Robert Joseph Dole, longtime senator from Kansas, passed away on Dec. 5 at the age of 98. The world had long ago moved on, but even as recently as last year, reporters would occasionally ask him to opine on the news of the day. I suppose he was to today’s youth like 1936 GOP presidential nominee Alf Landon, another Kansan, was to me in my younger years: a retired politician who could be counted on for an entertaining and succinct line that illuminated some of the inner workings of politics.
Dole was more than that, though. He was a giant of the Senate for many years. During his time, the Senate had begun to wane in power, but it was still far more of a governing force than it is today. Having ceded so much to the Executive Branch over the past decades, today’s Congress acts more like a corporate policy board than a governing board. In Dole’s day, they did a lot more governing. The positions members of Congress took and the cases they made on the Sunday news shows were more important, and more interesting, because they had more impact.
And Sen. Dole was always interesting. He knew the intricacies of every bill being marked up and debated, which senators favored what (there was much more crossing of party lines back then), and how things would likely play out in the end. A man of compromise who would not compromise his principles, he understood how much his fellow senators would give and take. Between growing up in Kansas during the Depression and having a shoulder blown off (permanently laming his right arm), he knew the importance of “calling a thing what it is.”
My favorite Bob Dole line was written by a speechwriter, but I still give him credit for it. When he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1996, he said that “a government that seizes control of the economy for the good of the people ends up seizing control of the people for the good of the economy.” Whomp! There it is!
It was a great speech, one of many he gave that year. Looking back, I can see how prophetic he was, too. He saw the devastation that the breakdown of the American family would bring and how it would disproportionately impact the wage earners and the poor. My wife, Cheryl, and I were all in for Dole that year. We have a fun home video of our three-year-old chanting “Dole-Kemp! Dole-Kemp!” as we watched the convention.
Of course, he went on to lose. The country re-elected Bill Clinton. One can only speculate how a Dole presidency would have gone, and there certainly would have been complications and bumps in the road had that happened. But with Dole we would not have had the Lewinsky scandal or anything approaching it. I am convinced that that affair had a much more negative impact than “just” intensifying partisanship in D.C. Its impact on popular culture was a major contributor to the weakening of morality in our country.
I recall how horrified I was when a youth of my acquaintance, referring to the president, remarked to me how “everyone does it” (i.e., adultery and fornication). I assured her that, no, everyone does not. Still, the lesson a generation — egged on by the media, Hollywood and our largest political party —learned was, “it’s just sex.”
I think it is also entirely probable that, with a focus on governing rather than on interns, a President Dole would have gotten bin Laden before 9/11. Yes, that is speculation. But I have no doubt that he would have signed the Gingrich budgets. The “era of big government” that Bill Clinton proclaimed was over really would have been over. This is a fallen, sinful world, and we would have different problems, but, oh, how much better off would we be today were we to have had those three things: no national sex scandal, no 9/11, and a government living within its means.
I fondly recall my dad as a huge Dole fan. Dole was elected in 1960 and had quite a distinguished career before gaining the GOP nomination 36 years later. My dad had the habit of watching the nightly news before our family had dinner, and I recall more than once him telling us to be quiet because Dole was on. My dad grew up on a farm in the Great Depression, too, and also knew, as Dole said, “the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land.” Facts trump dreams.
In remembering Dole, one could highlight his candidacy for vice-president when Ford tapped him for the ticket in 1976 or his moving, heartfelt eulogy at Nixon’s funeral. Also his decades-long rivalry with George H. W. Bush capped by the moving salute he gave at Bush 41’s funeral as he was helped out of his wheelchair. For lighter moments, see his appearance on “Saturday Night Live” with Norm MacDonald or his speech upon receiving the Medal of Freedom from Clinton in January 1997 (“I, Robert J. Dole, do solemnly swear . . . sorry, wrong speech.”)
As an amateur student of history, I do hope he is remembered by future generations in the way other giants of the Senate are remembered. I think he’s up there with Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Rayburn, Dirksen, and Byrd. Regardless of policies and positions, all were great leaders of their generation who faithfully served our country.
Rest in peace, Robert J. Dole, 1923—2021.