Curious history of politicians in Plains states

Omaha, NE; Thursday, July 21, 2011. Traveling through America’s plain’s states, there is much to be learned about the distressing changes in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Some of it is reflective of the country-wide transition to the right; part is unique to America’s heartland, and part is just plain comical.

One of my first political memories is my father adorning me with “I like Ike” buttons. As a five-year-old, I applied all of my political acumen to advancing the presidential aspirations of Kansas’ favorite son. I was so successful at it that I did it again in 1956 and now was 2-0 in presidential races.

Nearly 60 years after my first campaign, I find that Dwight Eisenhower holds a fascination among some of our youngest and most politically active citizens. His reputation as an honest, fair-minded individual has survived and to many he has become a legend. He directed American forces in Normandy, France on D-Day. He adroitly lead America through an endless series of tricky challenges during the Cold War.

Friends who are 40 years my junior seem to know of Ike and some are even fascinated with him. Why they cotton to Eisenhower and not John Kennedy is a surprise to me. Maybe Ike just seemed more earthy and genuine. The fact that Ike’s wife, Mamie, almost defined the term, “wallflower” made her a sharp foil to Jacqueline Kennedy and Camelot. This may have strengthened Eisenhower’s reputation as a man of the people. Couple this with the fact that he could have had the nomination of either major party in 1952 and it is clear that his popularity was wide and deep in America. Curiously, the only potential candidate since Ike’s time who conceivably could have been the nominee of either party was also a retired general, Colin Powell.

While we’re speaking of elderly Kansas politicians who seem to have a magical appeal to citizens fifty years his junior, let’s not forget Bob Dole. His name sounds so mellifluous as it rolls off our lips. Dole was one of four candidates for president and vice-president from 1988-1996 who had both one syllable first and last names: Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, and Al Gore. America was in a hurry and who had time for a polysyllabic name? I guess the supporters of Bill Clinton.

What truly has endeared Dole to people of all generations is his obsession with referring to himself in the third-person singular. “Bob Dole will always support our veterans.” “Bob Dole knows the levers to push to make Congress work.” “Bob Dole will not be bullied by any foreign power.”

Dole became a warm fuzzy to many even though his policies did not always reflect that. He seemed reasonable and affable 95 percent of the time. In the remaining 5 percent, his acerbic wit was entertaining as well as seemingly nasty. Bob Dole may have been contagious. If I’m not mistaken, John McCain often used the third-person when he was in a maverick stage, and then devolved to the first person when pandering to the right wing.

I truly long for the days of Eisenhower and Dole, and I imagine that many Kansans do too. Something happened to Kansas later, and it was chronicled by Thomas Frank in his 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Its political leaders seem to have the conservative flair for nastiness, and unlike Bob Dole, they are very humor impaired. Pat Roberts, Sam Brownback, and others. Indeed something happened to Kansas, and Thomas Frank would argue that the whole country has become more bitter and unable to define its economic needs.

Nebraska has brought a variety of interesting politicians. My favorite is former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson, but then again he never ran for president, or anything else political. But Democrat Bob Kerrey successfully ran for governor and senator and unsuccessfully for president. He was a Vietnam veteran who opposed most subsequent wars. He was compassionate but also had a sharp mathematical mind that helped him fashion Social Security reforms that,unfortunately, were not adopted. He may have been the only Midwestern governor who successfully cajoled a Hollywood starlet, Deborah Winger, to shack up with him in the governor’s mansion.

There was a time when Senator Roman Hruska was considered the bane of Nebraska. When Richard Nixon nominated Harrold Carswell of Florida, a rather ordinary man, to sit on the Supreme Court, Hruska said, “”Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

Hruska was mocked at the time, and it was among the reasons that the voters of Nebraska soon had had enough of him. But maybe he was onto something. Perhaps we could use a few mediocre Supreme Court justices. Here’s a proposed trade: Justices Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia for four mediocre judges to be named later. It could be one of the greatest transactions for human rights in U.S. history.

Comedian Johnny Carson was also from Nebraska. He truly bridged eras for stand-up comedians. Unlike Bob Hope or George Burns, he could have Dr. Martin Luther King or Senator Robert Kennedy as guests on his program and carry on an enlightening conversation. Jon Stewart could learn from Carson that if you have a strong guest, give him or her ample time to speak.

The political landscape in Nebraska seems to have sunk below mediocre. One Senator, Ben Nelson, is a Democrat who is best known for creating his “Cornhusker Kickback,” in which Nebraska would get a one-of-a-kind Medicaid reimbursement in return for his support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. His Republican colleague in the Senate focuses on balancing the budget, without much concern for who pays the price for spending cuts.

The so-called values of fairness and self-reliance seem to be very prevalent in the Plains States. However, as Thomas Frank suggests  these fine Midwesterners seem to put aside the economic needs when they enter the voting booth and succumb to the politics of distraction that conservatives have heaped upon them. Ah, for the days of Ike and even Bob Dole.