Roberts closing out half-century career
WASHINGTON - After Sarah Little watched her former boss of 20 years, Sen. Pat Roberts, deliver his farewell speech on the Senate floor Dec. 10 after 40 years in Congress, she left a voicemail to express her appreciation.
Later that day, she got a call from a man claiming to be Wally Ballou. Little knew immediately who it was.
Wally Ballou was a creation of Bob and Ray, a radio comedy team whose career spanned the 1940s to the 1980s. Roberts, a former journalist, adopted Ballou, a bumbling “man on the street” reporter, as his alias when he’d call his office and pose as an angry constituent.
“He would say his name was Wally Ballou and he would really try to get you upset. Just when you were at the breaking point, he would say, ‘Aw, this is Senator Roberts. I was just calling to see what we were saying,’” said Little, who was Roberts’ spokeswoman from 1999 to 2019.
Little said Roberts’ Ballou was always well-informed on agriculture and other issues, making him tough for new staffers to placate.
“That’s the job of staff to listen to constituents and calm them down and see if we can help. It’s hard to take those calls all day long. It was his way of showing you that he understood you were on the front lines. It was definitely catharsis for sure,” Little said.
“Today I don’t think you can pull those things because of security,” Roberts said when asked about his alter ego. “It would be a little serious to go around and say you’re Wally Ballou.”
Roberts, 84, is winding down a Washington career that spans 10 presidencies, beginning in 1967 as an aide to two Kansas Republicans, Sen. Frank Carlson and later Rep. Keith Sebelius.
In 1980, Roberts won the race to succeed Sebelius in the sprawling “Big 1st” Congressional District, beginning his tenure as the longest-serving federal lawmaker in Kansas history.
He served as a juror in two of the three presidential impeachment trials in U.S. history, voting to convict President Bill Clinton in 1999 and to acquit President Donald Trump this year.
Roberts took a lead role in writing multiple farm bills - expanding crop insurance, loosening regulations on farmers and preserving nutrition assistance programs. He helped secure the return of the 1st Infantry Division from Germany to Fort Riley in 2006 and worked to ensure federal funding to rebuild Greensburg, Kansas, after a devastating tornado in 2007.
“It’s a very bright legacy,” said former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a fellow Kansas Republican. “Pat Roberts, whether a staffer or a congressman or a senator, was very active … and he got a lot of things done.”
The COVID-19 pandemic thwarted Roberts’ plans for a 105-county farewell tour during his final year in office. The senator and his wife, Franki, spend most of their free time in northern Virginia.
Roberts said he hasn’t traveled to Kansas since March, on the advice of his physician, because of the risk the virus poses at his age. But he’s been in close contact with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on the state’s response.
Roberts and Kelly speak so frequently they’ve begun referring to each other as “Bonnie and Clyde,” the governor’s spokesman said.
Capitol Hill is full of horror stories about quick-tempered lawmakers who rapidly churn through staff. But Roberts’ years as an aide informed his approach, earning him a reputation as one of the best bosses in Congress. It resulted in many staffers staying on for decades.
“In the years that I knew and worked for him, I probably saw him lose his temper not more than a couple times,” said Leroy Towns, who managed Roberts’ first congressional campaign in 1980 and remained as his chief of staff until 2003.
Towns noted that Roberts successfully fought for pay raises and improved working conditions for the House’s custodial and administrative staff as a member of the House Administration Committee in the 1980s, a reflection of his respect for “the people who made the House work.”
Sen.-elect Roger Marshall said when he recently visited Roberts in his office after winning the race to succeed him, the retiring senator showed off speeches that he had written for Carlson and Sebelius.
“He talked about setting up his old typewriter writing those speeches and his enthusiasm and when he would throw back the typewriter for a new line. There was kind of a rhythm. You could just see that his eyes light up about writing those speeches,” Marshall said.
But anyone who came in contact with Roberts was fair game for his practical jokes.
As Sebelius’ chief of staff, Roberts mercilessly pranked fellow Kansas Republican Dole. He recalled one time he phoned Dole’s office and did an impression of the senator.
“Where’s my speech?” he growled in Dole’s voice, sending his team into panic as they scrambled to find a text that didn’t exist.
It was not until years later that Dole learned the extent of Roberts’ mischief.
“He’s got this knack for humor and impersonations. I didn’t know it was going on, but I think the staff had a lot of fun,” Dole said. “When I learned about it, well, that’s Pat Roberts again.”
Little and others said Roberts lived by a motto: Take the job seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.
“Lots of reasons to love Pat Roberts, but one of my favorites was his sense of humor. He never got the big head, or took himself too seriously,” said former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who often partnered with Roberts on projects affecting the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Roberts’ self-appointed role as Congress’ resident comedian often proved to be an effective negotiation strategy.
“Sometimes that wit was what was really needed at a tough moment in a debate just to get to a more effective place,” said Jackie Cottrell, who worked for Roberts in the mid-'90s and returned as his chief of staff from 2003 until this past June.
Cottrell recounted a bizarre stunt during heated negotiations over dairy policy on the 1996 farm bill.
Roberts, then House Agriculture chairman, had been stymied in moving the bill forward by Gerald Solomon, a Republican congressman from New York. Both were Marine Corps veterans.
At one tense hearing, Roberts challenged Solomon to a fight as then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others looked on in horror. “I took off my coat and unbuttoned my shirt and Newt was going, ‘No, no, no!’” Roberts said. “... I said, ’It might get a little bloody.’”
Underneath his dress shirt, Roberts revealed a Marine Corps T-shirt on which he had scrawled the words, “I love Gerry.” The room burst into laughter. Roberts and Solomon made peace and agreed to a compromise.
In 1996, Roberts made the jump from the House to the Senate, where he remained for four terms. He was tapped to lead the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003, stepping into the role just weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“The most serious side and the most stressful hard time I ever saw him go through was the Intelligence Committee, those four years,” said Cottrell. “I don’t know everything Sen. Roberts knew those four years, but it weighed on him.”
As chair, Roberts oversaw a bipartisan investigation into the intelligence failures that took place in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
The committee concluded that the CIA’s assessments about Iraq’s capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction, which served as a basis for the invasion, were “unreasonable and largely unsupported by the available intelligence,” as Roberts phrased it at the time.
Roberts was more at home on agriculture, spending his final term as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He will retire as the only person in history to chair both the House and Senate agriculture committees, which gave him a major influence on food policy.
“Agriculture just runs through Pat’s veins in terms of his commitment,” said Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the committee who credited Roberts’ work to expand crop insurance with saving the cherry industry in her state.
“There are a lot of things that Pat can point to, but certainly when we look at crop insurance, which is the key risk management tool for farmers, he really is the father and the protector.”
Roberts largely backed President Donald Trump during the last four years. But during negotiations on the 2018 farm bill he defended Stabenow against Trump’s Twitter attacks as the two partnered to prevent cuts to nutrition programs backed by House Republicans and the administration.
It resulted in the Senate passage of the farm bill with 87 votes, a record. Stabenow said she teases Roberts about the fact that the only no votes were from Republicans.
Cottrell pointed to Roberts’ 14 years in the minority during his early years in the U.S. House as one reason he was always willing to work across the aisle when Republicans were in the majority.
“Roberts always understood if you wanted to get something done, you had to compromise. If 75% of what you wanted to achieve was in the final bill, that’s a victory in Pat Roberts’ mind,” she said.
“That was Pat Roberts’ trademark,” Dole said. “I had the same view that you needed to work across the aisle and that compromise was not a bad word. … I probably learned a little bit from Pat. We had the same success working across the aisle.”
Roberts said at the start of every new Congress he made a point “to just go sit down next to a Democrat I didn’t know and say, hey, how are you? ... Just get to know them.”
These cross-aisle friendships enabled Roberts to broker deals to pass policy and steer federal projects to Kansas. The most significant is probably the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, set for completion in 2022. It is charged with protecting the country’s food supply against national security threats.
“When you’re young maybe the partisan stuff sort of comes out in you,” Roberts said. “But you’re not here very long before you realize that you have to work across the aisle or you’re not going to get anything done.”
Despite his appreciation for bipartisanship, Roberts spent the final weeks of his Senate career refusing to acknowledge former colleague Joe Biden’s status as president-elect.
Roberts said he did not want to adversely affect his remaining pieces of legislation, which will need presidential approval, by weighing in on the election that Trump refuses to concede.
Towns attributed Roberts’ postelection silence to the party loyalty Roberts was raised with as the son of the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The senator often reminisces about joining his father, Charles Wesley Roberts, at the 1952 GOP convention in Chicago when Kansas icon Dwight Eisenhower was nominated president. He considers the experience the origin of his interest in politics.
Roberts’ final year in Congress saw the opening of the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, a tribute to the World War II general and Cold War era president that the Kansas senator oversaw for 21 years.
But as excited as Roberts was to meet Ike in 1952 as a high school student, he said he considered the highlight of the Chicago trip to be watching his favorite baseball player, Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, steal third base against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Before politics, Roberts pursued a career in journalism in Arizona in the 1960s. In his farewell speech, he said he bleeds printer’s ink.
Roberts told The Star that his contentious relationship as a reporter with a police chief in Avondale, Arizona, influenced his own dealings with the press as a public official. Roberts had a reputation as one of the most accessible lawmakers in Congress.
While many House and Senate members use their staffs as a shield against questions from reporters, Roberts strolled the hallway by himself, quotes at the ready for anyone with a tape recorder.
“I felt part of the clan,” Roberts said, acknowledging that his easy availability would sometimes backfire. His ill-advised quip about having access to a recliner in Dodge City when The New York Times investigated his residency dogged him throughout a closely contested 2014 reelection campaign
“That was his favorite game,” said Little, his longtime spokeswoman. “If you tried to hand-hold him, he’d lose me on purpose. He didn’t need that hand-holding. He didn’t want it. ... Sometimes I would say, ‘Oh, you’ve been busy,’ because a story would hit Twitter before he got back to the office. He fancies himself a reporter.”
Dole predicted Roberts will stay involved in civic life after his retirement from the Senate either through charitable work or political consulting.
“I asked him what he’s going to do, but I don’t think he’s made up his mind yet. ... He’s still young compared to a lot of people,” said Dole, 97.