An excerpt of "The Sunflower Sinner"
When scandals peppered the White House during the Clinton administration, Cynthia Dennis kept a close eye on first daughter Chelsea.
If you go
What: Appearance by Cynthia Dennis, author of "The Sunflower Sinner" (Woodley Memorial Press, $16) When: 7 p.m. todayWhere: The Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St.
She wanted to see how well the youngest Clinton was holding up under the pressure.
"When scandal hits the family, the backlash hits everybody. It's kind of like guilt by association (for the children and spouse)," says Dennis, a 1962 Kansas University graduate and former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I just thought it was time people saw the other side of it."
Dennis knows that side all too well. Her father, Paul Lackie, dragged his wife and three daughters through a life complicated by adultery, alcoholism, bribery and political scandal. She tells the story in her new memoir, "The Sunflower Sinner" (Woodley Memorial Press, $16).
The strange series of events began in the summer of 1950 in a Hutchinson basement, where a 25-year-old woman died while receiving an illegal abortion. Annas Brown was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the case and sentenced to five to 21 years in prison.
In the meantime, Lackie, a McPherson attorney, had been elected chairman of the Young Republicans of Kansas, putting him one step closer to realizing his dream of becoming the state's governor.
So he and Brown were simultaneously sharing the distinction of making front-page headlines in Kansas newspapers - he for political appearances and she for murder.
But a series of fateful meetings soon would link them inextricably in the same storyline.
Hungry for her release, Brown's family had gathered a significant sum of money to help persuade the governor or someone close to him that her parole, denied once already, should be approved.
So it happened that, one day in 1954, a stranger walked into a state office near McPherson and asked Lackie's father, a clerical worker there, whether he knew anyone who had pull with the governor.
As it turned out, his son was managing what would become Lt. Gov. Fred Hall's successful bid for the office. A few days later, Brown's family contacted Lackey, and he agreed to represent Brown.
"By 1955, he had blueprinted a bribe to get her out of prison," Dennis says.
On Aug. 20, 1956, Brown was released after serving just three years and eight months. Court testimony later revealed that her family paid $10,000 for the privilege, and that a member of their legal team, Clair Hyter, delivered the cash directly to Gov. Hall's executive secretary, Mack Nations.
Unfortunately for the players in this bribery scheme, the IRS noticed that Nations started paying off debts with cash a few days after receiving the tax-free sum.
That mistake would catch up with everyone involved.
Although Nations was not convicted during a 1963 trial against him in U.S. District Court in Wichita, reputations - including Lackey's - were tarnished beyond repair.
And Lackey's family suffered dearly - not just during the trial, but for years before that when he was drinking heavily and courting mistresses.
Between Brown's release from prison and the 1963 hearing, Lackey moved his family around the state, apparently running from his role in the bribe. Dennis writes about her reaction when he announced they'd be relocating from McPherson to Independence.
"At that moment, I was flooded with dislike for my father. My 16-year-old mind suggested that he had no right to jerk all of us around for the sake of his political advancement. ... Now his ambitions had brought us here, with my sisters in tears and my mother crushed as if a bulldozer had run her over."
Lackey's lifestyle left Dennis, who was just 5 years old when her dad started talking to her about his political dreams and scarcely older when he took her to visit the secretary with whom he was sleeping, feeling betrayed.
"There were a couple of tipping points going from adoration to skepticism to disillusionment. One was the mistress," says Dennis, now 67 and living in Brookfield, Wis. "And even before the bribe, you could see there were some dishonest things going on.
"I think that was the real upsetting thing for my mother and sister and me because, zany as he was, we all thought he was honest."
Dennis' parents eventually divorced, and each remarried. Her mother, Virginia, died of cancer at age 64. Her father followed in 1989 at age 73.
"One night he went to bed and didn't wake up," Dennis says.
Among his belongings, Dennis found stacks of yellowed newspapers detailing his political successes, letters from governors and other notable figures - but no evidence of the political payoff scandal.
She can't explain why a Republican with political aspirations in a conservative state would side with an abortionist.
"The only reason I can think that my father got involved at all was just greed," she says. "I think a lot of politicians come to believe they're just invincible."
Clenece Hills, a Lawrence resident who grew up with Dennis in McPherson, says she knew something was wrong when Lackie changed law firms and moved his family out of town. But it wasn't until she was in college and the scandal broke that she realized the problem extended beyond the personal realm.
"Paul was utterly charming," Hills says. "I can see how if he just hadn't made a few missteps that he could have been governor. ... But you can't lead a double life."
Dennis has long since comes to term with her tumultuous childhood. Her memoir isn't about catharsis - just telling a story that hasn't been told and helping people understand the collateral damage.
"I know that scandal sells papers, but I think the public's hunger for that has gotten a little out of bounds," she says, "and we need to back up."