Topeka Nancy Kassebaum, the state's favorite daughter, will end her U.S. Senate career after three terms.
Sen. Nancy Kassebaum's retirement speech Monday was a personal victory.
"I'm sure everyone had their fingers crossed to make sure I didn't choke and break down," she whispered to sister-in-law Linda Jensen of Prairie Village after announcing she wouldn't seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.
For the record, the Kansas Republican did wipe a tear from an eye but didn't turn the event into a tear-jerker.
The feelings she controlled weren't borne of sadness. They were prompted by the reality that in January 1997 she will leave behind the hurly-burly of the nation's capital for life in the pastoral Flint Hills of Kansas.
"My reason for this decision is very simple and purely personal. I believe the time has come for me to leave the Senate and pursue other challenges, including the challenge of being a grandmother," said Kassebaum, casting a smile toward 20-month-old granddaughter, Theo.
Kassebaum's goal is to take up residence in a 120-year-old stone farmhouse in Burdick, a tiny town 35 miles south of Junction City. It's deep enough off the beaten path visitors cross a couple cattle guards to reach the house.
"It's so quiet, you can hear time pass," Jensen said.
Supporters turn out
Kassebaum, who won respect from peers as a moderate and thoughtful senator during the past 17 years, is immensely popular in Kansas. More than 100 of her biggest supporters attended a retirement news conference in the oak-trimmed Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Statehouse.
Wichita attorney Carl Bell has known the senator for more than 30 years. He was a witness to the end of her career as well as the beginning. He recalls how Kassebaum bucked the odds in 1978 to win election to the Senate.
"There was a big field of candidates," he said. "She would get up and talk. People would clap politely. Most didn't take her seriously at all. Then, lo and behold, she won the primary and the election."
Years of high-power federal politics didn't change her, said Milton Roberts, whose wife, Betty Jo, runs the senator's constituent office in Garden City.
"She stayed frequently at our house," Roberts said. "You could visit with her like anybody else. That's what makes her so special."
Moments before Kassebaum entered the room to face more than a dozen television cameras, Kansas University student Toland Wright of Savannah, Ga., asked for her autograph. Kassebaum was glad to comply.
"I've always wanted to meet her," he said. "She's one of my few female heroes."
Time to move on
Kassebaum, 63, is the 10th senator to announce plans to retire. One other Republican and eight Democrats have decided against seeking re-election.
Her decision to retire was made without reservation.
"I think there is just a time when we can sense internally whether it's time to leave or time to stay, and felt this was the time to leave," she said.
Kassebaum said she began formulating retirement plans upon election to a third term in 1990. However, her election in 1994 to chair of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which handles job training, health, the arts and other issues, did give her pause.
"That weighed in, but as I say you just have a certain sense when it is time to move on," she said.
Kassebaum said she hadn't wavered in her commitment to retire during the past month but delayed an announcement to retain political muscle and keep potential successors from launching campaigns.
Of course, within minutes of Kassebaum's announcement former state Sen. Eric Yost, R-Wichita, said he would declare his candidacy today.
Kassebaum didn't unveil a hand-picked successor, but said she would welcome a field of candidates that included women. She predicted the GOP would retain the seat.
"On the other hand, you never know in politics. That's what makes it always interesting and challenging," she said.
Kassebaum said she had changed during her three terms. The immediacy of news reporting and the desire to grab headlines has caused too many elected officials to lose sight of real issues.
"Politics has never been a revered profession in America. We tend to be viewed as scalawags most of the time. ... But politics is nothing more or less than the working out of our competing interests and priorities as a nation. Politics is, in fact, the lifeblood of democracy, not a spectator sport."
Asked to list her accomplishments in office, Kassebaum first cited passage of an aviation product liability law that increased opportunities for the manufacture of small aircraft.
She also was proud of pushing through federal job-training reforms that would turn about 90 programs back to the states and was continuing to work on a bill that would reform the Food and Drug Administration.
Urged by a reporter to identify any votes she now regretted, the senator was less forthcoming.
"Well, I'm not going to tell you!"
Kassebaum made it clear she had no intention of being a lame duck during the remainder of her term.
"I hope during that year to be very involved in some major pieces of legislation," the senator said.
She also intends to campaign for Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., who is making a strong bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Personally, Kassebaum said she didn't expect to become a candidate for elective office in the future. That doesn't mean she won't listen to offers.
"You should keep your options open. I have no intention of going back to Washington," she said. "You just never know what opportunities there may be."