You could say when it comes to Nancy Kassebaum Baker, politics is in her blood.
While she has spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill, she says there’s no place she’d rather be than the Sunflower State. She worked with several US presidents and traveled the world, but the Flint Hills of Kansas is where she’s most comfortable.
“Well, I always considered it home. Washington was never home,” says Nancy Kassebaum Baker, Former U.S. Senator.
Kassebaum now lives out in the middle of nowhere, near the tiny town of Lost Springs. Her house belonged to a relative she would visit in Council Grove as a kid.
Kassebaum, says “That’s where I saw my first movie. I still remember, it was Barbara Stanwyck.”
Another favorite for her is the Kaw Mission.
Kaw Indians attended school and church here, and, like them, Kassebaum says teachers shaped her future. Her only elected position before the US Senate was on the Maize School Board. Her father was former Kansas Governor Alf Landon, and he was the key, many said, to her victory in 1978 when she was sworn in as the only woman in the Senate at the time.
“As everyone said, ‘You’re just riding on your dad’s coattails.’ I finally said, ‘Well, what better coattails to run on?'” says Kassebaum.
She was also well-connected, with friends across the state like Bob Dole who was campaigning for her, sometimes more than she did.
She recalls, “I remember his calling the night before the election, and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I think I was watching Sound of Music on TV with the children!”
She later repaid the favor, as Dole ran for President. Like Dole, Kassebaum proved she could work across the aisle to get things done. Though Republican, she’s pro-choice and an independent voice on many issues. From overseeing elections in war-torn Nicaragua to fighting Apartheid, Kassebaum did not shy away from conflict, even butting heads with Ronald Reagan over sanctions against South Africa.
She says, “And I said, I just think we need this Mr. President to show we care about Africa.”
She adds her proudest accomplishment is close to home: the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
“We worked a long hard time to get that included as part of the national park service,” says Kassebaum.
She retired from the Senate in 1997, saying she wanted to enjoy being a grandmother, but would still follow politics.
“I’m sure I’ll sit home many times and read the papers and think, What are they doing that for?” she said back then.
True enough, Kassebaum shakes her head at the nastiness of politics today, saying, “It’s something that bothers me a great deal… How do we get back to a debate, instead of just tweeting?”
She blames both parties and doubts that a record number of women now in Congress will make a difference.
“Some of the young Democrat women elected in the House have gone off like fireworks,” says Kassebaum.
Kansas politics get her attention more these days since she moved back five years ago after the death of her second husband, former Senator Howard Baker. As for the future?
She says, “Well, you never know. I never thought I would marry again.”
For now, Kassebaum is content in the country, back to her roots.
When asked if she missed politics or wishes she was still a part of it, she answers, “No. No, I don’t, and I haven’t been back to Washington for several years.”
However, Washington is about to come to her as many of Kassebaum’s former staff members, including Kansas Attorney General, Derek Schmidt, are planning a reunion at her ranch this summer. It’s a big project made harder because Kassebaum does not email, text or drive much, and she says that’s the way she like it.