Ghosts From the Political Graveyard

Continuing my sometimes readings of Kansas political history …

Bill Roy was an unlikely cultural combatant.  An Illinois farmboy, he had grown up knowing no Jews, few Catholics, and only a handful of Democrats, identifiable because the Roosevelt administration had blessed them with postal jobs.  A self-starter who lost his father at fifteen, Roy got through college in two years and enrolled in medical school.  He delivered babies on Chicago’s South Side and saw women admitted to the Detroit Receiving Hospital after botched abortions.  A steint in the Air Force reinforced his distaste for militarism.  But he was not yet political.  He had a booming obstetrical practice in Topeka and a large family of his own.  In 1960 he voted for Nixon.  He thought Kennedy’s missile-gap issue was phony.

Four years later Bill Roy voted for Johnson, and four years after that for Humphrey.  Roy had seen black men humiliated by police; he had inoculated black children in schools whose doors hung from hinges.  After King’s murder he and his wife, Jane Roy, attended a black church to deliver lay sermons on racial justice.  Someone poured acid on his car.  Roy was undeterred.  In 1970 he finished a law degree after years of squeezing courses into his obstetrical schedule.  Jane Roy attended with him, matching Phyllis Schlafly’s feat of earning her law degree while raising six children.  Something about the emotions of the 1960s, hope and anger, lit afire under people.  Nixon’s refusal to end the war stoked it.  Roy was attending a medical meeting when he read about Kent State.  That tore it.  The condo in Vail could wait.  He withdrew his savings, switched his party affiliation, and filed to run for the House.

Kansas rarely sent Democrats to Washington.  Yet “Dr. Roy for Congress” had a nice logic.  He and his partners had delivered 20,000 babies in the Topeka area.  Every time he went to a coffee, he ran into patients or their relatives and friends.  Black; Hispanics; Junior League:  Babies were the common denominator.  Roy discovered that, while voters disliked long-hairs from the University of Kansas, they listened when a clean-cut obstetrician told them Vietnam was tearing families apart.  He won handily.  He landed a spot on the Commerce Committee.  He looked forward to shaping the universal health care he was sure was coming.  He planned a twenty year career in Congress. […]

Politics became (Bob) Dole’s life.  He gained the US House in 1960 and the Senate in 1968.  He ran as a small-government conservative, aiming his caustic one-liners at LBJ’s Great Society.  A Nixon loyalist, he was going places, until his 1972 divorce and ill-starred service as Republican national chairman during the Watergate break-in made him vulnerable.  “It was a tough, tough time for Republicans,” Dole later said.  “I thought I was going to lose that race.”  Kansas Democrats scented blood.  When Governor Robert Docking decided not to run, they turned to Bill Roy as their natural candidate.

Roy ran as Mr. Clean, much as Jimmy Carter would two years later.  By August Dole’s campaign was in disarray, and he was trailing badly in the polls.  Dole started to throw anything at the wall, trying to find something that would stick.  One charge that did stick was his accusation, made in the last minute of a debate at the Kansas State Fair, that Roy favored abortion on demand.  Roy, caught off guard, fumbled for a response.

Though Dole exaggerated Roy’s position, the issue had undeniable legitimacy.  At first undecided what to do about Roe, Dole had finally come out for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.  Roy opposed all such amendments.  He had once had a woman, a divorced mother and private secretary to a bank president, fall on her knees in his office and beg him to name an abortionist who would not kill her.  He had written in favor of allowing abortion before twenty weeks of gestation and had helped secure passage of Kansas’s relatively liberal abortion law.  Under that law he had personally performed a handful of abortions, whose medical necessity had been certified by two other physicians.  Several involved psychiatric patients:  Topeka was home to the Menninger Clinic.  He and his obstetrical partners “never felt were dirty, or unlawful, or unchristian, or anything else, to do them under these circumstances.”

The pickets at Roy’s speeches begged to differ.  Skull-and-cross-bones ads appeared in small newspapers.  Fliers with fetuses in garbage bagas and pro-fhoice quotations appeared under windshild wipers in church parking lots.  Dole continued to raise the abortion issue in public appearances, though he always denied orchestrating the anti-abortion campaign.  “We had some crazy people on the right showing these fetuses in jars, … running ads that I never approved.  ‘Save a life, vote Dole’ or something.  Crazy things like that.”

Dole’s authorized ads did stick to conventional themes.  They charged Roy with voting “like a big city eastern liberal” and of slinging mud at Russell’s finest.  They did not mention abortion.  But they did not have to.  Dole’s verbal jabs — “Ask Roy about those abortions he performed” — had aroused a sleeping giant powerful though not yet well-coordinated.  “There was a base out there that really responded,” Dole reflected.  He thought abortion a “big factor” in his narrow, come from behind victory, though was not certain it was decisive.

Roy was certain.  In some Catholic preceints he was off 50 votes from his previous tallies, in a race decided by fewer than two votes per precint.  […]  He came to see what had happened in 1974 as a parable, one in which the well intentioned amateur discovers that the hardened professional will pick up any stick to save his political life.

— No Right Turn, David Courtwright, 91-94

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