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Kit Bond: A groundbreaking career in Missouri politics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2010 - WASHINGTON - Scooping three shiny brown chestnuts out of a plastic bag, U.S. Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond holds them up to the light from the window in his paneled office. "These are from the Bond orchard in Missouri," he boasts to a visitor.

Bond plants some of those chestnut trees himself in the rich soil of his home state -- a fitting avocation for a man who broke a lot of political ground for Missouri Republicans in four decades since he and former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth of St. Louis ended the party's long drought in attaining statewide offices.

It's a chilly December day in the nation's capital, and staffers are starting to pack away files and mementoes from Bond's 24-year Senate career. In the Capitol, senators were still debating, but Bond's thoughts were on the state where he served as auditor and twice as governor before arriving in Washington in January 1987.

Bond, 71 -- grey-haired but still handsome, a bit stooped but still sharp-witted -- doesn't much like being "eulogized while I'm still breathing." But his career in Missouri politics has been remarkable, some would say transformative. He was elected to statewide office more times -- seven -- than any other figure in the state's storied history.

"Nobody has served the state better," said U.S. Sen.-elect Roy Blunt, a Republican from Springfield who will succeed Bond in the Senate when the new Congress convenes next week. "He has made Missouri both his vocation and his avocation."

Another former Missouri governor and U.S. senator, John D. Ashcroft, echoes that assessment. "Kit Bond put his heart, soul and life into public service -- like virtually nobody I've ever seen," said Ashcroft, who later became U.S. attorney general. "He lives it, he breathes it, he sleeps it and he awakes to it."

Bond is leaving public service -- not retiring but focusing his efforts on law and a business consultancy. In a wide-ranging interview with the Beacon, he discussed his 40-year political career, listed some of his accomplishments and offered a few chestnuts of wisdom -- as smooth and hardened as the fruits of the Bond orchard.

Here are some of those recollections, in chronological order, along with comments from others who knew him, worked with him, or followed his career:

From Law to Politics

Kit Bond grew up in Mexico, Mo., in the shadow of his father, Art. The elder Bond was smart, athletic and popular -- the captain of the 1924 Missouri Tigers football team, a Rhodes Scholar and successful businessman.

"People ask me why I never went to Mizzou, and I tell them that I went there with Dad once when I was 11 or 12 years old and people kept calling me 'Art Bond's son,'" he recalls. "And I realized that I'd probably never get out from being 'Art Bond's son.'"

Hardly populist pioneers, the Bonds were a moneyed family and Republicans in a mostly Democratic part of Missouri. It was the congressional district of Champ Clark, the last Missourian to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. "I was always interested in politics," Bond said. "I was one of three admitted Republicans in a high school class of 125. That gave me an opportunity to debate with the best and brightest on the other side."

As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Bond wasn't involved much in campus politics, and his focus at the University of Virginia law school -- where he graduated first in his class -- was more academic than political. After that, Bond clerked for a federal judge in Atlanta and as an associate attorney with the big Covington & Burling law firm in Washington, D.C.

But a yearning to do something more than practice law and earn a big salary brought Bond back to his home state. And he summoned the courage to challenge a well-established Democratic U.S. House member, William L. Hungate, in 1968. Democrats had held that seat since the 1920s, and in 1968 they occupied eight of the state's 10 U.S. House seats as well as both U.S. Senate seats.

Bond lost, but his spirited campaign brought him to the attention of Danforth, who that November won his race to become the state's attorney general -- the first Republican elected to Missouri statewide office in many years. Impressed by Bond's campaign, Danforth offered him a position in his office.

"I knew Kit first by reputation and then I knew him when he was a candidate" for Congress, Danforth recalled. "When I started as the attorney general, Kit was one of the few people who went in there right off the bat with me. ... He was exceptionally smart and very energetic."

Saying that Danforth "did a better job than I did" in the 1968 campaigns, Bond offered his take: "After I lost, Jack offered me a job and I was willing to work cheap. I was chief counsel in the consumer protection division."

Breaking Through to Statewide Office

Bond said he didn't start thinking about running for statewide office until the following year, when Danforth "called me into his office and said, 'We think the time's right for a Republican auditor to look into what's going on in state government.' And I agreed."

Bond won that auditor election in 1970, and it was not long before he decided to start running for the governor's office, which was being vacated by Democrat Warren Hearnes in 1972. "I built on the 1968 campaign I ran for Congress in the '70 campaign for auditor," Bond recalled. "People told me I was too young to run for governor and I looked around and didn't see anybody I was really worried about. So I got in." He defeated St. Louis attorney Edward L. Dowd by a surprising 10-point margin.

Bond was 32 when he was elected and 33 when he was sworn in as the state's 47th governor -- the youngest in Missouri history. He was the first Republican to hold that office since Gov. Forrest C. Donnell left office on Jan. 8, 1945. "His election was a huge thing for the state of Missouri," said Danforth. "Not just to have a Republican governor after decades of Democrats in that office. But also consider Kit's age then."

Bond's first term focused on reforming the state government -- a campaign that made him plenty of enemies as well as admirers. "We needed lobbying reform, we needed campaign finance reform. The place needed to be cleaned up," Bond recalls. "We needed higher standards for hiring state employees, so we instituted hiring based on merit. I made an aggressive affirmative action outreach to get qualified minorities in state positions. I tried to reorganize state government, which was a management mess."

With a state Legislature that was heavily Democratic, Bond said he "learned bipartisanship quickly -- and by necessity -- as governor. And I learned it much better in my second term."

While he has had plenty of run-ins with the state's Democrat-leaning newspapers over the years, Bond also alienated some conservative publishers during his first term, including G. Duncan "Dunc" Bauman, then publisher of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. "I got rid of the old 'colonels' and I got rid of low-numbered license plates" for big shots, Bond recalls.

"So Dunc Bauman went to [his chief political reporter] Jack Flach and said, 'We'll have 90 days of bad press' [for Bond]. That's when I got called the 'kiddie corps' and all that," in February to April of 1973. "The Globe came after me with hammer and tongs."

Looking back, Ashcroft views Bond as a "big time" reform governor. "What was known as 'the lug' [demanding that state workers help fund campaigns] was over. You didn't have to buy a job in state government," Ashcroft said. "Jack Danforth was [also] very committed to that concept."

Losing to 'Walking Joe'

But Bond's reward for government reforms was his first -- and only -- statewide political loss, to Joseph P. "Walking Joe" Teasdale in 1976.

Teasdale, a Kansas City attorney, "came in from nowhere and campaigned on a promise that he would lower your electric utility rates," Bond recalls. "I'll admit that I relied too heavily on consultants who advised me that 'nobody's going to buy that' utility promise."

Bond says he learned a lesson by not responding directly to Teasdale's charges. "I didn't answer his negative attacks and instead I tried to talk about the 50 good things we had accomplished. And the voters ... gave me four years to think about it."

Bond barely lost that election, in a year where Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford and the Democrats also did well in congressional races. He has not lost an election since then. "That ruined my whole week," Bond says with a grin. "About two weeks afterwards, they did a roast for me, and I wasn't ready to laugh about it yet."

After leaving the governor's mansion, Bond helped set up the Great Plains Legal Foundation, a generally conservative group that fought regulations on farmers, restrictions on religious freedom and a proposed FDA ban on the artificial sweetener saccharine. "I'll never forget asking an endocrinologist about the health dangers of saccharine," Bond said. "He looked at me and said, 'Young man, obesity is a lot bigger danger to you than saccharine.'"

Bond was already planning a comeback. "I didn't intend to spend the rest of my life practicing law," he said. "I kept my political contacts active" and started an active campaign against Teasdale about a year before the general election. He had to leave the foundation in early 1980 and won the election that November, swept back into office in the conservative wave that also swept Ronald Reagan to victory over Carter.

Budget Battles in His Second Term

When he moved into the governor's mansion for the second time, Bond says he found the state's finances in disarray. Fixing that problem became the keystone of his second term, which some observers viewed as more conservative than the first term, but Bond now regards as "my most successful term in any office."

"In my two terms as governor with 70 percent Democratic majorities in both Houses of the Missouri General Assembly, they explained to me how bipartisanship works," he said. "I figured it out during the second term, which enabled us to do much better."

Bond regards his second term as governor, from 1981-85, as his best. "I had the privilege of running against a guy who left the state in a terrible mess. I didn't realize how big a mess it was until I got into office and saw that the budget was 19 percent out of balance," he said. "I sat down to talk with the legislative leaders ... and I said, 'Look fellas, we've got to cut 19 percent out of the budget. I want you to look at these possible cuts and tell me what you absolutely cannot take. ... I did my part and they did theirs. They moaned and groaned, but they passed it.

"I look back on that second term as probably my most successful bipartisan effort. With 70 percent of the Legislature against me, it was a great time to be bipartisan."

After his second term ended, Bond went to work for a law firm and thought about his political future. Then-U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo., "looked like he was unbeatable," Bond recalls. "But then he announced his retirement so I jumped into that race with both feet."

He faced a smart and tenacious opponent in Harriett Woods of St. Louis. "I had appointed her to the state Transportation Commission and she was very capable," he said, adding that his first Senate campaign was "clearly the toughest."

When the polls showed him trailing by 3 percent the week before the election, Bond recalled, "one of my advisers said, 'we're going to make that up with a high voter turnout.' But there was still a knot the size of a softball in my stomach on election night."

In the end, Bond -- helped by Reagan's coattails -- narrowly won election to the U.S. Senate. That started a journey that has kept him shuttling back and forth between Missouri and the nation's capital for the past quarter century.

From Missouri to Washington

Bond made the big move to Washington in January 1987. At first, he now concedes, he had trouble making the difficult transition from serving as a governor with executive power to becoming freshman senator with little legislative influence.

"It was terrible," Bond recalled. "When I had been here for five years someone asked how long it had taken me to make the adjustment and I said, 'I'll let you know when it happens.'"

As governor, "I was used to taking responsibility and having good people assigned to the tasks, coordinating them and getting things done on a timely basis. I really enjoyed being an executive," he said. "Up here, I felt like I was hanging on a string, starting at the very bottom of the seniority table and running over to vote when everybody else was. ... I kept thinking, 'What am I doing here?'"

"I was 99th in Senate seniority when I got in. ... We used to joke about having seats so far back in the Senate. ... I think it was [Sen.] Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who used the phrase, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players." Bond also could rely on the "very helpful" support and advice of a senior senator who was also a friend, then-Sen. Jack Danforth, who understood that the transition to the Senate was tough for most former governors.

"Most people I knew who had been both governors and senators really liked being governor more -- because it was more decisive," Danforth told the Beacon. "In the Senate, if you want to get something done, you've got to put together these alliances; it's a more convoluted system."

Back in 1987, Bond told this reporter that his intention in the Senate was to be "a workhorse rather than a show horse." With six years before he would have to run for re-election, the new senator put his head down and studied the issues. "I worked hard and I took advantage of opportunities," Bond said.

"When the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 came down the line, they were looking for someone to lead the battle on the acid-rain trading issue. Sen. Wendell Ford looked at me and said, 'You're it.' That turned into the Byrd-Bond compromise on acid rain."

Looking back, Danforth said that Bond turned into an excellent senator because "he is very energetic and very persistent. When Kit Bond gets into an issue, he is intent on trying to get to the result. It's commendable; it's almost unique in the Senate, that capacity to wrestle an issue to the ground."

Senate Highlights

In his farewell speech to the Senate this month, Bond said, "I have done my best to keep faith with my constituents in every vote I have cast and every issue I have worked on."

While he often followed the Republican Party line in his positions, Bond said that working on a bipartisan basis with Senate Democrats often produced the best results.

"As I look back, the successes we have achieved during my time here have always come because people were willing to reach across the aisle for the common good." Among those bipartisan efforts were:

  • Working with the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to reach a compromise on the acid-rain trading associated with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
  • Establishing a National Guard Caucus with Democrats to make sure the guard is prepared to serve emergency needs on the home front and participate in our national security missions abroad.
  • Achieving compromises with Democrats Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Patty Murray, D-Wa., on the appropriations panel to improve public housing, provide help for the homeless and cracking down on lead paint in old public housing buildings.
  • Collaborating with Mikulski to improve funding for agricultural biotechnology, with congressionally directed spending in the National Science Foundation.
  • Supporting the family medical leave act in 1992 and 1993 and later working with Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Ct., on child-care legislation.
  • Working with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to negotiate approval of the first reauthorization of the Intelligence Act in six years.

Bond regards that revision of the Intelligence Act as "probably the most important national security issue" he worked on -- not only getting the Senate to approve it but also working out a compromise, taking four months of negotiations, with reluctant House leaders who finally accepted it.
But Bond was often highly partisan and he certainly wasn't friendly with all the Democrats. One day in the 1990s, in fact, then-Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., approached Bond from behind on the Senate floor and pushed or punched him after the Missourian gave a speech questioning Moynihan's earmark for a courthouse in Brooklyn. Later, the two senators joked about taking boxing lessons.

When the Help America Vote Act was debated in 2001, Bond -- decrying the bill as an affront to then-President George W. Bush and calling for changes in the bill to "make it tougher to cheat" -- displayed a Springer spaniel's photo in the Senate and told his colleagues that the dog, Ritzy, had been registered to vote in St. Louis.

"My friend Chris Dodd, with whom I worked on many child and family issues, told me he never wanted to see the dog picture again," Bond said. "So I autographed it and gave it to him."

Assessing Bond

If you talk with people who know or have worked with Bond -- including both political friends and foes -- the three characteristics that they tend to mention are his capacity for work, his intelligence and his dedication to the state of Missouri.

Danforth, who hasn't always agreed with Bond on national issues, said Bond has been "a terrific senator. ... He's got a terrific feel for the people of Missouri he represents. He understands the state and its people -- what their issues are, how they think and how they respond to things. He's very attuned to his constituents.

"Secondly, he's a very quick study, exceptionally bright," said Danforth. "And, third, he's very hard working. That's always been a characteristic of Kit Bond."

Ashcroft echoes that assessment. "Kit is one of the hardest working, most studied people I've ever met," he said. "I've never known anybody just to grind on things the way he does. He gets on an airplane and he's reading stuff and writing notes. He's indefatigable. He's a person of good humor; he's not a geek. He's just a hard worker."

Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, assessed Bond's Senate career as "a fairly successful one. He came to be very respected for his intelligence, his commitment to the state of Missouri, and for -- in most circumstances -- his relatively moderate tone to his political rhetoric."

While Bond took relatively moderate stands on some social issues, he tended toward conservative positions on security and economic issues. "He was a fairly strong conservative, but I think he increasingly found himself taking a back seat in the Senate to Republicans who used a sharper rhetoric in political battles," Smith (pictured) said.

"There was a time, perhaps about 10 years ago, when he could have become a more [nationally] visible Republican. But in fact a newer generation was taking over with a far more ideological and partisan mindset than was his personal inclination."

Blunt said Bond "has been elected to statewide office more times that any other person in the history of the state - seven times. He works really hard and he knows Missouri better than any other person I know. He is the expert on Missouri -- all parts of the state. He's appreciated everywhere because of that."

While McCaskill has clashed with Bond on earmarks and many other policy issues in the Senate, the Democrat paid tribute to him in a Senate speech this month. "The magic formula of a ready smile, intellect, integrity, and an amazing work ethic has put him in the same category of some of Missouri's very greatest -- from Thomas Hart Benton to Sen. Christopher Kit Bond," she said.

McCaskill added: "He has shown the world, and shown our country, what somebody who loves the middle of America and all that it represents can do." Her highest tribute: "Kit Bond is not afraid of a fight, and I think that is terrific."

Bond's Future

The outgoing senator says he still has plenty of fight in him. While he "has no intention" of ever running again for political office, Bond says he is "neither shy nor retiring."

"I'm going to be associated with a law firm," which he declined to name but said "I have some very interesting opportunities." He is also planning to set up a business development consultancy "helping firms do business in Asia, trying to bring Asian firms back here, and also helping a lot of startup companies in Missouri to take advantage of the tremendous research and technology that we have in the state."

But Bond said he'll also keep the chestnut orchard on the family's estate in Mexico, Mo. Those trees are mostly cultivars of Asian origin -- replacements for the once-hardy American chestnuts that used to grow in abundance in this country but were nearly wiped out by blight. He likes the idea of bringing them back -- giving visitors a brochure about the Bond orchard and a traditional chestnut dressing recipe from his mother.

Asked if he had any advice for young people thinking about running for statewide office, Bond didn't hesitate. "Listen to the people of Missouri," he said. "You'll find out from them what the pressing issues are. You sit down with them, and if they are local issues, you work out a solution that uses their ideas."

That's been the winning formula that has served Bond well for four decades. "Winning may not be everything, but losing isn't anything," Bond says with his trademark grin. "Or, as a political friend once said, 'Experience is what you get when you expect to get something else.'"

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.