It came as a shock. It shouldn’t have, the news that former US Senator and 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, 98, passed away on Sunday. It falls on the same day three years ago that he famously but painfully stood in the Capitol Rotunda and saluted the casket of his former political competitor and close friend, George H. W. Bush.
Brilliant and touching prose from prominent people who knew him well or shared parts of his incredible journey and life story are rolling in. Of course, it will be positive, even glowing, and deservedly so. I can imagine Senator Dole, with his famous humor and dry wit, asking “Where were you in 1996?” That’s when he unsuccessfully sought the presidency as the GOP’s nominee, losing to incumbent Bill Clinton. Tributes are already pouring in from his friends, former colleagues, ex-staff, and the beneficiaries of his legendary military, legislative, and public service record. Mine is but a small addition, but we all have our stories and desire to honor his towering legacy. Together, they present a glowing mosaic of courage, determination, compassion, humility, and service.
And yes, humor. He could have easily succeeded as a stand-up comic. As one of a few senior GOP staff attending closed-door meetings of the Senate Republican Conference, he would often lighten the mood with endless quips, delivered with his famous deadpan style and impeccable timing. Celebrating US Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) on his 93rd birthday, he quipped, “I watch what Strom eats. If he eats a banana, I eat a banana.” Thurmond would live to be 100, six months after retiring from the US Senate in early 2003. He was succeeded by Lindsey Graham.
Dole’s sense of humor came in handy during his post-political career when he became a national advertising spokesman for Viagra. It earned him a sequel at the end of a Brittany Spears Pepsi commercial (he appears at the end).
His passing is yet another painful reminder of our dwindling “Greatest Generation” of Americans who fought and won World War II. Senator Dole is well remembered as the 10th Mountain Division Second Lieutenant infantry officer who was severely wounded in Italy, undergoing years of surgery and therapy so he could walk and use his left arm again. He never regained use of his right hand. We all learned the “Bob Dole handshake,” using our left hand.
One of my greatest honors was being nominated by Leader Dole to serve as Secretary of the Senate during the 104th Congress, from 1995 to the end of 1996. It was a debt I could never repay. The Secretary is the Senate’s chief legislative, financial, and administrative officer, the only one sworn in on the floor of the Senate other than Senators themselves. Since the late 1970s, the Secretary has been nominated for the job by the Majority Leader and confirmed by the Senate.
The story of how I fell into the job was captured in part by Bob Woodward’s tome of the 1996 election, “The Choice.”
Dole, running for President, kept confidential his plans to resign his Senate post to campaign full-time for President. And truth be known, I was hardly his first choice for the job. In fact, his entreaties to political heavyweights outside the Senate were spurned, in no small part to the one-year lobbying ban upon leaving office. Many of the people Dole considered had lucrative lobbying practices. But he would eventually turn to the top leadership aide of his trusted colleague, US Sen. Don Nickles (R-OK), who chaired the Senate Republican Policy Committee. Nickles made the shortlist for Dole’s 1996 running mate, which eventually went to the late former US Rep. and Buffalo Bills quarterback legend Jack Kemp (R-NY).
Dole was, in effect, signaling that he wanted Nickles to succeed him as Senate GOP leader. Nickles would wind up as the Assistant Majority Leader with the top job being won by the opportunistic second-in-command, whip Trent Lott. Dole remained upset that Lott unseated his close friend, Alan Simpson (R-WY), as the assistant leader (whip) just two years previously. GOP Senators elect all their leaders by secret ballot after every biennial election. GOP Senators, many of whom came from the House where Lott had also served as whip, had other ideas. Dole won many, but not all of his political and legislative battles, even inside his beloved conference.
As Dole was leaving the Senate, one small piece of unfinished business was picking a nominee for a GOP seat on the Federal Election Commission. Many independent commission seats are reserved for the “minority,” party, and when vacancies occur, the Senate leader of the opposition party recommends who will fill them. Dole officially recommended me to the Clinton White House for a GOP seat on the six-member, equally divided Federal Election Commission while Dole was challenging Clinton for the presidency. You can imagine what that was like. While eventually nominated amidst abuse of the confirmation process (a story for another day), I withdrew for a private-sector job. I was told that Daschle wanted to exchange 7 Clinton-nominated judicial nominations for my confirmation along with one other former Dole aide. I was happy to take them down with me.
At age 72 when running for GOP presidential nomination in 1996, the media questioned whether he was ‘too old’ for the job. We did not hear a similar question from the same media about now-79-year-old Joe Biden in 2020. I’ll say it - Bob Dole, well into his 90’s, was mentally sharper than Biden is today. But I never heard Dole ever trash a colleague behind his back - even a Democratic nemesis.
It wasn’t until I served as a Senate leadership staff member that I got to see Senator Dole up close and realize what a tremendously wise and skilled legislator and leader he was, revered by all his colleagues, Democrat and Republican. While forever branded as a partisan warrior and “hatchet man,” especially when running as President Ford’s running mate in 1976 (“Democrat wars”), he built a strong record of bipartisanship, especially on issues related to nutrition and hunger. He authored the food stamp (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program, or SNAP) program on which more than 40 million Americans rely - about 1 in 8 Americans. He authored the Womens Infants Children (WIC) program to help ensure proper nutrition for low income mothers and their infants. And he created, with former Democratic Senator and 1972 presidential candidate, George McGovern (D-SD), an international food assistance program, including a “bread and butter corps” to help teach and train third-world farmers how to be more successful.
Much of his passion on hunger came from his own experience growing up during the dust bowl and Great Depression days in the wind-blown plains of western Kansas. He was proud of his hometown of Russell, Kansas, which he invoked frequently on the campaign trail and in the US Senate. He never forgot where he was from. And if you exit off I-70 into Russell to this day, you’ll see a nice billboard extolling this farm community as the hometown of not one but two US Senators and presidential candidates: Dole and the late Arlen Specter (R & D-PA).
Dole knew when to be a partisan warrior and loyal to his party, and when to put partisanship aside to help advance personal causes and the national interest. He was the Senate’s ultimate workhorse. He was loyal to a fault, to the Senate, the Republican party, to staff and GOP colleagues. Even after a political battle, such as the 1988 GOP presidential nomination fight, he knew when to put down his sword and join ranks with the winner, as he did with President G.H.W. Bush. I saw evidence of their deep friendship firsthand. He had a long memory but knew how to keep grudges in check.
One great memory was joining Leader Dole in his office for a meeting with former President Richard Nixon in 1993, not long before Nixon died from a stroke. Nixon had just spoken eloquently, behind closed doors, on his feet, and without notes for 45 minutes before the Senate GOP conference about the need to provide economic aid to Russia, still reeling from the effects of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. Dole and Nixon had a long and close friendship. Dole served as chairman of the Republican National Committee during Nixon’s presidency.
Another memory of Dole’s humor would come from a meeting of the Senate Republican Conference in 1992. The Conference Secretary, US Sen. Bob Kasten (R-WI), who would lose reelection that year, was reporting on polling numbers involving that year’s presidential election. He quoted a Richard Wirthlin poll. Wirthlin, a former strategist for Ronald Reagan, had polled for Dole in 1988, and their relationship apparently did not end well. “Who can question that (a Wirthlin poll?)” Kasten rhetorically asked. “I can!” Dole loudly deadpanned to an uproarious response. Everyone laughed but him. Wirthlin died in 2011.
Dole also was masterful in schooling Democratic opponents without having them lose face in the process, a skill lost on many of today's politicians. I saw him once “suggest the absence of a quorum” to briefly pause the Senate and usher new Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle to the GOP cloakroom. Daschle surprised Dole by offering a motion (I don’t remember the issue). After they emerged from the cloakroom, Daschle sheepishly withdrew his motion. Surprises are not welcome on the Senate floor, and no one despised being surprised more than Dole. Truth be known, Dole didn’t like personal confrontations and found it hard to fire people.
He was the only one of five living former GOP presidential nominees to endorse Donald Trump in 2016. Dole was loyal to his party and wanted both it and its nominees, to be successful. He would continue to publicly defend Trump during his presidency.
Robert Joseph Dole was one of a kind, some say a relic of Senate and political days gone by. You may not have always agreed with him but he was and remains a model for public service at all levels. Rest in Peace, Leader Dole. You will be missed. Thank you for being an inspiration to generations now and yet to come.
My thoughts and prayers are with his devoted wife, former US Senator and Transporation Secretary Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), daughter Robin, and his legion of family and friends.