The death Sunday of Robert Dole was a potent reminder of what we have lost as a nation.
Another member of the Greatest Generation has left us — another of those Depression-era kids who came together to save democracy in the dark days of World War II.
The career of the 98-year-old Kansas Republican reminds us how diminished our nation’s political system has become in the past 25 years. Far fewer supposed leaders are willing to put their nation ahead of their political party.
Of course, Bob Dole was no shrinking violet when it came to politics. He did not shy away from a bare-knuckles fight. He could use a sharp-tongue and sarcasm to cut down an adversary, whether it was a Democrat — or a Republican.
And he was not afraid to direct his razor-like wit toward himself, either. In 1988, after losing the New Hampshire presidential primary to George H.W. Bush, Dole said, “I went home after New Hampshire and slept like a baby. Every two hours, I woke up and cried.”
All of this makes Dole something of an anachronism in today’s American politics — someone who enjoyed the give-and-take of politics but who knew, ultimately, it was more important to work out compromises and find consensus on behalf of the American people.
In accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1996, Dole summed it up this way: “In politics, honorable compromise is no sin. It is what protects us from absolutism and intolerance.”
Too many of today’s political leaders would rather drink battery acid than work toward compromise or to admit they made a mistake.
Today’s members of Congress have difficulty agreeing on much of anything, sometimes even within their own party. But Dole often partnered with Democrats to write legislation that transformed life in the United States.
He worked with one of the most liberal members of the Senate, George McGovern of South Dakota, to expand the food stamp program. (They continued working together on food and nutrition issues around the globe after leaving Congress, and in 2008, they received the World Food Prize in Des Moines in recognition of their efforts.)
Dole worked with another Midwest liberal, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, to make school lunches a financially secure federal program, instead of leaving lunches to the vagaries of local and state support.
And Dole was a key ally of Iowa’s Tom Harkin in securing passage in 1990 of the landmark civil rights law, called the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities on the job and in public accommodations.
Kenneth Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff, told the Washington Post, “Dole was a wizard at putting together coalitions.”
In contrast, senators and representatives these days seem more fixated on ignoring the other party’s suggestions. That was not the Dole way.
Yes, he could throw himself into blocking proposals he thought were misguided. But he had a guiding philosophy that stands in sharp contrast with today’s Washington political scene — where some knuckleheads call members of the other party terrorists or communists or where they suggest blithely that those in the other party are out to destroy the United States.
Dole’s view was disarmingly simple: He was less concerned where good ideas originated. It did not matter whether the idea came from Republicans or Democrats. That attitude is as scarce as hens’ teeth in the halls of Congress today.
Following his loss to President Bill Clinton in 1996, there was no grousing by Dole about stolen elections. No talk of voter fraud. No references to those who voted for Clinton being idiots or morons. Three days after his defeat, Dole went on David Letterman’s show and talked about the election:
“I learned how great the American people are — Democrats, Republicans, independents. Obviously, you like to win, but you have to accept defeat and look ahead. It’s all about the future. I think America is in good shape as you look ahead.” Dole’s view of America and its people undoubtedly was shaped by his experience as a 21-year-old soldier in World War II and in the 39 painful months of surgeries and recovery that followed his grievous wartime injuries.
He was wounded in 1945 during fighting in Italy. His shoulder and arm were blown apart, and several vertebrae were broken in his neck and spine. He was not expected to survive. He did, but his right arm forever hung limply at his side.
Dole grew up in the small rural community of Russell, Kan. The Dole family lived in the basement of their home and earned extra money by renting the upstairs to tenants.
After his war injuries, the townspeople raised money to pay for his rehabilitation and treatment. That support frequently moved him to tears when he talked about it years later. You have to admire someone who never forgets where he came from, who never misses a chance to poke fun at himself, who sees value in compromise and consensus, and who puts loyalty to country ahead of political expediency.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.