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How Bob Dole embodied what was good, and bad, about American politics, George Pyle writes

Kansas senator could be harshly partisan, supporting Nixon and Trump, and Greatest Generation good.

(George Tames | The New York Times) Then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) at the Republican National Convention in Aug., 1984. Dole, the plain-spoken son of the prairie who overcame Dust Bowl deprivation in Kansas and grievous battle wounds in Italy to become the Senate majority leader and the last of the World War II generation to win his party's nomination for president, died on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. He was 98.

“Everybody in Kansas likes me,” Bob Dole quipped at a quick tarmack press conference about 25 years ago, “except that leftie Louie in Salina.”

Well, as the editorial voice of The Salina (Kansas) Journal through the 1990s, I had expressed my share of disagreements with Dole, long-time U.S. senator from Kansas and 1996 Republican presidential nominee.

But, seriously? Who could not like Bob Dole?

Dole, who died Sunday at the age of 98, was a legit war hero, having come within inches of death on a muddy hill in Italy in the waning days of World War II in Europe. He left the University of Kansas, setting aside hopes of being first a basketball star and later a doctor, to join the Army, (no bone spurs for him) where he lost those dreams and very nearly everything else. The story of his long recovery, which he touchingly told in his memoir “One Soldier’s Story,” was painful and inspiring.

He pursued a career as a tough-bitten conservative from the rock-ribbed Republican state, voting against the creation of Medicare, defending Richard Nixon long after it had stopped being cool and sometimes being harshly partisan. But he often displayed the kind of humanity that the Great Plains -- and the Greatest Generation -- have reason to be proud of.

His experience in combat taught him that people of all kinds and colors fought and bled together and his agonizing recovery from his wounds left him with a sympathy for the downtrodden and disabled that was genuinely felt, not abstract politics.

As a member of the House, he voted for Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s and, unlike most of today’s Republicans, backed a Voting Rights Act extension years later. He worked with another Prairie politician, liberal Democrat George McGovern, to preserve Food Stamps. He was the main sponsor of the original Americans With Disabilities Act.

Years after leaving office, Dole had himself wheeled onto the Senate floor to plead for U.S. ratification of a global treaty applying the same principles of humanity for the disabled that are contained in the American ADA. The Republican-controlled Senate, including an incredibly heartless Mike Lee, voted him down to his sad face.

Dole was capable of great empathy but could also hurt others and himself with fits of pique. He pulled out a close re-election race by unfairly painting his opponent, a doctor who had delivered thousands of babies, as an abortionist. He wounded the 1976 Gerald Ford-Bob Dole ticket in a very close race, eventually lost to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, by dismissing all the major armed conflict of the 20th century as “Democrat wars.”

His wit, often aimed at himself, and his grace after losing the White House are what endeared him to politicians and watchers of both parties and a supposedly left-leaning media. He went on Saturday Night Live to poke fun at himself and his habit of referring to himself in the third person.

Years before, SNL’s Dan Aykroyd perfected an Angry Dole impression, bashing rival Republican candidate and televangelist Pat Robertson (played by future senator Al Franken), as “an old Bible-thumping revival show con artist from way back who claimed to heal people.”

“I’ll tell you something Pat Robertson,” Aykroyd/Dole continued. “You turn to me and heal my right arm and I’ll step aside and let you be president of the United States.”

The New York City audience loved it, cheering on the Dole character for telling it like it was. Several Kansas politicians told me that Dole liked it, too.

Toward the end, Dole was up and down. As ill as he was, suffering from advanced lung cancer, we should cut the guy some slack. It was still really sad when a man who came so close to death opposing fascism in Europe seemed to have made his peace with fascism in America by declaring himself a supporter of Donald Trump.

After the election, though, the Good Bob returned and said it was time for Trump to give up his parade of lies and admit that Joe Biden had won.

“I’m a Trumper,” USA Today quoted him as saying. “I’m sort of Trumped out, though.”

More good advice from a master politician.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, was a journalist in Kansas for 24 years and was in the same room with Bob Dole for a total of maybe three hours. But he watched him enough to be called in as a Dole expert for Frontline’s “The Choice 1996.”

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter, @debatestate




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