Witty and to the point, Dole embodied ‘shared values’ in Washington

When Bob Dole was the Senate majority leader, in the days when Republicans and Democrats at least tried to work together, he routinely walked across the second floor of the Capitol to meet the minority leader, Tom Daschle, in Daschle’s office.

>> Sheryl Gay StolbergThe New York Times
Published : 6 Dec 2021, 04:17 AM
Updated : 6 Dec 2021, 04:17 AM

The reversal of protocol struck Daschle, who was new in the job, as gracious.

“I said, ‘Bob, I’m really humbled that you insist on coming to my office; I’m the junior guy, so I should come to your office,’ ” Daschle recalled Sunday after learning that Dole, 98, had died. “And he said, ‘No, when I come to your office, I can always decide when the meeting is over.’ ”

The remark was classic Bob Dole — witty and straight to the point. And the story is a reminder of Bob Dole’s Washington.

Dole, a Kansas Republican who overcame the poverty of the Great Depression and grievous injuries suffered during World War II, brought his prairie values and no-nonsense manner when he arrived in Washington in 1961. Over the next 35 years — through eight years in the House, 27 in the Senate and three failed attempts to win the presidency — he operated in a city that was conducive to his instincts as a deal maker.

It is perhaps trite to reminisce about and romanticise a “bygone era” in Washington, when politicians of opposing parties fought by day and socialised with one another at night. There was plenty of partisanship — some of it every bit as bitter as what exists today — during Dole’s time in the Capitol.

But there also is no denying that the climate was different, and the facts speak for themselves: Both as a senator and as the Republican leader, a job he held from 1985 until 1996, Dole reached across the aisle to help push through a string of bipartisan legislation, such as a bill to rescue Social Security, the Americans with Disabilities Act and a measure to overhaul the welfare system.

Among his proudest accomplishments was teaming up with George McGovern, the liberal Democrat from South Dakota, to revamp the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps. They continued to work together on nutrition issues after they both left the Senate.

“People believed in working with each other, and they kept their word,” Sen Patrick J Leahy, who counted Dole as a friend, said Sunday. He recalled the close ties between George J Mitchell Jr, the Maine senator who preceded Daschle as the Democratic leader, and Dole.

“When George Mitchell was leader, he’d go down to Dole’s office two and three times a day and vice versa,” Leahy said. “And I recall they both said the same thing about the other: ‘He never surprised me.’ You don’t see that happen today.”

Not only that, Mitchell and Dole had dedicated phone lines on their desks that let them communicate directly with the touch of a button, one aide recalled.

The button came in handy in November 1994, when Republicans won back the majority. Mitchell, who had not sought reelection, asked that Dole be alerted that he was coming to his office to congratulate him. Dole sent a quick message back that he didn’t want Mitchell to make the humbling trek and that Dole would instead go to his office, a gesture that Mitchell and his team regarded as decent and thoughtful.

“He operated in a different era, when the idea of bipartisanship was very much in vogue and politicians understood that in a democracy you simply have to work, not just with your fellow party members, but with people from the opposite side or the other side of the aisle,” said Robert Dallek, the presidential historian. “He was masterful at that.”

That is not to say that Dole lacked sharp elbows or conservative ideology. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House who is widely credited with ushering in Washington’s era of partisan warfare, said he worked closely with Dole to push through tax cuts and to defeat President Bill Clinton’s plan for universal health care.

In an interview Sunday, Gingrich likened Dole to the current Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, an object of loathing for Democrats.

“I think there’s a lot of parallels between Dole and McConnell,” Gingrich said. “They’re both creatures of the Senate; they’re both very, very good tactically. They both understand how to stop things, and they understand how to get things done.”

Despite their partnership, Dole could not embrace Gingrich’s bomb-throwing style. When Gingrich and House Republicans refused to pass federal spending bills, forcing the government to shut down in 1995, Dole took to the Senate floor to declare that he had had enough.

“We ought to end this,” Dole said at the time. “I mean, it’s gotten to the point where it’s a little ridiculous as far as this senator is concerned.”

In Washington, Dole and his wife, Elizabeth Dole — who later became a senator and ran for president herself — were seen as a power couple, the embodiment of the city’s institutions. Robert Dole came to stand for World War II and the Greatest Generation, and an earlier era of dignity and honour. He was the driving force behind the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, and could often be found greeting veterans there.

“He was in a sense Mr America,” said Dallek, the historian. “He came from the heartland, and he stood for a kind of shared values.”

In 1996, Dole left the Senate — an institution in which he had served for more than a quarter century — to run for president. Washington was changing. Gingrich was at the height of his power. Clinton would later be impeached over his affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, exacerbating the growing partisan tensions.

But when Dole, who at that point was the Senate’s longest-serving Republican leader, went to the chamber to deliver a speech announcing his departure, the old ways of the Capitol were still intact.

“That day he announced he was leaving the Senate, almost every Democratic senator was on the floor,” Leahy said. “Now, he was going to go out to run against Bill Clinton. And when he finished speaking, we all stood and applauded and applauded.”

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Editor-in-Chief and Publisher