Bob Dole honored for work in helping to feed the poor

“If you live long enough,’’ joked former senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.), 90, “you’re going to get a lot of awards, because they run out of recipients.’’

The honor that Dole collected Wednesday for work to alleviate hunger, however, was different. First, because it was renamed for him — so if he wanted to, the man often parodied for referring to himself in the third person could now ask friends, “Did you know Bob Dole just won the Bob Dole award?”

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And second, because if you looked back at the occasions on which the 1996 Republican presidential nominee has been feted over the years, you’d see a common refrain: “I don’t deserve it,’’ he said after the 2003 opening of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. (Also: “It’s not about Bob Dole.’’) “I don’t deserve it, but I’ll take it,’’ he said when his home state gave him its first Kansas Walk of Honor plaque in 2011.

But when Vice President Biden presented the former Senate majority leader with the World Food Program USA’s newly christened George McGovern and Bob Dole Leadership Award on Capitol Hill on Wednesday night, what Bob Dole said was, “This one I think I deserve.”

That wasn’t a joke. When Dole and McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat who died last year, served together on the Senate Hunger and Human Needs Committee in the ’70s, they teamed up to make food stamps easier to get and use, and made fraud more difficult. They expanded the school lunch program and helped establish the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC.

In 2002, long after both had retired from politics, they successfully lobbied Congress to fund an international school lunch program. Since then, its administrators say, the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Fund has fed 22 million children in 41 countries and consistently boosted school enrollment, particularly for girls.

None of which was a problem for McGovern, Biden noted, “but Bob, you got the living hell kicked out of you.”

These days, of course, there is little bonding across the political aisle — and such a stand on food aid from a member of Dole’s party would be outright heresy at a time when the Republican-controlled House wants to cut nutritional aid by $40 billion.

Which was all the more reason to recognize the remarkable collaboration between the two.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that every major U.S. program designed to help feed poor children bears the imprint of these two men,’’ Richard Leach, the president of the World Food Program USA, said at the ceremony, held in the Russell Senate Office Building’s ornate Kennedy Caucus Room, where John Kennedy announced that he was running for president and where the Watergate hearings were held.

Dole gets around in a wheelchair these days and had to be lifted from his chair and helped to the stage from the front row, where he was seated with his daughter, Robin Dole, and wife, Elizabeth — the other Senator Dole, who for one term represented her home state of North Carolina.

Then, after he was next to Biden, Dole just sat there, and several of his friends in the crowd said later that they’d been awfully nervous for him. But no, he was just milking the moment, so it was even funnier when he finally asked the vice president if he was planning to hand over the award at some point, or what.

In fact, the statue of a mother raising her child in the air stayed on the table because Dole couldn’t lift it; he has had limited use of his right arm since he was wounded in World War II at age 21. After a brain bleed while he was on blood thinners for hip-replacement surgery in 2004, he effectively lost the use of his other arm as well.

“I’ll pick it up sometime when I get stronger,’’ Dole said. “But aren’t bipartisan meetings great? Too bad we can’t have more of them.”

His comedic timing and memory were fine, and he still “drinks that Grecian Formula” hair color for men, as he once joked. But something else was missing: Old stories about Dole invariably mention his “enduring bitterness.” That seemed to have burned away as he expansively introduced his wife and daughter, thanked former aides in the audience, and gave a shout-out to “my friend Nancy Pelosi,’’ who first blew him a kiss, then rushed forward and delivered it herself, and gave Elizabeth Dole a long rocking-back-and-forth hug, too.

He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to say he missed his old friend McGovern.

“I used to argue about Vietnam all day” with McGovern, Dole recalled, “and then in the evening we would talk about food for poor people. . . . But I know he’s watching us.’’

He did have one score to settle: During McGovern’s unsuccessful ’72 presidential campaign, Dole said, “some of the loonies in this country branded him a draft dodger,’’ although nothing could have been further from the truth; in fact, McGovern flew a B-24 bomber on 35 combat missions during World War II.

“And I always felt bad about how people’’ — at a time when Dole was chairing the Republican National Committee — “portrayed him and his record.’’ After McGovern’s last combat mission, he began flying food into badly damaged European cities, and it was then that he first saw the effects of malnutrition, and the difference that food aid can make.

Dole had voted against the creation of Medicare, unconvinced there was much unmet need in this country, until McGovern took him on a tour in the ’70s. “I was a skeptic, put it that way, but after being with Senator McGovern for three days,” he said, “I knew we had a problem in America.’’

The long partnership and friendship that grew between the liberal and the conservative is “one of the most beautiful political stories in history,’’ said David Lambert, a longtime food security advocate who worked with McGovern and advises Dole on the issue. “This was from the heart.”

 
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