Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, has had a lengthy career as a Washington lawmaker, having served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 1997, and in the U.S. Senate since 1997.
He holds a distinction as the only person throughout U.S. history to serve as the chairman of both the House and Senate agriculture committees.
Yet outside of the state he represents and the agriculture communities, Roberts has been somewhat obscure. Through his whole career, he has often been confused for the more famous television evangelist Pat Robertson.
However, the senator who is known by his constituents for his quirky sense of humor, has made the headlines quite a bit lately. Not so much for what he is getting accomplished, but for his display of that humor that was deemed inappropriate by others.
Prior to 2017, the only time I can recall Roberts’ mouth got him into trouble was back in the 1990s when he was seeking election to his first Senate term. He was being opposed by Kansas State Treasurer Sally Thompson, and said he wasn’t going to get into the elevator with her, calling her a naughty name. What Roberts didn’t know was he said that in front of a reporter.
However, in the past several months, Roberts has suffered not from foot-and-mouth disease, but from foot-in-mouth disease. Here are three examples:
1. Peddling valium
In January, During the confirmation hearing of now-Treasury Secretary Steven Mcuchin, Roberts quipped straight-faced to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, that he had a valium pill in his suit coat pocket and that Wyden “might want to take before the second round” of questioning.
Roberts was called out by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, saying he hoped his comment wouldn’t set the tone for the committee in 2017. When also called on the carpet for his seemingly inappropriate use of committee time, Roberts, with hostility, said “I’m done. Thank you.”
So because of this exchange, Roberts was criticized for:
- Joking about peddling prescription drugs and/or making light of those who genuninely need them
- Apparently trying to paint Wyden in an unfavorable light
- Displaying an inability to accept criticism from colleages
Two months later Roberts received even more fire for another joke that fell flat and downright offended many.
When asked about abandoning facets of Obamacare, Roberts said something to the effect of “I wouldn’t want to lose my mammograms.”
That comment drew heavy fire for the senator’s perceived apathy for women’s health issues, insensitivity to women who have been breast cancer victims, and oversight of the fact that men, too, can get breast cancer.
The exchange resulted in Roberts releasing the following statement of apology: I deeply regret my comments on such an important topic. I know several individuals whose lives have been saved by mammograms, and I recognize how essential they are to women’s health. I never intended to indicate otherwise, and I apologize for my comments.”
3. Porcupine mating
Most recently, Roberts made headlines for an oddball comparison when talking to reporters about the health care debate.
“Once in Glacier National Park, I saw two porcupines making love,” Roberts said. “I’m assuming they produced smaller porcupines. They produced something. It has to be done carefully. That’s what we’re doing now.”
While this remark didn’t draw the outrage the previous two comments did, it did come across as sophomoric humor and so far out, it left people simply scratching their heads and wondering if they really did hear what they did.
Time to represent agriculture well
Make no mistake, humor is a good thing, and I try to use it often.
We’ve all made jokes that didn’t get the laughs we had hoped for. But most of us, in doing so, are usually only representing ourselves. Roberts, when speaking as a senator, represents the citizens of Kansas, the Republican Party, and as the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, he also represents, in a sense, the agriculture industry.
Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns once called the agriculture committees the most sensible committees in Washington. I honestly believe he was right, but with the recent social faux pas of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s elder statesman, others may put Johanns’ observation in question.