Bob Dole: Old School Soldier, Politician and Republican

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Bob Dole: Old School Soldier, Politician and Republican


isn the Apennines in 1945, Bob Dole was hit by German machine gun fire. With willpower, endless hours of strengthening, an experimental drug, and the extraordinary kindness of a doctor who performed seven operations for free, Dole was able to rebuild her life. His right arm had limited movement. His left suffered from numbness. It was painful to write. A signed Dole note is a treasure.

Defeating the governor of Kansas to win a Senate seat in 1968, he rose to the rank of Republican leader. When Gerald Ford chose him as his running mate in 1976, his first impression of Americans was a bit clear: “Democratic Wars” was the most famous line in his debate with Walter Mondale. But he recovered and spoke of “hard choices”, essentially code to reduce the federal deficit.

He called himself the “candidate of the heart” and it was true. His speech accepting the presidential nomination in 1996 was heavily criticized for his line on “a bridge to the past”. In response, Bill Clinton proposed a “bridge to the future”. But Dole was right. This look at history was essential: “Every time we forget his singular presence, it gives us a lesson in grace and awe. Few people knew exactly where the Clinton Bridge went – or when it might be completed.

Dole offered a moral vision. “What is more important, wealth or honor? Only righteous conduct distinguishes a great nation from a nation that cannot rise above itself … Everything follows from what is right. It was sincerity, not sentiment. Rare indeed the politician who could say with integrity: “I do not need the presidency to make or refresh my soul. For greatness does not lie in the position you hold, but in your honesty in the face of adversity and your willingness to stand firm in difficult places.

Bob Dole in the United States Army. Photography: AP

It was an older republicanism, one that noted: “If there is anyone who mistakenly attached himself to our party believing that we are not open to citizens of all races and religions, then let me remind you, tonight this room belongs to the Lincoln party. And the exits that are clearly marked are for you to go out as I stand on this uncompromising terrain. Always loyal to the party, he called himself a “Trumper” but also a “sort of Trumped out” – and he categorically rejected the lie of voter fraud in 2020.

His voice calls out in the deep troubles of today: “The principle of unity, so hard fought and at the cost of so many lives, having been contested time and time again in our history, and at such a terrible price, must he be abandoned by chance in the desire to divide?

In their debate, Clinton said, “I love Bob Dole. You can probably tell. Dole asked viewers to check out his website, a first for presidential candidates. His wry humor and distance from the hype struck a chord with some Gen X voters.

Running against peace and prosperity is difficult. Ross Perot’s second offer didn’t help. Yet Dole continued, loyal to the party and the ticket he led. Then he moved on.

Losing “wasn’t that bad,” he said. He advertised Viagra – but only after being able to testify about it following prostate cancer. Tackling stigma was his life’s work. If talking could help, why not risk the jokes?

He could happily discuss compensatory payments for farmers for hours on end – that’s what senators do – and to him, that sort of thing mattered more than personal revelation. Referring to himself in the third person was mocked, but we knew where he was standing.

Dole and President Gerald Ford at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in 1976. Photograph: Consolidated News Images / Getty Images

When he was introspective, it felt like the past, of good people living on the merciless prairie, was never far away. There was a down-to-earth honesty too often absent in politics today but popular when it appears: “Facts are better than dreams and good presidents and good candidates do not shy away from the truth.”

The accusation of being an intellectual light weight was unfair. Dole simply disagreed with some of the new Republican intellectuals. The man whose father ran a creamery knew that budgets had to be balanced, a lesson learned on the prairie, where “a man is very small, and if he thinks otherwise, he is wrong.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act was his greatest pride. Strongly committed to civil rights, he worked with former rival George McGovern to develop an international school meals program and was awarded the World Food Prize. Lion of the Senate, his cross-party friendship with Daniel Inouye, also seriously injured in WWII, is a telling reminder of what Washington was like.

Bob Dole answers questions in Winston Salem, North Carolina, in June 1996.
Bob Dole answers questions in Winston Salem, North Carolina, in June 1996. Photograph: Stephan Savoia / AP

Dole may remind British readers of Denis Healey. As a caretaker wrote in his Healey obituary, “It is seldom enough in politics to say, ‘I’m here if you want me.’ Always wanting to “do something rather than be something,” Healey was too busy to be a faction fighter or a conspirator.

For Dole, “an honorable compromise is not a sin. This is what protects us from absolutism and intolerance ”.

It has been said that Dole wants to be president in case any decisions need to be made – a reminder from another Kansan, Dwight Eisenhower. After all, he might have thought, the big questions were settled – democracy, decency, honor, economic opportunity, civil rights, strong defense, support for allies – but the small decisions also mattered. Why not Bob Dole to do them honestly?

The substance of these decisions would generally have been wise and, as with Eisenhower, probably bolder than expected. A Dole presidency would have reset the country for the new millennium: less talk, more action, less fluff, more substance.

He carried a pen in his disabled right hand. As in 1945, he was always ready to work.



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