Remembering Life And Political Lessons From Bob Dole

This week’s Courier Herald column:

In the quiet early hours of Sunday December 5th, former Senator Bob Dole passed away in his sleep.  It’s quite the contrast from the morning of April 14th, 1945, when then Second Lieutenant Dole remained critically wounded on a mountainside in northern Italy for ten hours before being rescued.

Dole made the most of the three quarters of the century in between, and leaves a lasting legacy of public service.  He remains a shining example of statesmanship that is growing increasingly uncommon in modern political circles.

Dole’s injuries permanently cost him the use of his right arm.  He spent 39 months in hospitals undergoing physical therapy.  During this time he forged lifelong friendships with fellow patients and future Senators Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Phil Hart of Michigan.

His official biography at notes that his hospitalization was a time of “progress and setback,” which he handled with a self-deprecating sense of humor.  Both of these phrases could also describe his political life.

Dole was unsuccessful as President Gerald Ford’s running mate in the 1976 Presidential election.  He ran for President himself three times, losing in the Republican primary to Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988 and in the general election to Bill Clinton in 1996. 

He had successes in Congress, however.  He served as the House Minority Leader before being elected to the Senate.  He was the Republican leader in the Senate for 12 years, serving in both Majority and Minority positions.  His tenure as Republican Leader was the longest to date when he retired from the Senate to make his 1996 Presidential run.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was that campaign that essentially served as my on-ramp to the working side of politics.  I was a 25-year-old banker who didn’t really like his job when a friend took over his Georgia primary operation.  I quickly learned that showing up is 80% of life and almost 100% of the ground floor of politics. 

I found myself running my bank branch 2-3 days a week from the Dole campaign offices via cell phone – back when calls were charged on a per-minute basis.  I only met Senator Dole a couple of times, each briefly, but forged friendships with many future Georgia GOP elected officials and operatives during that period. 

While we didn’t win the White House, I’ve never regretted supporting Senator Dole early.  He was a man of solid principle that led by example.  His self-deprecation let us know that he was aware he wasn’t perfect, as none of us are. 

He was instead real, and quite authentic.  He wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers at any point in his career.  One headline announcing his death referred to him as “sharp-tonged”. 

While that term was likely meant, at best, as a left-handed complement, I have no issue with it.  In a day and time when political battles are too often compared to war, Senator Dole understood how dissimilar the two are in reality. 

He experienced the best and worst of both.  Diplomacy, which sometimes requires a sharp tongue, is what is supposed to keep the battle confined to words rather than spreading to use of actual weapons.

There are three images of Senator Dole that are forever etched in my memories of him.  One is meeting him for the first time on the Tarmac of Atlanta’s airport.  A line of his Georgia volunteers were ready to send him off to his next stop, and we were reminded just as he arrived that we were to offer our left arms for the customary hand shake.  It was a slight but awkward adjustment on our part, but one that took him 39 months in an Army hospital to accomplish.

Dole For President primary volunteers, meeting Senator Dole on the Atlanta Airport tarmac. That’s me second from left, under all that hair.

The second was the funeral of Senator Inouye.  Senator Dole, then wheelchair bound, was assisted to stand and approach Inouye’s casket for a final salute.  He said after “I wouldn’t want Danny to see me in a wheelchair.”  The two had spent too much time in wheelchairs and hospitals together decades prior.

And the final public salute was to George H. W. Bush.  The two had been adversaries as much as allies during their careers.  Dole said of his salute “..we had some tough races against each other, but he was my friend…”

I remain friends with many of those I met on that 1996 campaign, well before Republicans turned Georgia into a “red state”.  We’ve been on the same side, and opposite sides, of many races since.  True friends understand that.

Georgia is about to step up into a Republican primary season unlike any other since becoming the majority party.  The candidates and their supporters should spend a bit more time in the weeks and months ahead reflecting on the life lessons of Senator Dole.

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