Bob Dole loved and lived for politics. It was once said of him that his favorite television channel was not CBS, CNN or FOX, but C-Span. The last time I saw him was a few weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown at his Watergate residence. We talked politics for more than an hour. When it was clear he was tiring, he said he wanted to arrange to get together every few weeks to continue the discussion. COVID-19 prevented that from happening, but the Bob Dole I left that day was as engaged, knowledgeable and interested in the political world as he had been in the decades he played such a large role.
I consider myself extremely fortunate that I worked with and knew Bob Dole and that I could call him a friend. He was caring, loyal, smart, and possessed a sense of humor lacking in too many politicians and leaders these days. We didn’t always agree, but I valued him more than I can say, and like those who knew him personally or admired him from a distance, will remember him fondly.
Much has been written about one of the greatest U.S. legislative leaders of the last century, the Republican nominee for the presidency and chairman of his party. Most of all, he was perhaps the most visible symbolic representative of what journalist Tom Brokaw famously labeled “our Greatest Generation.” Husband, father, he was all of these things and much more.
Russell, Kansas, would be just another tiny dot on the state’s roadmap, but for one thing. Entering Russell, one of the first things a driver sees is a sign welcoming one to the hometown of Bob Dole. Mr. Dole grew up in Russell as a well-liked high school basketball star and was recruited to play basketball as a Jayhawk. Like many of his generation, athletic and college dreams were interrupted as his country went to war against Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. Bob joined the army out of a sense of duty.
The young soldier from the flatlands of the Midwest ended up in the famed 10th Mountain Division as his life changed forever. He lay wounded on an Italian battlefield for hours before he was hauled out by medics, some of whom doubted he’d survive. The operations and therapy would have broken the spirit of a weaker man.
I once asked Bob how a young soldier from a place as flat as Kansas found his way into the 10th Mountain Division. In typical Dole fashion, he looked at me and asked simply, “where else would the army send someone who had never seen a mountain?”
Think about his road back. Wounded in 1945, he managed to continue his rehab, get a law degree, and get elected to the Kansas State Assembly at the age of 27. He served later as county attorney and went on to be elected to Congress and, in 1968, to the U.S. Senate. The rest, as they say, is history, but the boy from Russell never forgot his hometown nor the men and women for whom he went to war as a young man.
Bob had been a budget balancer known as a right-wing Congressman who helped President Ronald Reagan cut taxes. Because I had worked for Spiro Agnew, he asked for my advice when he ran for Vice President with a former Congressman, Gerald Ford, in 1976. He was one of the first politicians I met in Washington and leaves a big hole in many lives, including mine.
After leaving the Senate and getting weaker as the years went on, Bob Dole could be found most weekends on the Mall at the World War II Memorial welcoming and thanking those who fought for their country in the war that altered and almost killed him. He was continuing the service to his country that was his life.
A weaker man might not have survived those hours lying wounded on a battlefield or might have come home broken and unable to put his life back together, but for all his humor, Bob Dole was anything but weak. The Nazis couldn’t finish him off back then. He lived on to the age of 98, exemplifying the values that took him to Italy.
Russell is right to be proud of Bob Dole. Dole never forgot his Midwest roots. When he ran for President in 1988, his campaign slogan or theme was “He’s One of Us.” Bob Dole will be remembered for his legislative feats, military heroics, and more. But if you were privileged to know Bob well, you knew that at the base, his strength came from the fact that he was, without doubt, “one of us.”
• David Keene is editor-at-large at the Washington Times.