Coming home: Nancy Kassebaum reflects on her political legacy, life (+video)

Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker has come home.

Her century-old stone house on the Kansas prairie is surrounded by grazing black Angus cattle and a faded red outhouse her late husband, Sen. Howard Baker, suggested for ambiance.

She chuckles at the memory.

“He always said east Tennessee was the center of the universe,” Kassebaum said. “I had a hard time telling him the geographic center of the United States was Kansas.

“So the first time he was out here, he said, ‘I can’t believe you wake up and can see a cow looking in the window.’ ”

She became the second woman – Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the first – to be elected senator in her own right, not preceded by a husband or appointed to fulfill an unexpired term. Kassebaum served from Dec. 23, 1978, to Jan. 3, 1997, winning more than 70 percent of the vote in her re-election campaigns.

“I said at the time, ‘I am not elected to be just a woman senator. I am elected to be a senator,’ ” Kassebaum said. “I got a call from Margaret Chase Smith, and she said, ‘Good for you. That’s exactly how I felt, too.’ ”

Kassebaum, 83, is independent, opinionated and as close to Kansas royalty as a Kansan can get. The Eagle had a chance to talk with Kassebaum recently at her Morris County ranch in one of her first in-depth interviews since moving back to Kansas last year.

She had one stipulation: no pictures of her house.

At the ranch, she is at home wearing jeans, turtlenecks and Mary Jane shoes and is surrounded by family heirlooms, nature and books.

Longtime Senate colleague Bob Dole jokingly calls her a “farm girl now.” He described her as a hard worker “who never came to the Senate floor unless she was totally prepared to introduce legislation and to have a debate on either side.”

“She is probably one of the most popular politicians in Kansas,” Dole said. “Nancy has a way about her that she gets along with everyone. She has never tried to be a moderate or a conservative.”

Kassebaum’s father, Alf Landon, made a fortune as an independent oilman before being elected governor of Kansas and serving from 1933 to 1937. He also was the 1936 Republican nominee for president.

He was a beloved senior statesman for the GOP. His Colonial-style mansion in Topeka often served as a welcoming beacon to Republican presidential candidates.

Kassebaum is one of the first notable Kansas politicians to return to her home state to live in recent decades.

“And that’s a mistake,” Kassebaum said. “Not to come back to Kansas.

“I never would have thought of going anywhere else. In fact, it was never my intention to marry again. I announced in 1995 I was not going to run for a fourth term. I was coming home. I was looking forward into coming back here and being able to help baby-sit grandchildren while they were still glad to see me.”

But then she was invited to a dinner party later that year that widower Sen. Howard Baker also attended. They were married in December 1996. He died on June 26, 2014, at age 88.

“So, as I say,” she said, “you never know where the roads may take you.”

Growing up a Landon

She was born Nancy Jo Landon on July 29, 1932, during the Great Depression. Her father, already the governor of Kansas, championed fiscal responsibility in a time wracked by severe drought and high unemployment.

She does not remember him being governor or running for president in 1936. Her father was defeated in a landslide by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Landon, according to a Topeka Capital-Journal article from May 13, 1998, reportedly told his wife, Theo: “By God, we’ll build our own White House back in Topeka.”

He did. He built a mansion on a hill surrounded by 13 wooded acres. The 9,500-square-foot home boasted a flagstone veranda, Doric columns, tall bay windows and a wide staircase.

Nancy and and her brother Jack had ponies named Maine and Vermont after the only two states he won in the presidential election, the Capital-Journal reported.

“Dad loved to ride horseback,” Kassebaum said. “That I do remember. He rode until he was 90.”

There were two rules in the Landon house: Dinner at 6. Show up.

“And we always talked at the dinner table about politics,” Kassebaum said. “We were expected to be there and sit down. Dad would do most of the talking at the dinner table.”

Entering politics

She first served on the Maize school board. Then Kassebaum looked at other ways to serve in the government.

“I was fortunate when my own marriage to Phil Kassebaum was having a difficult time that Phil had been a co-chairman in this state for Sen. (James) Pearson,” Kassebaum said.

Pearson served as U.S. senator from Kansas from 1962 to 1978.

“I called Sen. Pearson to see if he had any suggestions or place – if there was somewhere in the foreign service I could work for awhile to just take a year off and see what could be worked out,” Kassebaum said.

She laughs. “Obviously, you don’t just step in and think you are going to help out at the State Department – and it shows you how probably naive I was in thinking I could get all the credentials in order.

“He said, ‘I’ve got an opening for a caseworker in the Washington office.’ ”

The experience gave her an insight into Washington.

“It showed me how backrooms in Senate offices work,” she said. “I never expected to stay longer than a year.

“I came back home. Everybody expected Sen. Pearson to run for another term – and then he announced he wasn’t going to run. Several good friends in Wichita said … ‘You ought to think about running.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ ”

Early that year, Jan Meyers, a state senator from Overland Park from 1972 until 1984 and the first Republican woman elected to the U.S. House from Kansas, announced she would run.

“And I thought, ‘Oh, well, I shouldn’t think about it,’ ” Kassebaum said. “A number of additional men announced they would run. Eventually, there were seven of us.”

Alf Landon was opposed to her running.

“He thought I would lose and it would reflect on him,” Kassebaum said.

Theo Landon, her mom, was more supportive.

Lee Thompson, best known as a longtime U.S. attorney for Kansas, had worked on Pearson’s staff and would become the treasurer for two of Kassebaum’s campaigns.

“He agreed to be my treasurer, but he said, ‘Nancy, I didn’t think you were going to win.’ ”

The first election

Her campaign slogan was “A Fresh Face: A Trusted Kansas Name.” She was the last candidate to announce she was running.

The primary, she said, was fun. Her son John drove her around the state.

“A lot of people weren’t sure I would win,” Kassebaum said. “We had a lot of debates. I had never been a debater. But I did feel like I knew politics.

“I came to learn the state. In the beginning, I wasn’t that knowledgeable of every county. But I found out it was a big asset to have gone to the University of Kansas. I could go into a community and know somebody there. … And then, having children at K-State also helped. … That was a big asset to have contacts from both schools.”

Shortly after Labor Day in 1978, Democratic candidate Bill Roy demanded she release her tax returns.

“I am not divorced at this time,” Kassebaum said. “We had filed a joint return, and I didn’t feel it is fair to Phil Kassebaum for me to release those returns. I wouldn’t do it.

“Well, this became a huge issue, and so many people pressured me to do it, to clear it up. Even Gov. (Robert) Bennett, who was running for re-election at this time, said, ‘Nancy, you are going to lose. You have to release those returns.’ ”

She refused.

“I said, ‘Why now? It is three weeks before the end of the campaign.’

“If I wasn’t on principle going to release them, doing it now, well, that’s going to say principle didn’t matter. I’m not going to do it. And, I think, actually that was an asset in the long run that I stood up at that point.”

She won the election. But that first year was tough.

There was a growing movement in Kansas – the American Agriculture Movement. Farmers were climbing on their tractors and heading to Washington, D.C., to protest farm prices, among other things.

“I had very irate farmers out in western Kansas,” she said. “They were difficult issues.

“But I always said I would rather talk with farmers than anybody else. They did respect you for saying what you thought and explaining why.”

The 1970s was also a time for the women’s movement, talk of an Equal Rights Amendment and Roe v. Wade. Kassebaum supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

“Abortion was always an issue. It always will be,” she said. “I always said up front what my position was. And if you can’t vote for me for that reason, well, then, that’s fine.

“I remember the night before my first conference announcing that I was going to run. I talked to Dad, and he said, ‘Well, what do you think they will ask you?’ And I said, ‘I am sure they will ask me my position on abortion.’

“And there was this long pause, and he said, ‘Well, what business of government is that?’ ”

She had a fellow Kansan, however, who helped bring her support – Dole.

“I was fortunate Bob Dole was a big help in that general election campaign. I think he helped shore up a lot of Republican support who might have wondered exactly if I was going to be strong enough.”

The two are still friends and talk on the phone a lot, Dole said.

“She’s a great lady,” he said. “We haven’t forgotten the good old times.”

Politics now

She doesn’t like it.

In her 18 years as a senator, Kassebaum developed a reputation for having a thoughtful, moderate voice. She shaped national debates and swung the votes of senators who followed her lead.

If she were to run for office now, she said, she doubts whether she would make it out of the primary.

“I saw change coming, and not just in Kansas,” she said.

She blames it on social media, which has made us an Internet society.

“I think that is what has changed the system,” she said. “If you are out campaigning today, you have someone who is taking a selfie in the audience or picking up something that would be a sentence that out of context doesn’t make sense.

“It becomes, as I said for several years, ‘Entertainment Tonight.’

“That’s why Donald Trump has caught on. Dr. (Ben) Carson is just so unusual as a candidate in demeanor that it fascinates people.

“I look up at everybody on the stage of Republicans, and there isn’t a debate. We are not talking about anything that people want to listen to in a thoughtful, substantive fashion.”

She won’t speak ill of any candidate – nationally or in Kansas.

“It is easy to criticize,” she said. “It is far more difficult to be constructive.”

There used to be more balance, she said.

“There was a stronger center. And that’s true in both parties. It has been diminished because of the lack of leadership in Congress,” she said. “As a democracy … we have always believed between a balance between a strong executive, strong legislative body and strong judicial body in the Supreme Court.

“If we want to criticize the courts now, it is because Congress is not doing its job. They leave the doors wide open, because they don’t want to get into a fuss how to draw up a regulation that is controversial, so they leave it open.”

Current Kansas issues

She thinks Kansas should expand Medicaid.

“There are people who are needing insurance and who are eligible for Medicaid and should have it,” she said.

“When it (Medicaid) was originally designed, it was a federal and state program financially. The states would put money in and so would the federal government.

“Well, now it has become contentious about who will control it and how it would be designed. I think, in this instance, the state is responsible.”

Does she think Kansans are as socially and fiscally conservative as the current Legislature, governor and congressional delegation?

“I personally thought I was fairly conservative on economic matters,” Kassebaum said. “I do believe we spend too much, and we can’t just blame it on the party in power. The Republicans spent too much when they were there, and so did the Democrats.

“But again, it goes back to management. Look how many assistant secretaries we have and political appointees who barely get to learn the job before they change. We have terrible management problems, and both parties ought to really stop and think about it.”

And Gov. Sam Brownback? What does she think of his Kansas experiment of reducing taxes for many businesses?

“I think it showed it didn’t work,” she said. “I think the states experimenting sometimes is useful, actually. I am a firm believer that the states can be good experimenters, but I think that was an experiment that didn’t work.”

Kassebaum thinks moderate Republicans will make a comeback in state and national politics.

“What tends to happen, I think, is that you get enough on the left and right … I think those on the far left and the far right eventually cause a resurgence of understanding of what it takes to have a balance and force in the middle.

“It is harder to get because of the technology that exists today and that causes instant, instant decisions.”

Gun control

Kassebaum doesn’t think she could get elected in today’s political environment.

“I tell you who would be on me more than anything is the NRA (National Rifle Association), because I was very supportive of gun control,” she said. “I was one of the major Brady gun (supporters), and I was very close to Jim and Sarah Brady.

“Not that that stops crime. That’s not a reason. It’s just that I think the ever presence of it – that you can take a gun to church and take a gun into the schoolyards.

“I don’t talk about it in Tennessee,” she said, and then laughs.

“Everyone I know there carries a gun. It is about the same here.”

When, as a senator, she supported banning semi-automatic assault weapons, it drew angry reactions from constituents.

“Those were the most hateful phone calls I ever got,” she recalled. “My receptionists were in tears, and so I went out and started answering the phones in the Senate office. And I got this call. I said, ‘Well, this is she. This is Nancy. I’m right here. You just go ahead.’ ”

The person on the other end of the phone said, according to Kassebaum, “Well, I don’t know what you were thinking. Your father would be turning in his grave if he knew what you were doing.”

“And I said, ‘Well, he might. But he isn’t here right now. And so he would expect me to do what I thought probably would be a good thing to do. I appreciate your call. Thank you.’ ”

Sen. Howard Baker

The mid-1990s were tough ones for Kassebaum. Her mother, Theo, died in July 1996 (her father had died in 1987). She was closing her offices in Washington and cleaning out her childhood home in Topeka, preparing it for sale.

In 1995, friend Larry Eagleburger – who had served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush – invited her to dinner. And there was Howard Baker.

The world knew him as Sen. Howard Baker from Tennessee, Senate majority leader who served as chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan. In 1973, a handsome young Baker served on the Watergate hearings and asked the famous question: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

They were married in December 1996.

She loved him for the companionship. They could talk politics. Read. They appreciated their space together.

When she introduced him to her family, she remembers sitting around the dinner table.

“We were all arguing and discussing around the table as we always did as a family – which then included all my children and grandchildren – and suddenly one of them said, ‘So, Howard, what do you think?’

“And there was this long pause and he said, ‘Well, at the dinner table we never discuss politics or religion.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you discuss?’ ”

It became a standing joke.

Her life now

Kassebaum is a practical, common-sense Kansan – but she’s still sentimental enough to keep the bricks from her family’s home in Maize to build a brick floor in the entry of her current house and re-create a walk-in limestone fireplace “just like the one we had in Maize.”

She does her own grocery shopping – driving once a week by herself to Herington or Council Grove. She does her own cooking and cleaning, sometimes sharing a meal with son Bill and daughter-in-law Jennifer Kassebaum.

“I like to read, needlepoint and get my house in order,” Kassebaum said.

She lives simply with few, if any, ornate features to her house.

She has been sorting through pictures of her and Baker in Japan with dignitaries when he was U.S. ambassador, pictures of parents and grandparents, pictures of children and grandchildren while they were growing up.

Mr. C, a German roller canary, keeps her company. His space is in the kitchen. Elmo, her daughter Linda’s dog, is the official greeter.

Kassebaum walks daily to her mailbox, about half a mile from her house, to get letters and daily and weekly newspapers – the Wall Street Journal, the Council Grove Republican, the Marion County Record, the Hillsboro Free Press – and two magazines – the New Yorker and the Economist.

Kassebaum makes few appearances now. She keeps up with correspondence by writing letters the old-fashioned way. She has no e-mail account or Internet access.

“I don’t like to be too busy,” she said.

Her health is fine, although she admits to having some age-related issues.

“I was having some difficulty with my eyes that I had to resolve with glaucoma and cataract with the pressure adjustment,” Kassebaum said. “So during a period of time when I first got back here and Linda was here, we probably drove to Wichita once a week for awhile and then every couple of weeks.”

Kassebaum drives now, but not at night.

In 2008, Kassebaum’s son Richard, an award-winning PBS filmmaker, died from a brain tumor. Baker died in 2014.

“You survive on faith,” she said. “I am a strong believer in faith, friends and family.”

She treasures the quietness of the prairie.

“I have never had to be someone who had to have someone around them all the time.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker’s life

July 29, 1932 – Nancy Jo Landon is born in Topeka.

1950 – Graduates from Topeka High School

1954 – Receives bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas

1956 – Earns master’s degree in diplomatic history from the University of Michigan

1956 – Marries Philip Kassebaum; together they have four children: John, Linda, Richard and William.

1977 – Works as caseworker in Washington, D.C., for Sen. James Pearson

1978-97 – Serves as U.S. senator from Kansas

1979 – Divorces Phil Kassebaum

1989 – Is the only Republican to vote against confirming Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, as secretary of defense amid allegations of his womanizing and drinking and being a crony of defense contractors

1993 – Is the first Republican senator to urge Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., to resign amid accusations he had sexually harassed 21 women

December 1996 – Marries Sen. Howard Baker from Tennessee

2001-05 – President George W. Bush appoints Baker to serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan.

2011 – Selected as one of 25 Notable Kansans by the governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel for Kansas history

June 26, 2014 – Baker dies.

Late 2014 and early 2015 – Moves back to Kansas prairie home

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