WASHINGTON, D.C. — Bob Dole tries to go to work every day. On April 10, for this interview in his law firm office, he wore a crisp white shirt with a pen in his pocket and a blue necktie festooned with tiny American flags.
Except for the alert eyes, he looked frail. He spoke slowly. But as the words came, it was clear it was the same Dole who ran for president in 1996, who ruled Republicans in the Senate for 11 years before that. The same guy whom Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas says will go down in history with Henry Clay and other great senators.
History will remember him, Roberts and other say, for getting a great deal done for the nation when he led the Republican Party and Republicans in the Senate: the Americans with Disabilities Act. Social Security. Farm bill after farm bill.
They say he did it by doing what doesn’t get done anymore: He worked with Democrats. He persuaded opponents to serve their country instead of their parties.
The man from Russell who once helped lead the nation will turn 90 on July 22. Age and ailments hurt him now. But this is the same guy who spent more than three years in a hospital after getting shot up in World War II, then went to the House and Senate and made a presidential run in 1996.
“I miss it,” he said. “I miss being in the eye of the storm.”
Dole and Clinton
Dole’s friends say he suffers from sleeplessness and pays for it with fatigue. His right knee bothers him. His war wound troubles him. In World War II, his shoulder was blown apart when, as a 21-year-old Army lieutenant, he led an infantry attack against a hill heavily fortified by the German army in Italy.
The dry wit is still there. Asked what mistake he would most like to correct in a career that included a run for president, he replied: “Win the election.”
Former President Richard Nixon once sent Dole a seven-page hand-written letter discussing Dole's presidential prospects. Nixon always liked to analyze football and politics, Dole recalled.
“He sort of analyzed my chances against (Bill) Clinton. He said, ‘Well, your voice is still strong, you know, you look good; all those are plusses.’
“But he said, ‘If the economy stays strong, you can’t beat Clinton.’ ”
The economy stayed strong.
In Dole’s office is a friendly note on display from the president of the United States who defeated Dole in 1996. Clinton has praised Dole as one of America’s great leaders, even bringing him to the White House to hand him the Medal of Freedom.
Are they friends?
“Well, he’s a very smart politician,” Dole said. “Very articulate. Knows all the tricks.” He said this with a hint of a smile in his eyes.
Two years after Clinton beat him, the two men were talking as friends, and, to Dole’s surprise, Clinton asked for advice about Congress and the fallout from a relationship Clinton had had with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
“He asked me, ‘What would you do?’ And I said, ‘Well, if I could get a letter signed by whatever the number (of senators) needed that would say, ‘I’ll never vote for impeachment’ – that’s pretty good medicine.”
That would have been good for Clinton, Dole said – and good for Clinton’s Republican enemies, considering the defeat they suffered when the Senate rejected impeachment.
What Dole didn’t do was suggest Clinton do a better job of behaving.
“I think he knew that.”
Burying the hatchet
There was a time when Dole was known for his short temper. He said cruel things – about Democrats in general and Republican opponents such as George H.W. Bush.
When President Gerald Ford named Dole as his vice presidential running mate in 1976, Dole gleefully took on the role of hatchet man against Jimmy Carter and vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
But Dole realized, he said, that behaving like that leads to failure.
So when Dole became the GOP leader in the Senate in 1985 and confronted a wily old Senate chief of the Democratic Party named Robert Byrd, he decided to compromise, to befriend Byrd, even though Byrd was a man most Republicans despised.
Dole said this strategy was a success – for himself, for Republicans and for the country. He said Byrd enthusiastically began to help him succeed.
“I used to ask him for advice,” Dole said. “He knew the (Senate) rules backward and forward. And I’d never been the leader. And I became leader – I had to learn. And even though he was a Democrat and the Democratic leader, he was willing to help me out whenever he could.”
Dole said it was a somewhat selfish decision on his part. He wanted personal success. If that meant working with the cunning guy from West Virginia, Dole said, so be it.
“He didn’t trust me at first,” Dole said. “He thought I was too partisan.
“He was very honest. He just told me one day, ‘I didn’t think we were going to get along because of your partisanship, but I haven’t detected it since we’ve been working together.’ ”
Byrd even tried to help him help Kansas, Dole said.
“He came to me one day on the Senate floor. And he said, ‘You know, you never ask for much around here.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you think of some big project for Kansas, and I’ll help you get the money.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d want to meet with some of my friends in Kansas.’
“And frankly, we couldn’t come up with any project that wasn’t very, very expensive. So I told Sen. Byrd that I appreciate it, but my friends and supporters don’t think we needed the federal government.
“But we did get a few things done. And they were part of the legislative process. They weren’t last-minute amendments tacked on at midnight. We got some highways around Wichita. A space museum in Hutchinson. We got a bypass, also around Wichita.”
Dole said he has never forgotten lessons on compromise that he drew from Byrd.
“I think a lot of it is, like I said, developing relationships – not because I want something but just because I’m in the same body as these other 99 senators, D’s and R’s.
“It takes a lot of work and lot of time, and some people, you just can’t bring around,” Dole said. “If you keep working at it, you can probably get it done.
“You got to keep your word,” he said. “If you don’t keep your word, in your business and particularly in politics, your credibility is shot.
“If I promise a Democrat that he can offer the next amendment and then some Republican says, ‘Wait a minute, I want to offer that amendment’ – if you don’t stand firm and keep your word, you wouldn’t be much of a leader.”
When asked how he learned to control that famous sharp tongue, Dole said the answer is one that anyone can draw from in Washington today.
“Well, I think I knew what the results would be. If you’re known as a ‘hot dog’ or somebody who ‘it’s my way or no way,’ you’re more apt to get into a contest of some kind. Which sometimes leads to harsh words.
“And I’ve been guilty of some of that. But I finally learned that if I want to be the hatchet man – well, I’ll put it another way: I didn’t want to be the hatchet man.”
Proud of his work
Dole said he is proud of many things, including passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. He came from a farm state and helped farmers for decades.
“I was on the House and Senate agricultural committees for 20-some years and had a major role in every farm bill from 1962 or ’3 until I left the Senate in 1996,” he said.
He had fought in a war and got to save lives, he said, when he stood up to the Clinton administration during the Bosnian war and persuaded them to intervene when it was clear the Serbian militias were going to kill a lot of Muslims unless someone stopped them.
“I think we changed Clinton’s mind on his policy in Bosnia. He wasn’t going to do anything. But we kept pluggin’ away. And we finally had enough votes that they were fearful of the next vote they might lose. So they changed their policy.”
How does he want to be remembered?
“Someone who loved his job and loved his state and the people in it. And tried to demonstrate those things by what I did in Congress, the House and the Senate. Particularly the Senate.
“In July, the Washington Post had a little piece on four Senate ‘kings,’ ” Dole said. “Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, Robert Byrd and Orrin Hatch. Which is a pretty select group.
“You know, we had some defeats, we didn’t win everything. But if you didn’t win it the first time, you could change it a little bit and try a different approach.”
Return to the Senate
Four months ago, he tried to make difference, once again, on a national stage.
On Dec. 4, Dole, looking sick, semi-paralyzed but determined, was rolled in a wheelchair onto the floor of the Senate, perhaps for the last time. Dole, the disabled war hero, went there to lobby, nearly wordlessly, for Senate passage of the United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled.
Dole said the treaty would require nothing of Americans but would help disabled people around the world.
Joe Aistrup, who teaches political science at Kansas State University, remembers the scene with disappointment.
Among the senators present was Pat Roberts, who first met Dole decades ago when Dole was in Congress and Roberts was a Marine. The Pat Roberts who calls Dole “The Great Man” and spent years calling himself “Dole’s bucket-toter.” The Pat Roberts whom Elizabeth Dole calls every time her husband is hospitalized. The same Pat Roberts who will oversee Dole’s funeral arrangements when the time comes.
While Dole looked on, Republicans, including Roberts, voted down the U.N. treaty.
Roberts, Dole said, “just said he had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of calls from home-schoolers, and how the home-schoolers got into it, somebody convinced them that the United Nations were going to take control of their children.”
Dole said this without rancor.
Aistrup said it was a stunning vote.
“(Dole) has to feel bitter what went down with the treaty what his own party did,” Aistrup said.
“His colleagues from Kansas – what they did, in terms of voting on that treaty, was criticized in a lot of editorials around the country, all pointing to a lack of political backbone.
“It was tragic, and it represents a microcosm of what is going on in the Republican Party,” Aistrup said.
“Our legislators now feel compelled, when one voice from the far right pops up, they take notice and think that this issue will be the one issue that becomes their albatross during a Republican primary,” Aistrup said. “And maybe, to be fair, they may be right.
“It all creates some politics of the absurd,” Aistrup said.
Roberts remembers the vote differently.
No one in the Senate who voted against the treaty wanted to hurt the disabled; no one was afraid of home-schoolers or others, Roberts said. But many who voted against it, including him, thought the problems of the world’s disabled could be addressed better with individual agreements between the U.S. and other countries.
“I knew the votes were not there because of the suspicion and the frustration in dealing with U.N. treaties that are passed with every good intent but then, down the road in the implementation, we get some real questions about our sovereignty,” Roberts said.
“I don’t know of any subject where we had a U.N. treaty where I wouldn’t be very worried about the law of unintended effects.”
His appearance on the Senate floor was typical of Dole, Roberts said: sick, frail, knowing his plea would fail but showing up anyway.
“He was determined. Absolutely determined. You got to give him credit for that.”
Dole said the Republican Party is “losing ground” and needs to learn that “compromise is not a bad word.”
He said President Obama also needs to compromise more and work harder at building relationships with key Republicans.
The Republican Party, he said, is “moving further and further to the right, Kansas being a good example.”
“We need to build an inclusive party, not an exclusive party.
“We need to broaden the base with Latinos and blacks and young people – almost every group.
“We’re losing ground.”
He said these things with long pauses between each sentence.
But then came a long passage where Dole did not pause.
“I always felt when I was the Republican leader for 11 years that if you don’t like Plan A, which is their (the Democrats’) plan, then you ought to have a Plan B.
“In other words, you shouldn’t just be: ‘No. We’re not going to do anything, no. We’re not going to do what the Democrats want, totally. But we’ll introduce our bill. And they have a bill. And we can maybe compromise the differences and end up with legislation.’
“That’s the way it used to work. It’s like any other group in a dispute.
“Compromise is not a bad word.”
Tim and Carla
At Clinton’s request, Dole led the fundraising that created the National World War II Memorial in Washington in 2004.
Hundreds of veterans since then, sent there by hometown fundraisers, have come by Honor Flights to see the memorial, and Dole has met many of them. There have been more than 160 flights, Dole said.
His staff said he’s still doing a lot of good for people.
There is the “Bob Box,” an effort he helped start at the Kansas Food Bank a few months ago, getting boxes of food sent to poor people throughout Kansas.
And there is the Dole Foundation, started in 1983 after he met Tim and Carla, two disabled young people. The idea for the foundation came to him one day in Dodge City, he said. “I had been speaking at a bankers’ meeting. These were all good constituents.
“But it reminded me as I was leaving – I had flown all the way to Dodge City to speak to what some would call an elite group. So I made it a point to spend considerable time with Tim and Carla, and started the Dole Foundation. We were able to raise a lot of money, about $8 (million) or $9 million, which we were able to give to certain groups that emphasized helping or creating jobs for people with disabilities.”
He said being a senator for Kansas was the greatest of a lifetime of deep experiences, not because he thinks he was special, but, “I guess, because of the people I represented.”
“They didn’t all vote for me. Some of them probably loathed me. Others were just the opposite.”
Politics is a tough business, he said. It’s not enough to be tough or smart or even right all the time.
“I think my sense of humor was one of my strengths.
“I remember once, in Colby, Kansas, we had a farm bill up, and some of the wheat farmers were against my position. They were all seated in the front row. They all had caps that said ‘Dump Dole.’
“And I said, ‘I’ll put you guys down as undecided.’ ”