By Phill Brooks
Missouri has lost one of the most successful and charismatic House speakers I've covered in nearly one half century. Kenneth Rothman, who died late April, served as speaker from 1977 to 1980.
His departure as House speaker marked the passing of a Missouri legislative era.
The St. Louis County Democrat came to the speakership when there was a growing number of members that reporters nicknamed the "white hats." The term was used to describe the motivations of a bipartisan group of lawmakers elected to office in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon.
The white hats sought fundamental change in government. Rothman was one of their leaders. Rothman was a passionate liberal Democrat. But like the other white hats, party affiliation was not a barrier.
In the House, they pursued a number of major issues including consumer protection, openness in government, environmental protection, limiting special interests and equal rights. A major supporter of white hat issues was Republican governor Kit Bond who championed several of their issues. Rothman's departure as House speaker after four years represented an end to that era, which I did not fully realize at the time.
The only subsequent House speaker I've covered who shared some of the same characteristics of Rothman was a Republican—Catherine Hannaway, R-St. Louis County. She struck me as having Rothman's joy of office, passion for issues, self-confidence and candor.
But Hannaway's tenure was at a time that deep partisan divide was emerging in American politics. She ran on a partisan agenda. Besides, with a steep decline in moderates from both parties, finding a bipartisan majority on significant issues was becoming increasingly difficult.
As for Rothman, after his four years as speaker, he ran for lieutenant governor in 1980. He won by defeating a man who would become a major figure in Missouri's political theater—U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.
When I asked Rothman why he abandoned the House speakership for the far less powerful position of lieutenant governor, he voiced confidence that he could use the office to continue his legislative leadership. It was not to be.
The spirit of independence in the Senate blocked any lieutenant governor from significant influence. Rothman found himself largely ignored by the more conservative body where even some fellow Senate Democrats expressed bitterness about his role in House-Senate fights when he was House speaker.
I still clearly remember the frustrations Rothman voiced to me that he no longer was a center of power or news. But, of course, a statewide-elected office could be a stepping stone to higher office.
But that too was not to be. After four years as lieutenant governor, Rothman lost the governorship race to another future Missouri GOP leader, John Ashcroft.
On a personal note, I confess that I'll deeply miss "Kenny," as his friends knew him. There was a candor and openness from Rothman that I find lacking in so many of today's politicians.
I can't remember him ever displaying distress. Instead, he seemed to enjoy the conflict, even when dealing with aggressive reporters. He was a lawyer, so he was used to a public adversarial process. He did not get angry very often with those who opposed his efforts.
Rothman also had a humorous wit that could take the edge off of intense disagreements. Actually, I regularly sensed joy from Rothman about being a very public leader in a process that is not always friendly.
That's a characteristic I've found missing in many of today's politicians who seek to hide behind spokespersons, operatives, staged events and closed-door caucus sessions.
Kenny did not hide behind anyone. But what I miss most is the loss of an era that Kenny represented.
It was a time when political parties were not so ideologically divided as to make it impossible to forge compromises on major issues that leaders like Rothman and Bond were able to put together.
The Late Kenneth Rothman is a reminder of a time when Democrats and Republicans were able to work closely together to solve Missouri's problems and not take disagreements personally.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.
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