Former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole
Former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole at the 2009 Hubert H. Humphrey Awards Dinner (Photo: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights)

Bob Dole came to Seat­tle in 1992, boost­ing the U.S. Sen­ate cam­paign of Repub­li­can Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Rod Chan­dler and hop­ing to hold back the “Year of the Woman” tide that was about to sweep for­mer Shore­line preschool teacher Pat­ty Mur­ray into the world’s great­est delib­er­a­tive body.

The press con­fer­ence was wrap­ping up when I thought to ask the 1996 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, and long­time Kansas sen­a­tor, a final ques­tion. What did he think of the glow­er­ing Dole par­o­dy by come­di­an Dan Aykroyd on Sat­ur­day Night Live?

“Ha, ha, ha, I’ve won­dered about that myself,” Chan­dler inter­ject­ed. Dole gave a chuck­le, said the staff had taped it for him to see, and end­ed the presser.

Former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole
For­mer Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bob Dole at the 2009 Hubert H. Humphrey Awards Din­ner (Pho­to: The Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civ­il and Human Rights)

I packed up my papers to leave but felt a vise-like grip on my shoul­der. With his good left arm, Dole spun me around, gave me a mock hard look, and said: “I know who you are.”

Wel­come to the Dole wit. The some­time Repub­li­can hatch­et man could be wicked­ly fun­ny. When ex-Pres­i­dents Carter, Ford and Nixon decamped to Cairo for the funer­al of slain Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent Anwar Sadat, Dole remarked: “There they go, ‘See no evil, ‘Hear no evil, and Evil.” He had served as Repub­li­can Nation­al Chair­man when Nixon was fight­ing impeachment.

A com­pli­cat­ed guy, the politi­cian who died at 98 in his sleep overnight Sun­day. Dole ran for pres­i­dent in 1980, 1988, and 1996, and was Repub­li­can vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee under Ger­ald Ford in 1976. The ’76 cam­paign intro­duced a dour Dole to the Amer­i­can peo­ple, with his debate ref­er­ences to young Amer­i­cans who had died in “four Demo­c­rat [sic] wars.”

Dole “has rich­ly earned his rep­u­ta­tion as a hatch­et man,” oppo­nent Wal­ter Mon­dale told the coun­try. Dole lat­er acknowl­edged: “I was told to go for the jugu­lar and I did – mine.” Wife Eliz­a­beth lat­er took him through a tape of the debate, as a lessen in how not to dark­en your image.

He grew up in Depres­sion-era Kansas, hus­tled as a kid, and dreamed of becom­ing a sur­geon. World War II made him a polit­i­cal operator.

A mem­ber of the leg­endary 10th Moun­tain Divi­sion, he was hideous­ly wound­ed on April 14, 1945, in one of the war’s last engagements.

Dole lost a kid­ney and went through life with a dis­abled-in-place right arm.

He start­ed as a coun­ty attor­ney, won elec­tion to Con­gress in 1960 – the year John F. Kennedy was elect­ed pres­i­dent – and would serve in the Sen­ate for twen­ty-sev­en years. He spent a decade as Sen­ate Repub­li­can Leader.

Con­gress was his life.

Return­ing to his digs in the Water­gate, Dole would watch C‑SPAN. He recre­at­ed by sun­ning him­self on a deck out­side his office, and at a con­do­mini­um in Florida.

Dole could be cru­el and cutting.

Abrupt­ly and with­out warn­ing, he would tell his first wife of twen­ty-three years, Phyl­lis, a nurse who had helped his recov­ery, that he want­ed a divorce. I wit­nessed this streak in the 1988 cam­paign, inter­view­ing Dole en route to a GOP can­di­dates forum at a rick­ety minor league base­ball park in Indi­anola, Iowa.

We drove up behind the base­ball field, see­ing only a cou­ple people.

Dole lit into his youth­ful advance kid for wast­ing his time by sched­ul­ing this “use­less” event. The kid’s neck turned red. But we round­ed the cor­ner to see the stands filled with Repub­li­cans. Dole flipped moods in an instant, being the lone can­di­date to make his way up into the stands to spend time with the folks.

He nursed resent­ments against the priv­i­leged upbring­ing of rival George H.W. Bush, a man in the mem­o­rable words of Texas Gov­er­nor Ann Richards “who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” We media folk looked on from an NBC stu­dio, as Bush upset Dole in the New Hamp­shire pri­ma­ry, as the two men appeared on screen togeth­er. Is there any­thing you want to say to Vice Pres­i­dent Bush, asked the news anchor? “Stop lying about my record!” Dole snapped.

But there was anoth­er side of Dole: He was one of the Senate’s old bulls.

They were a club, even as rivals and ide­o­log­i­cal opposites.

Dole embraced com­pro­mise as a virtue. He may have called Pres­i­dent Carter a “South­ern-fried McGov­ern,” but worked with col­league George McGov­ern on land­mark leg­is­la­tion to estab­lish the food stamps and school lunch programs.

He teamed with Demo­c­ra­t­ic col­leagues to pass the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, say­ing as it became law: “And I am for­ev­er grate­ful. I know Sen­a­tor (Edward) Kennedy and Sen­a­tor (Tom) Harkin are. Have you ever seen so many wheel­chairs at a White House sign­ing ceremony?’

He and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen. Daniel “Pat” Moyni­han, in 1983, res­cued a dead­locked bipar­ti­san Social Secu­ri­ty commission.

Dole teamed with “Great­est Gen­er­a­tion” sen­a­tors on both sides of the aisle to estab­lish the World War II memo­r­i­al in the nation’s capital.

The pol­i­tics of con­fronta­tion were com­ing on as Dole pre­pared to run for Pres­i­dent in 1996. The new House Speak­er was Newt Gin­grich, who had called Dole “the tax col­lec­tor for the wel­fare state.”

Gin­grich forced a gov­ern­ment shut­down lat­er that year which dam­aged Repub­li­cans’ prospects of beat­ing Bill Clinton.

Dole announced on June 11th, 1996, that he would quit the Sen­ate to cam­paign full-time for Pres­i­dent. He was back on the Sen­ate floor the next morn­ing announc­ing the day’s agen­da. He would come across as dat­ed fig­ure, promis­ing to build “a bridge to a time of tran­quil­i­ty, faith and con­fi­dence in the nation.” Clin­ton prompt­ly coun­tered with his “bridge to the 21st Century.”

After a Uni­ver­si­ty of San Diego debate, Dole left the stage while Clin­ton lin­gered on to talk with cit­i­zen mem­bers of the audience.

By pro­to­col, the President’s motor­cade must leave a scene first.

Dole fumed in his hold­ing room while Clin­ton met the folks.

Clin­ton found ways to get under Dole’s skin.

The admin­is­tra­tion launched a major cam­paign high­light­ing the dan­gers of smok­ing to health. One of the first things Dole had learned to do, recov­er­ing from his war injuries, was to light his Luck­ies. Clin­ton and Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore cel­e­brat­ed Earth Day doing mus­cu­lar out­door work with a cleanup crew at Great Falls Park on the Potomac Riv­er. Dole, mean­while, was unable to cut a Philly cheese steak sand­wich served dur­ing a cam­paign appearance.

Three days before being sworn in for his sec­ond term, Clin­ton award­ed the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom to the man he defeated.

The Dole wit was mem­o­rably dis­played as he rose to say, “I, Robert J. Dole, to solemn­ly swear… ” As the East Room erupt­ed in laugh­ter, he added: “Sor­ry, wrong speech. But I had a dream that I would be here this week, receiv­ing some­thing from the Pres­i­dent, but I thought it would be the front door key.”

In retire­ment, Dole became a pub­lic character.

He did a cameo on Sat­ur­day Night Live, pop­u­lar­ized the term “erec­tile dys­func­tion” in a TV spot for Via­gra, and hawked Pep­si in anoth­er ad. (David Let­ter­man showed a pic­ture of Godzil­la with the label “Bob Dole on Via­gra.”) He boost­ed the career of sec­ond wife Eliz­a­beth, who served a term in the Sen­ate from North Car­oli­na and ran a brief, still­born cam­paign for President.

The last years saw brief reap­pear­ance of the bad Dole, but also a touch­ing trib­ute to anoth­er old sol­dier. Dole became the only for­mer Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee to back Don­ald Trump for Pres­i­dent in 2016.

A politi­cian who cher­ished the rep­u­ta­tion for giv­ing his word was endors­ing a man whose word was (and is) worthless.

When once-bit­ter foe George H.W. Bush lay in state in the U.S. Capi­tol Rotun­da, the 95-year-old Dole was helped up from his wheel­chair to his feet, and salut­ed the 42nd Pres­i­dent, a fel­low World War II com­bat vet­er­an. “I didn’t go there with the intent to salute, but I did,” he said later.

The last polit­i­cal fig­ure of an Amer­i­can era has passed.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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