Kansas mourns its lost treasure

Nancy Kassebaum
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Some politicians, like friends, are only truly appreciated when they're gone. So it will be with Nancy Landon Kassebaum, about to step down after 18 years as the junior Republican Senator from Kansas. Residents of her home state, handing her approval ratings in the mid-80s, have long understood the treasure in their midst. But only now are outsiders beginning to realise why Bob Dole is only the second most popular politician in Kansas.

Kassebaum typifies a threatened species on Capitol Hill, thepragmatic centrist who works with voice lowered and rhetoric restrained, for whom one result is worth a million words, even if that result offends party orthodoxy. She has defended abortion rights, supported gun control, voted with Democrats to impose sanctions on South Africa in 1986 and earned Mr Dole's special disfavour by voting for President Bill Clinton's anti- crime bill two years ago.

Last week may have been her finest, as the Senate passed by 100 votes to nil a healthcare bill to allow people to take their insurance with them when they change jobs, and bar insurance companies from denying coverage to people who have health problems already. Kassebaum, along with Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was its author, a tandem demonstrating that only by compromise are legislative majorities crafted in the United States Senate.

The Kassebaum/Kennedy bill must still overcome many hurdles. But if enacted it could provide medical coverage for half of the 40 million Americans currently without insurance - the largest extension of health care since Medicare and Medicaid became law three decades ago. Not bad for an unassuming lady who at first seems less a steely legislator than a wise and comforting village postmistress from a bygone English age.

Politics is in the Kassebaum blood. Her father, Kansas Governor Alf Landon, was Franklin Roosevelt's Republican opponent in 1936. But Kassebaum did not enter politics until 1972, when she was 40 years old. Six years later she was elected to the Senate. Even so, she acknowledges with a grin: "I'm probably still not in the club."

In her time in Washington, the rules have changed, and in Kassebaum's view, not for the better. "Politics has become a spectator sport," she said in a typically graceful departure speech last 21 November.

Her departure may makethings worse. A dozen Senators are retiring this year, mostly moderates, as exasperated as Kassebaum by the institution they have served. And h er seat could easily pass to the strident Christian conservatives who now control the Republican political machine in Kansas.