We mourn Bob Dole – and his spirit of compromise

Robert J. Dole – war hero, senator, presidential candidate, Kansan – has died at the age of 98.

We extend our condolences to his wife Elizabeth, his family and the many friends and colleagues he has met in a lifetime of service to his country.

We have not always agreed with Bob Dole’s policy. He generally disagreed with us. But there is no doubt that the Russell, Kansas native will be remembered as a 20th century U.S. government titan and as one of the most important political figures in Kansas history.

At the same time, Dole’s legacy extends beyond his many accomplishments in Washington or his resume. It remains important in our time. His tireless efforts to find common ground with political opponents are more critical today than they were when he left office in the 1990s.

Dole was not born into wealth – his family ran a small cream and egg business in Russell, Kansas, where he attended high school. After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Kansas.

World War II intervened, however, as it did for millions of Americans. Dole joined the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, where he served as a second lieutenant.

In April 1945, a few days before Germany’s surrender, Dole’s unit engaged the enemy on top of an Italian hill. A fierce battle left Dole critically injured, with internal injuries, a broken shoulder and a permanently crippled arm. He barely survived.

The injured veteran returned to the United States, where he began an exhausting four-year struggle to regain his health. Famous, Russell’s friends and neighbors passed a cigar box to help pay for his care. Experimental medicine and a series of surgeries helped the injured veteran.

Dole’s war wounds deeply marked his life in public service. Through his rehab and setbacks, he developed an iron will, a sometimes caustic sense of humor – and an understanding that no one really walks alone in this world. Sometimes you need help.

“I had a more optimistic view of the human race,” he later wrote. “Having received an extraordinary outpouring of affection and support, how could I feel the opposite?

Sometimes Dole’s optimism could be hard to come by.

As his career developed – state official, county attorney, United States House, Senate – Dole’s reputation for his sometimes passionate partisanship grew. He was called “the ax man,” a caricature which, like all cartoons, contained a stubborn grain of truth.

He barely won his Senate re-election campaign in 1974, relying on controversial anti-abortion advertising to win. Two years later, some Republicans blamed Dole’s “Democratic Wars” debate for Gerald Ford’s presidential defeat in 1976.

Dole’s presidential campaign in 1980 quickly collapsed. But the seeds of his greatest days had been planted.

In 1980, Americans overwhelmingly elected Ronald Reagan as president and gave Republicans responsibility for the United States Senate, including Dole.

Mainstream conservatives remember the Reagan years as the height of their movement. Yet Dole’s vital role should not be overlooked: the Kansas senator, more than anyone else, was responsible for the 1981 tax cuts, the Social Security bailout in the 1980s, and the countless minor accomplishments of the Reagan’s warrants.

He was, for a time, Washington’s most influential man. “People had real problems! wrote journalist Richard Ben Cramer, explaining Dole’s thoughts at the time. “The government had to react.

Dole’s support for the food stamp program was legendary and essential. He worked to protect people with disabilities. As Senate Majority Leader, he led the 1986 Massive Immigration Reform Act.

He fiercely protected agriculture.

He helped create the national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “To those who are worried about the cost, I would suggest that they hurry up and go back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, ”he said at the time.

In all of this, the senator worked harder than anyone and always – always – believed that a deal could be found. Almost always, he found it.

Yet Dole’s party was changing, even then, in ways few recognized. Dole’s obsession with excessive federal red ink and solid accomplishments gave way to the anti-government cultural conservatism of Newt Gingrich and others.

Dole’s time was running out. He reached twice as much for the White House.

It was not to be.

Dole’s temper backfired after a surprise loss in the 1988 New Hampshire primary, clouding his White House aspirations. He tried again in 1996, grabbing his party’s nomination, but lost to incumbent President Bill Clinton.

He left the Senate that year – “a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man,” he said. His lifelong public career, falling just short of the ultimate price, was drawing to a close.

“We can lead or we can mislead as representatives of the people, but whatever we do we will be held accountable,” he told fellow Republicans and Democrats.

“I’m not talking about 1996,” he says. “I’m talking about any time, or the next century.”

America mourns Bob Dole.

We remember the man who worked as a private citizen to honor other WWII veterans. We think of the man who tried to extend disability protections to the world.

We mourn an elected official who understood, through his own pain, his responsibility – for a neighbor, a friend, a voter, a country. We mourn the loss of this understanding in our politics.

We mourn the disappearance of compromise. It is said that Dole could not have won an election in Kansas in the 21st century. It is probably true. It’s our fault, not his.

But his example remains with us, if we listen carefully to the voice of Kansas’ favorite son, his words a reminder of what our nation was and could be again.

“The American people are watching us,” he said in his last Senate speech. “And they want us to tell the truth.”

—The Kansas City Star

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