Bob Dole on life after losing the 1996 presidential election

In eulogizing Gerald Ford at his Grand Rapids, Mich., funeral in January 2007, Jimmy Carter described a New Yorker cartoon that both men had found amusing. In it a small boy informs his mother, “When I grow up, I want to be a former president.”

No one aspires to be a defeated presidential candidate.

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In Washington, losing an election is viewed as a sort of death. But instead of bringing food to the house, a few neighbors and some in the media stick a microphone in your face and ask, “Did you cost Ford the White House?”

Twenty years after Ford and I lost the White House to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, I was the one pointing fingers — at myself. Then, for a long time after my loss to Bill Clinton in 1996, I would lie awake nights wondering what I could have done to change the outcome. Did we rely too much on the Republican base, letting cultural issues define us in a harsh light and driving away independents and suburban voters?

I remembered former president Richard Nixon’s assessment in the months before his death in April 1994: “If the economy’s good,” he told me, “you’re not going to beat Clinton.”

The logic was irrefutable: If times are good, why would you vote out an incumbent? But that didn’t keep me from replaying the race in my head.

It’s no secret that Americans rarely elect senators to the presidency (the incumbent notwithstanding). Yet senators may have an advantage when putting a loss into perspective. Victory and defeat, after all, are relative terms in a body where one or the other is never more distant than the next roll call. I’ll always be grateful for something Hubert Humphrey told me after the Ford-Carter cliffhanger:

“Bob, I’ve been where you are. You know they’ve got to find a scapegoat. If it’s not you, it’s going to be somebody else.”

Hubert knew whereof he spoke. That he was willing to open his heart — to share his old pain — helped me accept that I couldn’t change what had happened.

From Barry Goldwater and George McGovern to John Kerry and John McCain, I’ve taken heart from senatorial colleagues who refused to be defined by their failure to become president.

Sure, losing an election hurts, but I’ve experienced worse. And at an age when every day is precious, brooding over what might have been is self-defeating. In conceding the 1996 election, I remarked that “tomorrow will be the first time in my life I don’t have anything to do.” I was wrong. Seventy-two hours after conceding the election, I was swapping wisecracks with David Letterman on his late-night show.

The discovery by others that I had a sense of humor led to an improbable career pitching Visa, Dunkin’ Donuts and Viagra. (Any second thoughts I may have entertained about the latter were put to rest by a couple of wives who approached me in airports to say, simply, “Thank you, Senator.”) I wrote a couple of books on political humor, got a gig with Jon Stewart offering unconventional commentary on the Bush-Gore election and started the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas to promote constructive, bipartisan debate. I currently work at Alston & Bird, a law firm in Washington, which keeps me plenty busy.

In January 1997, President Bill Clinton honored me with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Accepting such recognition from the man who had so recently defeated me didn’t feel strange. And it certainly didn’t keep me from seeing the humor in the situation, as I told the crowd assembled in the East Room:

“I had a dream that I would be here this historic week receiving something from the president — but I thought it would be the front-door key.”

That same day, the president recruited me as part of the long-delayed effort to build a suitable memorial honoring the sacrifice of 16 million citizen soldiers and all those on the home front who contributed to victory in World War II. Fred Smith of FedEx and I — along with hundreds of volunteers — raised more than $175 million from individuals, veterans groups, state legislatures and corporations.

In all likelihood, such an opportunity would never have come my way but for the 1996 campaign. The same applies to the search for missing persons in Bosnia; the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund,for which Clinton and I helped raise more than $100 million; and the presidential commission, which I co-chaired with former health and human services secretary Donna Shalala, to investigate the quality of medical care provided to our soldiers and veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even now, nearly each day’s mail brings letters from a veteran with unmet needs. I answer every one, to the dismay of staffers trying to decipher my spidery handwriting. Most days I’m on the phone congratulating a vet on his birthday or encouraging returning soldiers whose wounds are emotional as well as physical. I thank them for their service and, where appropriate, share my experiences as evidence that the only limits to one’s usefulness are self-imposed. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than joining Elizabeth in greeting the Honor Flights of World War II veterans, thousands of whom have made the trek to Washington to visit the WWII Memorial, remember lost comrades, and reflect on the struggle that defined our youth and preserved our civilization.

In their company, I am reminded of just how much life there is after presidential politics. The greatest of life’s blessings cannot be counted in electoral votes.

outlook@washpost.com

Bob Dole was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996.

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