The state insurance commissioner — who everyone knew had both the ambition and the ability for higher office — demonstrated both when she sent me a note of congratulations concerning the big-time journalism award I had almost won.
"You ought to have yourself cloned," Kathleen Sebelius wrote.
"I would," I replied, "except my insurance doesn’t cover it."
She allowed as how there wasn’t anything she could do to help me with that.
The United States senator — who everyone knew was in a position to hold his job for the rest of his life — was still not above working the crowd at a local chamber of commerce reception. I introduced him to my son, then maybe 9 or 10, and bragged about his skills on the basketball court.
"A basketball player, huh?" Pat Roberts said, leaning over to talk to the lad at his level. "I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned about basketball. You’ve got to learn to go to your right."
Then, in a knowing aside to me, he said, "Lord knows I have."
What Roberts was referring to was concern that the Kansas Republican Party, the party of Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum and President Dwight D. Freakin’ Eisenhower, was tilting from the respectable right to the lunatic fringe.
Roberts, extending the sports metaphors, said he had always felt comfortable playing right field. He just was worried that too many of the people in the right-field bleachers were trying to get into the game and mucking everything up.
Since then, Democrat Sebelius got herself elected governor, twice, in a mostly Republican state. She did that by casting herself as the sensible Mom — the kind who can actually run a household — running against a succession of doofy Dads — the kind who work themselves up into a fine lather about the moral shortcomings of the neighbors while never seeming to manage to fix the downspouts.
Since then, Roberts has gotten himself elected to the Senate three times, after six terms in the House, where he followed long-time Rep. Keith Sebelius, Kathleen’s father-in-law. (Kansas, like Utah, is a place where it’s easy to play Six Degrees of Separation.)
When Sebelius was nominated by President Obama to run the Department of Health and Human Services — which everyone knew was going to be a hotspot for an administration that had promised to overhaul health care — it was in her favor that she had supervised insurance policy at the state level, going so far as to veto one industry merger that, in her judgment, would have been bad for customers.
When Sebelius was introduced to the Senate for her confirmation hearings, she received a rousing endorsement from Roberts. Fellow Kansan. Friend of Keith. Hail fellow well met all around.
When Roberts started feeling heat from a tea party primary opponent who is threatening to do to him what Mike Lee did to Robert Bennett, Roberts was the first major politician to call for Sebelius to resign over the disastrous roll-out of the Obamacare website.
Of course, the downspouts are leaking something awful right now. Recall the fact that Sebelius had all that executive experience, much of it directly related to insurance, and the fact that Obama got to be president in the first place by building the best ever political machine that really was a machine — its Internet operations. Those facts led everyone to expect that the online health insurance marketplace would be the easy part.
It wouldn’t make any sense for Sebelius to quit. She doesn’t write code. And the process of replacing her, with tea party Republicans objecting to anyone who doesn’t promise to cancel Obamacare altogether, would just clog up everything.
But if Roberts doesn’t get behind that move, his own career is at risk.
Nothing personal, as Michael Corleone always said, just business.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, can bore you with lots more stories about his good ol’ days. Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter (@debatestate) or Facebook (facebook.com/stateofthedebate).
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