Bob Dole is very much alive. Frail, yes, but the former US Senate Leader and presidential candidate is certainly alive in the fullest sense of that word. He will be 90 in July, but as I sat with him recently in his F Street office, three doors down from Ford's Theater, I could not help but marvel at his grasp of current events; his ability to conjure up the names of mutual colleagues and friends; and, best of all, the flashes of wry, often dry, wit, his signature trademark both before and after my tenure as his press secretary.
This article is not an interview with Bob Dole. Press secretaries do not interview their former charges. Besides, the Senator had just completed an interview an hour before, with the Boston Globe, on the topic of "bipartisanship". What we were having, in the vernacular of the American Midwest, was a "visit." Visits are relaxed affairs, an opportunity to catch up on one another's lives, chew over the issues of the day and reminisce. This particular visit came courtesy of Senator Dole's daughter, Robin, who suggested I stop by on my drive back from Florida to my home in Ottawa.
This is instead an appreciation; homage; a premature requiem for a living legend. Tradition has it that one has to wait for a person to pass to the next world before speaking well of them. Shakespeare's Marc Anthony famously came to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The heck with tradition: I come to praise the living Bob Dole.
I arrived in Bob Dole's office in 1979 under somewhat odd circumstances. I was the press secretary to Edward Brooke, a liberal Republican US Senator from Massachusetts (there was such an exotic species in the 1970s). Brooke had just lost his re-election bid; I happened to be alone in the Washington office a day later and, sitting at the front reception desk, answered the phone. It was Bob Dole. Or, I decided, it was a friend pretending to be Bob Dole. "Right," I said. "You're Bob Dole...and I'm Jimmy Carter!"
When Bob Dole subsequently offered me the job as his press secretary, I at first resisted. I thought him too conservative, too ideologically driven. It was Ed Brooke who disabused me of this. "Whenever I needed a vote on a civil rights issue, or housing or banking issue, 9 times out of ten I could count on Dole. You need to be more open-minded," he counseled.
What I came to learn over the next several years was that Bob Dole was at heart a centralist, a pragmatist, a problem-solver. Unlike some of his colleagues, he understood and enjoyed the machinery of the Senate and knew how to not only propose (issuing press releases was always the easy part) but also how to shepherd, to move bills through committee to passage, typically by finding an ally across the floor, a George McGovern, Bill Bradley or even a Ted Kennedy.
He wasn't afraid to take on hard issues, like social security reform or scaling back the then-unlimited deduction of interest payments from income taxes. And he wasn't afraid to fight for issues core to his being, like accommodation for the disabled and a fair deal for veterans -- issues stemming from his own first-hand experience as a severely wounded World War II vet.
He was, like fellow Kansan Dwight Eisenhower, a champion of the middle. He occupied a section of the political highway that sadly seems to have entirely disappeared in recent times. It is indeed not impossible to imagine, if he were sitting in the Senate today, a younger version of himself, that he would be challenged by the Tea Party.
Now, before this all gets too misty-eyed, let me be clear -- Bob Dole was not always easy to work for. He was famously demanding. He kept very long hours and did not suffer fools gladly. He took on relatively young staff -- typical on the Hill -- and worked us harder than we could have ever imagined. Nor did we always agree with his positions on issues. But he did listen.
He asked me during our visit how I liked living in Canada, knowing I had moved to Toronto in 1986. I told him I liked it fine and that I found most Canadians to be a lot like Kansans - modest, unassuming, hard-working. We also discussed the health care system in Canada. I said that despite what he might see in US media reports, our experience, which included the birth of two children and some major surgery for myself, had been nothing but positive. He nodded, taking it in.
As our visit drew to a close, I could not help but notice a couple of items around his office. Behind him, on the credenza, was a block of wood inscribed "Never Give Up", an abreviated version of Winston Churchill's exhortation..
A fitting saying also for a man who endured literally years of surgery and rehabilitation from his severe war wounds to carve out a life of public service...and as recently as December appeared, despite recent illness, on the floor of the Senate to implore ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (an effort which ultimately failed, due largely to opposition from Republicans.)
I also spied on the wall to his right a picture of his father, Doran Dole. It was a reminder of Dole's modest upbringing in Russell, Kansas. His father ran a small creamery and, like many with the coming of the depression, fell on very hard times, moving the family to the basement of their home at one point to allow the rental of the upper floors. Some might have chosen to downplay such humble beginnings. Senator Dole instead gave his dad a place of honor for all to see.
It seems just as fitting at this juncture to honor Bob Dole, champion of the American Middle. And mourn that there are so few today in public life, on either side of the aisle, who fit his mold. More's the pity.