Hailing from a distinguished Kansas political family, Nancy Landon Kassebaum made her own mark by winning election to the U.S. Senate and serving there for nearly two decades, eventually becoming the first woman to chair a major Senate committee. As both chair of the Labor and Human Resources Committee and a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Kassebaum earned a reputation as a determined and independent voice on issues ranging from Cold War policy to women’s rights.
Nancy Landon was born in Topeka, Kansas, on July 29, 1932, into a family that emerged as a Midwestern dynasty. Her father was Alfred Mossman Landon, a successful oil man, two–term Kansas governor, and the 1936 Republican presidential nominee. Her mother, Theo Cobb Landon, was an accomplished pianist and harpist. Nancy Landon was born into a world of privilege, and national political figures dotted her childhood memories, including William Howard Taft and his family.1 “I enjoyed politics and public policy so much,” Kassebaum recalled years later, “that there were times in high school and college when I mused about becoming actively involved as a candidate.”2 She graduated from the University of Kansas in 1954 with a B.A. in political science and, in 1956, earned a M.A. from the University of Michigan in diplomatic history. While at the University of Michigan, Landon met Philip Kassebaum, who later pursued a law degree there. The couple married in 1956. They settled on a farm in Maize, Kansas, and raised four children: John, Linda, Richard, and William. Nancy Kassebaum served as a member of the school board in Maize. She also worked as vice president of Kassebaum Communications, a family–owned company that operated several radio stations. In 1975, Kassebaum and her husband were legally separated; their divorce became final in 1979. She worked in Washington, D.C., as a caseworker for Senator James B. Pearson of Kansas in 1975; however, Kassebaum returned to Kansas the following year.
When Senator Pearson declined to seek re–election in 1978, Kassebaum declared herself a candidate for the open seat. Though she seemed a political neophyte, the decision was a considered one, as she later reminisced, “I believed I could contribute something, that I had something to offer.”3 Philip Kassebaum, with whom Nancy Kassebaum remained close, worked on her campaign and advised her: “You have to want it enough to have a gnawing in the pit of your stomach that won’t let you sleep. If you have that, then you can put up with the strenuous campaign.”4 Nancy Kassebaum proved to be a ferocious campaigner with a simple philosophy: “To be a good Senator, you need to be willing to work with people. You don’t need to be a professional politician.”5
Kassebaum’s family background in professional politics was a tremendous boost to her campaign. In the race for the Republican nomination, she beat a field of eight contenders, including a politically experienced woman state senator, Jan Meyers, who later served six terms in the U.S. House. In the general election she faced Bill Roy, a lawyer and physician who had narrowly lost a bid to unseat Senator Robert Dole in 1974. The visibility generated in that campaign made him a formidable opponent in 1978. But Kassebaum wielded the Landon family name to great effect. “It has been said I am riding on the coattails of my dad,” she admitted, “but I can’t think of any better coattails to ride on.”6 Her campaign slogan was “A Fresh Face: A Trusted Kansas Name.” Kassebaum went on to eclipse Roy by a margin of 86,000 votes out of about 749,000 cast, winning the election with 54 percent of the vote to Roy’s 42 percent. In 1984 and 1990, Kassebaum was easily returned to office with 76 and 74 percent of the vote, respectively. Though the Landon name proved crucial, Kassebaum also won because of Kansas’s conservative political tradition, virtually unanimous support from major newspapers in the state, and a pattern of Republican success during the 1978 midterm elections.7 Another supporter throughout her campaign was former Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Upon Kassebaum’s victory, Smith wrote a congratulatory note in which she expressed special pride in the fact that Kassebaum “ran as a candidate first, and a woman second.”8
Kassebaum’s gender unmistakably distinguished her in the Senate, where she was the only woman among the 100 Members. She took office on December 23, 1978, filling the vacancy created when Senator Pearson resigned a few days early to give Kassebaum an edge in seniority. She later recalled that it took her a while to adjust to life in the Senate as a woman; she remembered, for instance, avoiding the Senate Members’ dining room because she was “intimidated.”9 She maintained her humor, however, once quipping of her special responsibilities as a woman: “There’s so much work to do: the coffee to make and the chambers to vacuum. There are Pat Moynihan’s hats to brush and the buttons to sew on Bob Byrd’s red vests, so I keep quite busy.”10
Kassebaum received assignments on a number of prominent committees, including: Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Budget; Commerce, Science and Transportation; and the Special Committee on Aging. In 1980, when Republicans took control of the Senate, Kassebaum exchanged her seat on the Banking Committee for one on the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She immediately was named chair of the Subcommittee on African Affairs, a position she held until the Democrats gained control of the Senate in 1987. She would remain on Foreign Relations for the duration of her tenure in Congress, and it became the focus of much of her energy. Though she knew virtually nothing about Africa she quickly became steeped in the region and U.S. interests there.
Kassebaum became a respected member of the Foreign Relations Committee, whose individualism often led her to depart from her party’s positions during the presidencies of Ronald W. Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She was a major critic of President Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo against the Soviet Union in the late 1970s (Kansas was the nation’s leading grain producer), though she supported the return of the Panama Canal to Panamanian rule. She initially opposed funding for parts of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, though she later voted to fund major portions of it in 1992. In 1986, she surprised Republican colleagues by advocating sanctions to protest the South African government’s policy of racial apartheid. She also proved prescient in two significant cases during President Bush’s term. In June 1990, Kassebaum, along with Kansas Democratic Representative Dan Glickman, called for the suspension of $700 million in credit guarantees for Iraq, money allocated for food relief but spent by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on military armaments. Much to its regret, the Bush administration rejected the proposal. A few months later, Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait and set in motion the first Gulf War. Kassebaum also supported arming U.N. workers in Somalia in 1992 in order to more effectively carry out their food relief mission. Again, the Bush administration demurred, only to reverse course later in the year and insert troops.11
Overall, Kassebaum earned a reputation as a moderate who supported the broad outlines of Republican budget and defense programs but remained independent on social issues. For instance, she supported a woman’s right to have an abortion. She also backed programs for international family planning, which again brought her into conflict with conservative Republicans. In 1992, she co–founded the Republican Majority Coalition, a group that sought to counter the rise of the religious right in the party. She resisted the feminist label, noting on one occasion that she thought of herself foremost as a “U.S. Senator, not a woman Senator.” She added, “It diminishes women to say that we have one voice and everything in the Senate would change if we were there.”12 In 1994, she voted for President William J. Clinton’s crime bill, a move which so enraged Republican Members that they tried, unsuccessfully, to strip her of seniority. Late in her final term, she also worked with Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy to push a bill through the Senate that would have overhauled the national health insurance system and provided coverage for people with pre–existing conditions. As a member of the Budget Committee in 1984 and 1987 she worked to enact a bipartisan deficit reduction plan.
Beginning in the 101st Congress (1989–1991), Kassebaum served on the Labor and Human Resources Committee and, when the Republican Party recaptured the Senate in 1994, Kassebaum’s seniority made her chair of the committee. Her chairmanship of Labor and Human Resources during the 104th Congress (1995–1997) marked the first time that a woman had chaired a major standing Senate committee and the first time that any woman had headed a Senate panel since Margaret Chase Smith chaired the Special Committee on Rates and Compensation of Certain Officers and Employees of the Senate in 1954. Kassebaum also rose to chair the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation. In the 99th and 100th Congresses (1985–1989), she was named to the Select Committee on Ethics.
In 1996, Kassebaum declined to run for re–election, citing the “need to pursue other challenges, including the challenge of being a grandmother.”13 That year she also married former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, Jr. Kassebaum worked briefly as a visiting professor at Iowa State while she and Baker divided their time between homes in Kansas and Tennessee. In 2001, Kassebaum was named a co–chair of the Presidential Appointment Initiative Advisory Board which made recommendations to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on how to streamline the presidential nominee appointment process. Later that year, when Howard Baker was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Kassebaum accompanied him on his assignment to Tokyo.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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