Any reporter who had the pleasure of covering Bob Dole grew very sad on Sunday morning after learning of his death.
I certainly did.
Dole had the memory of the Republican’s emblematic elephant.
But he also took defeat and criticism with his signature sarcastic and somewhat snarky humor.
Having finally won his party’s nomination for president in 1996 and then lost in November, Dole received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from his triumphant opponent, President Bill Clinton.
After Clinton placed the medal on him, Dole took to the podium and said: “I, Robert J. Dole, do solemnly swear….oops! Wrong speech!”
The audience at the White House loved it. He was starting to take the oath to the office that eluded him—in large part, because of bad timing.
Dole never made it to the White House.
He shot to national attention as his party’s vice-presidential nominee in 1976, when he and President Gerald Ford lost narrowly to the Democratic team of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale (a very liberal senator from Minnesota, with whom Dole had a warm personal relationship—as he did with just about everyone who served with him).
He became An asterisk in the 1980 primaries when he challenged Ronald Reagan.
But by 1988 Dole, as Senate Republican leader, loomed large as one of the leading contenders to succeed Reagan.
But Vice President George H.W. Bush was a heartbeat away from the popular incumbent and won the nomination.
When he finally did win the nomination in 1996 at age 73, Dole had been passed by time.
His World War II heroism seemed in the distant past and Clinton, the first “baby boomer” president, had become almost Reaganesque after the Republicans won both Houses of Congress in 1994--meaning he now favored tax cuts and pledged that the era of big government was over.
Despite a lifetime rating of 92 percent from the American Conservative Union (ACU), Dole was never a good fit for the “movement conservatives” whose activism and views were exemplified by Reagan and New York Rep. Jack Kemp, whom Dole tapped as his vice-presidential running mate in 1996.
“Bob was a conservative, but would take what he could get,” former ACU Chairman David Keene, a close advisor and friend of Dole’s.
“He knew how to make deals with his goals in mind rather than just for the sake of the deal.”
Keene added that “doctrinaire conservatives never thought like Dole and Reagan in terms of what they could get. He knew you could win by losing under some circumstances but much preferred winning and did so more often than he ever got credit for from many of us on the right.”
Allan Ryskind, longtime editor and co-owner of the conservative weekly Human Events recalled how “I tangled with Dole a lot politically. He accused me in a letter of unfairly attacking him. I sent him material that showed I had quoted him correctly. He then sent me a note apologizing, and requested that we get together for lunch. I didn't take him up on that because I knew I wasn't going to change my mind about several of his political positions.
“Unlike most Republicans, he firmly favored tax increases to help lower the federal deficit. He was very adamant about that until he chose Jack Kemp for his running mate in 1996.”
Ironically, “red meat” conservative issues were pivotal to Dole winning his first and second terms in the Senate.
As Republican National Chairman under Richard Nixon and a fierce defender of the 37th president in Watergate, Dole was a major Democratic target when he sought re-election in the so-called “Watergate Year.”
Some polls showed Democratic Rep. Bill Roy, a likeable obstetrician, actually leading Dole. But Dole found an issue that turned the race around: abortion.
Having delivered more than 5,000 babies, Roy also performed a handful of abortions.
Leaflets soon appeared showing fetuses in a garbage can and the legend “Vote Dole.”
The Republican senator also came out strongly for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that a year before ended the power of the states to limit or ban abortions.
Roy would not support such an amendment.
Dole barely eked out a win and soon proposed to future wife Elizabeth Hanford because, in his words, “I was certain I’d have a job!”
The last time I spoke to Bob Dole, I reminded him that my wife, Colleen, had been his Michigan campaign chairman in 1988 and her younger sister Anne was his director of events.
Without missing a beat, he shot back: ‘Hug them both for me. 1988 would have been our year.’”
He was right.
Had he won nomination, he would have been following Reagan in ’88 and almost certainly won the general election.
He didn’t. But over his long tenure in Washington he impacted policy more than most presidents. And for the better.
God bless Bob Dole, a great American if there ever was one.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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