Bob Dole (1923-2021)

Former Kansas politician and Republican majordomo Robert J. Dole has died at 98, after a long and eventful life that caused immeasurable damage to American society and politics. I remember him mostly for running one of the most scurrilous political campaigns in Kansas history, when he narrowly defeated Bill Roy for his second Senate term in 1972. Dole was the first Republican in Kansas to find a way to politicize abortion and exploit the bigotry and confusion around the issue. That was the first year I voted, and not a single person I voted for — not even the Republican who was certainly the lesser evil running against Democratic Sheriff/Attorney General Vern Miller — won. It was also the last time I voted until 1996, and I found myself with another chance to vote against Dole. That time, at least, I was more successful, not that Bill Clinton was much of a prize.

They say that when one dies, if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all. I rarely follow that advice, but in Dole’s case I actually can say a few nice things (even if I have trouble limiting myself). Here goes:

  1. In 1952, Bob Dole attended my Uncle Allen’s funeral. Dole was in the state legislature at the time, from Russell, probably not in the same district Allen lived but not far. He didn’t know Allen, but saw good politics in going to the funerals of veterans, and Allen had been in the Navy during WWII. I don’t remember it at all, but that was probably the only time Dole and I shared the same roof. He had already figured out how to exploit his war injuries for political gain, as he would continue to do throughout his career.
  2. Dole could be funny. I usually regard that as a redeeming human quality, as well as a sign of intelligence (as I recall John Allen Paulos’ book, I Think, Therefore I Laugh). My favorite line of his was when he saw a group picture of former presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon, and quipped “See no Evil, hear no Evil, and Evil.” But I read a piece today with a selection of his humor, and few of his other zingers hold up. I also read about the teary eulogy he gave at Nixon’s funeral. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he stopped regarding Nixon as Evil, as he did plenty in service of Evil throughout his career. But before Watergate, Nixon was clearly Dole’s role model of a politician on the make. They had very similar backgrounds, ambitions, and trajectories, although Nixon got there quicker, and more fatefully.
  3. Dole was probably the last person ever to make what used to be a common quip about the Democrats being the War Party. This was in a 1996 debate, and while Clinton may have been flattered, the moderator and the press were clearly baffled. The history was that Democrats had led the country into and through two world wars, and into stuck wars in Korea and Vietnam that were ultimately disengaged by Republicans (although Nixon took his bloody time). For much of that time, Republicans tended to be “isolationist” (a term invented to disparage those who prefer to mind their own business), but that started to shift with the rise of the anti-Communist crusaders like Nixon, Joe McCarthy, and Barry Goldwater. By the time you get to Reagan, Republicans had embraced militarism so utterly that Dole’s quip fell on deaf ears, while anti-war Americans had shifted to the Democratic Party, only to be frequently betrayed by their leaders. No doubt Dole was just desperately racking his brain for a debate point, but I found his choice somewhat charming.
  4. Dole spent most of his career as an extreme partisan hack, but when he finally did decide he wanted to leave a legacy, he came up with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Which is to say, he realized that the way to be remembered for doing something good was, in the New Deal/Great Society manner, to add to the “entitlements” of a class of people discriminated against. This suggests he was still cognizant of the values system that dominated the pre-Reagan era, even though he had spent almost all of his political career fighting against it. I’ve seen ADA called the last bipartisan act. In other words, it was the last time Republicans ever attempted to use government to help people (although given how many disabled were victims of war, the law also paid tribute to militarism).

But that’s all I have. I’ve never understood why people credit him with anything more. (The biggest critical lapse was by Tom Carson, who treats him as a humble folk hero in his otherwise brilliant novel, Gilligan’s Wake.) He pulled Kansas hard to the right, and for a long time remained an outlier, at least compared to decent Republican senators James Pearson and Nancy Kassebaum. It was only with the rise of Sam Brownback and Todd Tiahrt in the 1990s that Dole started to look moderate, but their demagoguery on abortion starts with Dole’s 1972 campaign. After his loss in 1996, he settled into the comfortable life of a Washington shill, never using what little political stature he had achieved to try to stem the Republican slide into and beyond Trumpism. He served his party, and was rewarded with wealth and fame and flattery and forbearance. Now he’s being showered with flowery eulogies, a symptom of the same mental collapse as we witnessed with Colin Powell and John McCain — rivals in the sweepstakes to see who could make the most mileage (and moolah) out of unfortunate military careers. And what did you get for all his success? Fucked.