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Nancy Kassebaum (Baker)

Nancy Kassebaum (Baker)

As a U.S. senator from Kansas, Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker (born 1932) was a political maverick whose stands ranged from support of the Equal Rights Amendment and a woman's right to choose abortion to support for the failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

Nancy Landon was born in Topeka, Kansas, on July 29, 1932, the daughter of Alfred M. Landon and his second wife, Theo (Cobb) Landon. She grew up in a political family. Her father, the Republican governor of Kansas, ran against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936, a race he lost by a landslide, carrying only two states, Maine and Vermont. Although she was only four years old when her father ran for president and remembered little of the contest, she later claimed she received a first-rate political education as she grew up by listening to her father and his friends through a heating vent from her bedroom.

Education and Early Career

She attended public schools in Topeka and graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence in 1954 with a B.A. in political science. After working for a year as a receptionist at Hallmark Cards, she married her college sweetheart, Philip Kassebaum, in 1956. The couple moved to Michigan, where she took an M.A. in diplomatic history while he finished law school at the University of Michigan. The next 20 years she spent on the family farm in Maize, Kansas, with her husband, who became a prominent Wichita lawyer. While raising four children, John Philip, Jr., Linda Josephine, Richard Landon, and William Alfred, Kassebaum worked as vice president of KFH and KBRA radio stations owned by Kassebaum Communications. She later confessed that there were times in high school and college when she considered a career in public life, but judged it "a day-dream, a fantasy." She served on the Kansas Committee on the Humanities and Kansas Government Ethics Commission and was elected to the Maize school board, eventually becoming its president.

Kassebaum finally did enter public life in 1975 after separating from her husband. She moved to Washington, D.C., with her children, where she took a job as assistant to Kansas Senator James B. Pearson. During her ten months on his staff she acted as liaison between constituents and federal agencies. When Pearson decided not to seek reelection in 1978, Kassebaum cautiously considered entering the race. Her father publicly discouraged her, worried that Kansas was not yet ready for a woman senator. But her mother and her husband, who remained a close confidant despite their separation and subsequent divorce in 1979, supported her decision to run for office.

Political Life

Kassebaum defeated eight Republican rivals in the Republican primary, including a more politically experienced woman, State Senator Jan Meyers. She managed to capture 31 percent of the vote. In the general election she faced Democrat William Roy, a lawyer and physician with a liberal record during his two terms as congressman from Topeka. Trading on her family name, she adopted as her slogan "A Fresh Face, a Trusted Kansas Name." The New York Times later commented that "if her middle name were Jones her campaign would have been a joke." Kassebaum responded, "It has been said I am riding on the coattails of my dad, but I can't think of any better coattails to ride on." Fortunately for his daughter, Landon's coattails proved stronger in 1978 than they had in 1936.

What Kassebaum lacked in political experience she made up for in political savvy. She proved a formidable candidate able to turn her lack of experience into a virtue. During the post-Watergate years, when the nation demonstrated its distrust of Washington insiders by electing Jimmy Carter president in 1976, Kassebaum presented herself as a common-sense homemaker. She won the support of the state's major newspapers, but not the Kansas Women's Political Caucus or the National Organization for Women. Despite her sympathy for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), she refused to support extension of the deadline for ratification. Kassebaum admitted to being a moderate feminist, but felt that humanist was a more accurate label.

A shrewd and tireless campaigner, she outmaneuvered and outspent her opponent. With a personal net worth of $2.5 million, she put $115,000 of her own money into the campaign budget of $841,287. Her finances became an issue late in the race when her opponent challenged her to make a full financial disclosure. She refused on the grounds that she still filed a joint tax return with her estranged husband and that disclosure would violate his right to privacy. She did reveal, however, that she earned $92,000 a year and paid only $5,075 in taxes. Although the issue hurt her popularity, she dismissed it as so much "barn waste" and held on to her lead, defeating her opponent by 85,752 votes.

From the moment Kassebaum won election on November 7, 1978, she moved into the national spotlight. She became the second (after Margaret Chase Smith of Maine) woman elected senator in her own right, not preceded by a husband or appointed to fulfill an unexpired term. Kassebaum asked for and received positions on key committees, although she had to wait two years for a berth on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She chaired the Senate half of the Military Reform Caucus and the Aviation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

In the Senate she earned a reputation as a political independent. She did not share the social agenda of the Republican New Right and made no secret of her sympathy for the ERA and her support of a woman's right to choose abortion. After her election she was viewed generally favorably by women's movement leaders. "She's not hostile to the movement. She doesn't turn her back on the Equal Rights Amendment or on the cause of social justice," said Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, the only other woman serving with Kassebaum in the Senate.

On other issues she was closer to Republican conservatives. She supported the failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. She opposed the National and Community Service Act and the Act for Better Child Care on the grounds that they cost too much. Likewise, she supported Ronald Reagan's veto of a farm bill designed to bail farmers out of financial trouble when it became clear that such an expense would quickly climb to over a billion dollars. Yet her liberal stance on some foreign policy issues made her a Republican maverick. She supported the Panama Canal treaty, was skeptical of the Granada invasion, and called for a regional conference to solve the problems in Central America. But, in 1985, she refused to support sanctions against South Africa. At the same time, she attacked what she labeled the "tyranny of the Third World" in the United Nations by introducing an amendment in 1986 to limit U.S. support for the organization's budget to 20 percent unless the one-nation, one-vote rule be changed to reflect each country's financial contribution. At that time, the U.S. handled 25 percent of the budget, while the Soviet Union, as the second highest contributor, contributed 11.8 percent. At the low end of the financial supporters was a collective of 78 third world countries which together paid only 0.1 percent, according to Gertrude Samuels in the New Leader.

Kassebaum took over as head of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee following the Republican victories in the 1994 election. Generally known as a moderate, she said, "what I enjoy most is trying to figure out legislative answers." She is also quoted as having said, "I'm not a person who particularly seeks power, but I don't avoid it when I feel I can use it to accomplish a good result."

As her political stature grew she was mentioned frequently as a possible vice presidential candidate, first in 1984, before it became clear that Ronald Reagan would seek reelection, and again in 1988 as a possible running mate for George Bush. However, neither rumor came to fruition. In 1984 Kassebaum ran for reelection and defeated her Democratic opponent in a landslide, capturing 78 percent of the vote. Again in 1990 she won reelection easily, gaining more than 73 percent of the vote. In 1995 Kassebaum announced that she would not seek a fourth term in office. She married Howard Baker Jr., the former Tennessee senator and Republican majority leader, in December 1996.

Further Reading

Additional information on Nancy Kassebaum can be found in "Nancy Kassebaum and Barbara Mikulski," Ms. (September 1988); Gertrude Samuels, "The 20% Solution, Kassebaum vs Moynihan on the UN," in New Leader (May 5-19, 1986); Peggy Simpson, "Nancy Landon Kassebaum," in Working Woman (March 1984); Lynda Johnson Robb, "Nancy Kassebaum: Making Political History," in Ladies Home Journal (April 1979); and Frank W. Martin, "Freed to Run by her Broken Marriage, Mrs. Kassebaum Goes to Washington," People Magazine (January 8, 1979). □

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