselves. In 1956, bitter and libelous feuding continued between the camps of the incumbent governor, Fred Hall and his challenger, Warren Shaw who won; in 1958 Republicans were so focused on a campaign to eliminate the union shop and make Kansas a “right-to-work” state that they had neither time nor money for their gubernatorial nominee, Clyde Reed.
It was Robert Docking – George’s son and Tom’s father – whose campaigns offered lasting and historic appeal to voters and whose programs satisfied taxpayers (and frustrated Republicans). *
In 1966 Robert Docking became the first Democrat since 1882 to unseat a Republican incumbent (Bill Avery). Docking was young, mildly progressive, as much of the middle road as Eisenhower, and as eager to shape the destiny of Kansas as his political godfather, Lyndon Johnson, was committed to a “Great Society” for the nation.
Lyndon Johnson’s cause, and effect, was to press the government’s reach into countless corners of American life where federal dollars, agencies and bureaucrats had never been before, all in the name and vision of virtue. The Kansas chapter lay in a script of plans and promises by Robert Docking, who showed an unprecedented feel for politics that combined commitment to morality with recognition of reality. On the one hand he embraced purpose for “the next generation, not the next election … political partisanship ends where the public interest begins.” On the other, his proposals avoided the party label, stirring calls for compassion, but with appeal of practical objectives.
Thus began the force and attraction of a Democratic governor in Republican Kansas, a resurgence that Tom Docking had hoped to reignite 11 years after his father had left office. The policies and energies in those years were especially fierce, having such an impact on us that Republicans eventually would pick up on them; their history now seems a melancholy drama for which, a half century later, there seems no end.
(Next: The Docking programs) ‒ JOHN MARSHALL