Kassebaum, Nancy Landon (1932—)

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Kassebaum, Nancy Landon (1932—)

U.S. senator (R-Kansas), noted for both independence and consensus-building, who worked on legislation in foreign affairs, aviation, labor, welfare and health-care reform. Name variations: Nancy Baker. Born Nancy Josephine Landon on July 29, 1932, in Topeka, Kansas; daughter of Alfred Mossman (an entrepreneur and politician) and Theo (Cobb) Landon; University of Kansas, B.A. 1954; University of Michigan, M.A. 1956; married Philip Kassebaum, on June 8, 1955 (divorced 1979); married Howard Baker (former U.S. senator from Tennessee), on December 7, 1996; children: (first marriage) John Philip Kassebaum, Jr.; Linda Josephine Kassebaum; Richard Landon Kassebaum; William Alfred Kassebaum.

Civic and community work in Wichita, Kansas (1955–75), including the Maize school board (1973–75); served as vice-president of the family-owned Kassebaum Communications; worked as aide to U.S. senator James Pearson (R-Kansas) and was a member of Executive Committee of Kansas Republican Party (1975); elected to U.S. Senate (1976); reelected (1984 and 1990); announced retirement from Senate (1996).

Nancy Landon Kassebaum's first campaign gave ample evidence that hers would be an unpredictable political career. First, she hesitated between running for the Senate and opening a restaurant, then decided to run for the Senate despite the fact that her only previous elected position had been two years on the rural Maize school board. She then proceeded to tell striking farmers that although she favored higher grain prices, she did not support government parity prices. She announced to the state teachers' union that she opposed the creation of a Department of Education. She informed her fellow Republicans that she admired President Jimmy Carter's Panama Canal Treaty and that she disagreed with a Republican plan to cut federal income taxes by 33% in three years. The woman candidate surprised the Kansas Women's Political Caucus (KWPC) with the news that although she supported the Equal Rights amendment, she was against extending the deadline for ratification (the KWPC endorsed her male opponent). But she proved able to turn liabilities into assets: when the Democratic candidate, Dr. Bill Roy, criticized her lack of experience, she campaigned in a simple print housedress, saying she wanted to "bring government back to the people." She won, becoming the only woman in the Senate, the first elected since the defeat of Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) in 1972.

Nancy Landon had been born into a political family near the height of her father's career. Alf Landon, who had earned a comfortable living in the oil business he had learned from his father, was campaigning for governor the year Nancy Jo was born. Alf had been something of a maverick himself, bolting the Republican Party in 1912 to support Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive "Bull Moose" Party, and supporting progressive stands on civil rights and environmental protection in the conservative 1920s. Left a widower with an infant child in 1918, he had married Theo Cobb a decade later. Their daughter, born a few days before the 1932 Republican primary, became the focus of considerable media attention, an asset to the 45-year-old Landon.

Alf Landon cut his own salary by 25%, as part of a state-wide austerity program during the Depression, and won a national reputation for balancing the budget. Toward the end of his second term, he was nominated by the Republicans to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936; once again Nancy Jo, by then a fetching four-year-old, received considerable coverage in the press. Although Landon lost spectacularly, failing to carry even his own state, he remained an important figure in the party; politicians and journalists continued to congregate at the Landons' Topeka house for consultation. Her mother and siblings were uninvolved, but Nancy, intrigued by political discussions, eavesdropped on the conversations until sent to her room, where she would listen through the heating vents. Her reading tended toward biography and news magazines.

Nancy Landon was studying political science at the University of Kansas when she met Philip Kassebaum during her sophomore year. After graduating in 1954, she studied for an M.A. in diplomatic history at the University of Michigan while Philip earned a law degree. They were married at the Landon home on June 8, 1955, and returned to Michigan to finish their studies, graduating in 1956. The couple had four children in the next six years, and Nancy Kassebaum shelved plans for a career in the U.S. Foreign Service to rear her family on a farm in the Wichita suburb of Maize. She was active in community organizations such as the United Fund, the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, and the Kansas Committee for the Humanities. She was president of the Women's Association, president of a drug-prevention program, and active in her children's 4-H programs. She also took part in local Republican election campaigns, stuffing envelopes and writing position papers. Her husband, in addition to his career in law, founded Kassebaum Communications, publishing a newspaper and operating radio stations; Nancy Kassebaum served as the company's vice-president. From 1973 to 1975, she also served on the Maize school board.

Politics is nothing more or less than the working out of our competing interests and priorities as a nation.

—Nancy Landon Kassebaum

When the Kassebaums separated in 1975, Nancy Kassebaum joined the Washington, D.C., staff of Senator James Pearson of Kansas, working on constituent problems with governmental agencies. Her oldest son was by then in college, and the three younger children went with her. When Pearson decided not to run for reelection in 1978, Kassebaum debated whether to try for his seat. As Pearson's legislative aide, she had been appointed to the Executive Committee of the Kansas Republican Party. Although they were willing to support her, they were not particularly encouraging. Most of Kassebaum's family thought she should run, including Philip, to whom she remained close, and even her mother, who had never taken much part in politics. Alf Landon, however, was doubtful, believing that politics was not a field for women. He even tried to enlist President Gerald Ford to help convince his daughter not to run.

Nancy Landon Kassebaum ran against eight other contenders for the Republican nomination, including another woman who was serving in the state senate. Her famous middle name probably helped Kassebaum stand out in the crowded field, and she won the nomination, to face former congressional representative and physician William Roy, who had nearly beaten Bob Dole in the Senate race of 1974. When Roy tried to make an issue of her lack of experience, Kassebaum made a virtue of the outsider image that had worked for Jimmy Carter in 1976; her campaign slogan was "A Fresh Face, a Trusted Kansas Name." When he criticized her for riding on her father's coattails, she smilingly replied that she couldn't think of better ones. He also tried to make an issue over her income taxes, but although she finally disclosed what she had paid, she steadfastly refused to release her tax statements, even when polls showed she was losing support. Nevertheless, she won comfortably with 54% of the vote.

Nancy Landon Kassebaum was only the fourth woman in U.S. history to be elected to a full six-year Senate term. More significantly, she was the first who had not followed a husband into politics. Her path-breaking election was all the more remarkable because, as the London Daily Mail observed, she came, not from "a trendy East Coast or West Coast state but from conservative Kansas, where a man's a man and a woman's his cook."

Kassebaum was assigned to the Senate committees on Commerce, Science and Transportation, on Banking Housing and Urban Affairs, on the Budget, and on the Special Committee on Aging, as well as to six subcommittees. In her maiden speech, she advocated term limits: two terms (12 years) for senators. Although she preferred to call herself a "humanist" rather than a "feminist," she recognized that she had two constituencies, Kansas and women. She opposed the Carter administration's embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union, which she contended hurt the American farmer most, and she advocated tax reform to enable widows to keep family businesses or farms. She stated repeatedly her belief that "abortion is seldom, if ever, the right moral choice, but it should nevertheless be a choice" which should not be addressed in any legislative forum.

In the 97th Congress, Kassebaum was appointed to the Committee on Foreign Relations, and began a career of active involvement in Central American and African affairs, often at odds with the Republican president Ronald Reagan. She wrote the committee restrictions on foreign aid to El Salvador, was one of a group of relatively conservative legislators on Capitol Hill challenging military expenditures, and spoke of the need to keep the Administration's "feet to the fire" on the issue of arms control, concerned that the Republican stance on the "war and peace issue" was costing support among female voters. Later, she would also oppose the MX missile in 1985 and vote against the Strategic Defense Initiative known as the "Star Wars" program. She demonstrated her Republican roots, however, by drafting the Kassebaum amendment to withhold part of the United States' dues until the United Nations overhauled its budget process. This was the first of her continuing efforts to force the UN to streamline its bureaucracy.

By the time she was up for reelection in 1984, Kassebaum had won a reputation both for compromise—she helped shape the allocation of military aid compared to economic aid which Congress would permit Reagan to apportion to Central America—and for principled stands, as when she successfully challenged her Senate Commerce Committee chair Bob Packwood on a significant procedural issue, after building a coalition to support her position. Although women did not fare particularly well in the 1984 election, which saw the Democratic ticket with Geraldine Ferraro as its vice-presidential nominee decisively defeated, Kassebaum garnered 76% of the vote in her state.

Senator Kassebaum served on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, and although in 1985 she argued that Congress should not attempt to legislate American policy toward South Africa, during the following year she sponsored legislation to impose phased economic sanctions on the white-minority government, warning Reagan that Congress would act if he would not. In 1989, she joined Democratic committee members to vote for a cap on aid to Zaire (now Republic of Congo) after hearing reports of political repression by the government. She also parted ways from Republicans in 1990 to vote in support of economic sanctions against Iraq at a time when the U.S. was supporting the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, believing he provided a bulwark against Iran's domination of the Middle East. Her vote was especially courageous because of its potential to hurt Kansas farmers. However, starting with legislation introduced in 1987, she worked to consolidate all U.S. foreign aid programs.

After the 1986 election, Kassebaum was joined by a second woman senator, Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) who had previously served in Congress. They planned jointly to introduce legislation to ease the burden on spouses and children by controlling health-care costs for the elderly.

When Nancy Kassebaum's second Senate term ended, fellow Kansas Senator Bob Dole and others persuaded her to reverse her original plan to retire after two terms, and run for a third. She agreed, noting that she had been unsuccessful in getting Congress to pass term limits. Again she won in a landslide; Congressional Quarterly, in the 1996 edition of Politics in America, noted that "By the end of her second term, Kassebaum had established a more lasting political legacy than her father." She was consistently on the short list of potential presidential or vice-presidential candidates.

A Chicago Tribune article which ran shortly after the beginning of her second term noted that she refused to use the auto-pen machines that most members of Congress employed. She personally reviewed and hand-signed 1,000 to 1,500 answers sent out from her office each week. Her press secretary conceded that this

might not be efficient, but noted that Senator Kassebaum felt it was important to stay in touch with her 2.5 million constituents and to know what they were thinking. Despite her success, she occasionally appeared to be shy in her public role. "Someday I'm going to hit someone over the head for calling me diminutive and soft-spoken," she promised, "but I am." Although annoyed by comparisons to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she could still laugh at her staff when they included a reference to the movie in a patchwork quilt they made for her.

Nancy Kassebaum continued to define herself as thoughtful and independent. She had been a member of the Budget Committee since her arrival in the Senate, and was an early proponent of the need to balance the budget, one of the first senators to propose a one-year across-the-board budget freeze. She argued against worthwhile but costly programs like the 1989 Act for Better Child Care Services and the National and Community Service Act of 1990. Never a token where women's issues were concerned, she believed that the Civil Rights Act of 1990 only encouraged litigation without addressing effectively the issue of workplace discrimination. She also expressed doubts about the economic feasibility of the Family and Medical Leave Act, supporting President George Bush's veto. "I always feel like the skunk at the picnic on this issue," she was quoted as saying in Congressional Quarterly, "but I feel it is wrong for us to mandate benefits."

On the other hand, she frequently opposed the majority of her party when feminist principles were at stake: she was the only Republican to vote against John Tower for secretary of defense in 1989, citing concern about his relationships with defense contractors. Although she voted to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice in 1991, she criticized the Senate Judiciary Committee for subjecting Anita Hill , who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment, to an "intellectual witch hunt." Later, she admitted she regretted her vote, disappointed with Thomas' opinions. She called for Senator Bob Packwood's resignation in 1993 after he not only was accused of sexual harassment but also of obstructing the investigation. In 1994, she joined other women in the Senate (who by then totaled seven) to vote against giving the Navy's top admiral a four-star retirement rank because of his connection to the Tailhook sex scandal.

She also broke ranks with the Republican Party over the 1994 crime bill, despite pressure from her state's senior senator, GOP leader Bob Dole, and joined six other Republicans to vote against ending the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims.

After Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections, Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum became the chair of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, replacing Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts). She was the first woman to chair a full committee. (In 1931, Senator Hattie Caraway [D-Arkansas] chaired the Senate Enrolled Bills Committee, which did not deliberate on legislation.) The committee dealt with many vital issues such as job training, student loans, affirmative action, arts funding, and the minimum wage, which, like many Republicans, Kassebaum opposed on the grounds that it would eliminate jobs. She also favored welfare reform, and as early as 1994 proposed a plan to turn three major welfare programs over to the states, in exchange for the federal government assuming Medicaid funding for the elderly and disabled. However, she differed from the House Republicans who wanted to limit benefits to welfare recipients after two years.

She was part of a small coterie of moderate Republicans who often deviated from their party line, especially on social issues. Although she opposed the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster as surgeon general in June 1995, she voted in favor of ending a Republican-led Senate filibuster on his nomination. She joined several other moderate Republicans to sign a letter opposing tax cuts, which many Republicans were demanding, before budget cuts were complete. Together with Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), she fought her party's call for deep reductions in foreign aid, urging, "We cannot abdicate out leadership in world affairs." Congressional Quarterly observed that "her views often help define where the middle ground lies."

In 1996, Kassebaum capped her career in the Senate by authoring health-care legislation guaranteeing that working Americans would have access to health insurance when they changed or lost jobs even if they or their family members had preexisting health conditions. Although Meg Greenfield , writing in Newsweek on March 27, 1995, remarked that "Kassebaum, who has become more authoritative and sure-footed with the passage of time, is a good argument against term limits," Nancy Landon Kassebaum, citing personal reasons, announced late in 1995 that she would not run for a fourth term in 1996. On December 7, 1996, she married Republican colleague, Howard Baker, U.S. senator from Tennessee for 18 years, who had also served as senate majority leader in 1985 and Reagan's White House chief-of-staff.


Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, with Richard E. Cohen. The Almanac of American Politics 1996: The Senators, the Representatives and the Governors: Their Records and Election Results, Their States and Districts. Washington, DC: Times Mirror, 1996.

Duncan, Philip D., and Christine C. Lawrence. Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America 1996: The 104th Congress. Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.

LaTeef, Nelda. Working Women for the 21st Century: 50 Women Reveal Their Pathways to Career Success. Charlotte VT: Williamson, 1992.

Morin, Isobel V. Women of the U.S. Congress. Minneapolis, MN: Oliver Press, 1994.

Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico Press, 1992)