Bob Dole: RIP to an Organization Man and VeteranBreaking News
tags: Republican Party, Senate, partisanship, Bob Dole
Since former Senator Bob Dole died earlier this week, at 98, there’s been an outpouring of affection for the former majority leader, Republican presidential nominee and party chair, and wounded World War II veteran who was at the center of American politics for more than a generation. This wave of warm feeling might have washed over Washington had Dole passed away five years ago, before the election of Donald Trump. But after the norm-shattering turmoil of the past half decade, there was bound to be even more nostalgia for Dole. Even though he could be combative—he was even dubbed a “hatchet man”—he embodied what the Capitol Hill calls “regular order.” (Dole himself was a Trump backer, but his life in Washington—from his arrival in 1961 until his passing—was devoted to the normal Republicanism of yore.)
The Dole ethos seems like a time capsule now. He was an organization man, whether he was fighting in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy in 1945 or working his way up through the House and the Senate Republican leadership. He had a respect for rules, procedures, and congressional colleagues that seems quaint in the wake of Trumpian chaos. The Kansan was not a moderate, but he had bipartisan impulses. Dole famously worked closely with Senator George McGovern of South Dakota on nutrition issues, establishing the Food for Peace international aid program, which didn’t hurt farmers back home.
Dole came to Congress in 1961, the same year John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, and he fought New Frontier and Great Society programs with gusto. But the former prosecutor backed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and enabled an essential extension of the VRA in 1982. In 1990, he helped usher passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dole, unable to use his right arm from the gunfire that had ripped it apart in the war, kept a pen in the injured hand to dissuade folks who tried to awkwardly shake it.
There are a few things that haven’t gotten enough attention in the last couple of days that say something about Dole and this moment.
The first was Dole’s 1976 nomination as vice president on the Republican ticket, and what it says about the oft-cited Overton window. Looking past the craziness of today’s Republican Party, it’s hard to believe that in 1976, the Republican president of the United States was Gerald Ford, and the vice president was former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Neither had been elected, of course, thus they didn’t really reflect their party’s post-Goldwater drift. Still, they weren’t seen as RINO outliers, which they’d be today.
While Ford’s elevation from the Republican House leadership was a play by a besieged Richard Nixon to win friends on Capitol Hill, the elevation of Rockefeller was an epic endorsement of, well, Rockefeller Republicanism, which many Republicans savored even while the gathering Reaganite majority loathed. Most of the pushback at Rockefeller’s vice presidential confirmation hearings came from Democrats, incensed at the New York governor’s handling of the 1971 Attica prison siege.
When Ronald Reagan almost defeated Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976, the president had no choice but to move right and dump Rocky. Dole was the right-winger that Ford tapped to be his running mate. That Dole, now revered for his bipartisanship and statesmanlike gravitas, was known as a right-wing attack dog seems incredible now. The members of my liberal household—I was 13 at the time—thought Dole was a Republican Rottweiler. A young Bill Clinton did, too. Working on behalf of Jimmy Carter and running for Arkansas attorney general, Clinton referred to Dole as “the biggest prick in Congress” in a private note. Thirty years later, they would face off in the 1996 presidential election.