Bob Dole, on Kansas tour, takes a gracious look back while still eyeing GOP’s future

There is no press bus this time, no retinue of advisers trailing in his wake, no public-address system blaring his arrival. On this tour, Bob Dole makes a quiet entrance — and then the one-liners begin.

“I’m trying to cover all 105 counties,” he told an audience at the Olathe, Kan., City Hall on Monday afternoon. “I don’t know whether I’ll make it or not. When you’re 90, you don’t order room service.” The room cracked up.

Dole has returned to his home state this week to say thank you to the people who supported him for so long. He is running for nothing but is nonetheless running hard. He made three stops on Monday, four more on Tuesday, including at the Dole Institute, which is named for him, at the University of Kansas here in Lawrence. He has two stops planned for Wednesday. That’s just a warm-up. When he returns next month, he has 16 stops on his schedule.

The former Senate majority leader and Republican nominee for president and vice president may be slowed physically, from age and war wounds and now a knee that is bothering him. But his determination is as strong as ever and his wit still sharp. “I’ve got a 45-year-old-mind trapped in a 90-year-old body,” he joked at the Senior Center in Paola.

He draws people of all ages, from fellow veterans of World War II to old friends from bygone days in Kansas to middle-age couples to the occasional youngster. They bring memorabilia of Dole’s long career — old photos and clippings, pamphlets, books and campaign pins. They wait patiently in line to have their pictures taken with him — and he is patient with them.

Dole says the trip isn’t about politics but only about saying thanks. But politics inevitably intrude. In Paola, someone asked him about President Obama. He paused to collect his thoughts. “President Obama is a nice fellow,” he said, recalling that the president had visited him in the hospital and that they are working together on some things. But he did not leave it there.

“I think President Obama certainly means well,” he said, “but without being critical — because I’m not here for that purpose — I think he needs to get acquainted with more members of Congress. . . . You have to get acquainted obviously with your own party, but you’ve got to get acquainted with the other party. All the wisdom doesn’t reside in one party.”

He paused again. “Trying to think here,” he said. “I do think our foreign policy is not very strong.” Dole doesn’t want to see American troops sent to Ukraine, but he said the United States should send weapons and tanks to the Ukrainians. He fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin now believes he can do whatever he wants. Obama, he said, talks about consequences for the Russians if they continue on this path. “We haven’t seen the consequences,” he added.

Younger Republicans

Looking ahead, he thinks Hillary Rodham Clinton, if she runs in 2016, will be a “strong candidate” for the Democrats. So far, he isn’t overly impressed with some of the younger Republicans now thinking of running. He doesn’t name anyone but regards them as very conservative.

“I think they lack experience,” he said. “So I’m hoping someone will come along who has a lot of good common sense and good values and listens to the people.” There are only two possible candidates he mentioned favorably on the first day of his tour — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who he thinks could help win more Hispanic votes; and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, of whom he said, “I don’t think he knew what happened on the bridge.”

If Dole had an overriding message at each stop, it is that the rancor and gridlock and polarization in Washington have to end — eventually. What Washington needs, he said, is more people willing to reach across the aisle, as he says he was often willing to do.

“Some people say ‘compromise’ is a bad word,” he said. “That means you must be a liberal. Well, Ronald Reagan told me one day, ‘Get me 70 percent and I’ll get the rest next year. . . . He was pragmatic — and he was Mr. Conservative.”

Dole has been consistently critical of his own party. Last year, he said the GOP should be “closed for repairs” until officials settled on a vision and programs to go with it. He doesn’t think the GOP has yet agreed on an alternative to Obama’s health-care law.

Dole believes his party has moved too far to the right. “I believe in a party of inclusion,” he told an audience at the First Lutheran Church in Ottawa Monday night. “You don’t say, ‘You’re not a good enough Republican, you’re too moderate.’ I thought I was a conservative, but we’ve got some in Congress now who are so far right they’re about to fall out of the Capitol.”

In Olathe, the audience included Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas), who said as a kid from rural Kansas he was inspired by Dole’s example. He still has a photo of the two of them at the Kansas State Fair. Asked how younger elected Republicans react to Dole’s critique of the party as too conservative, he said, “He’s earned the right to do that.”

At every stop, Dole asked if there were any World War II veterans in the audience. He urged anyone with a relative who served in the war to take advantage of the Honor Flights that ferry veterans to Washington to see the World War II Memorial. “I go down every Saturday and greet the veterans who come from all over the country,” he said.

One day he met a veteran who was 103. “He walked like he was 60,” Dole said. “He was in great shape. I don’t know what he ate, but I’d like to find out. Like Strom Thurmond. When he ate a banana, I ate a banana. And he made it to 100.” It is an old line that Dole has used for years. Once again, it gets a big laugh.

Dole talked about the work he did to help raise the private funding for the memorial and recalled trying to solicit a contribution from IBM. “They said, well we really appreciate the call, but this isn’t on our program,” Dole said. “And I said, ‘World War II wasn’t on my program.’”

Sixty-nine years and one week ago, Dole lay on a battlefield in northern Italy, grievously wounded and near death. His back and right shoulder had been shattered by German machine gun fire. A soldier gave him a shot of morphine and put an “M” on his forehead, lest an unknowing medic later give him another dose that could have killed him.

The handsome and once-strapping athlete came home to tiny Russell, Kansas, broken in body and spirit. He weighed 122 pounds. He spent 39 months in hospitals in recovery, underwent numerous operations and was left permanently disabled, his right arm incapacitated. He spent hours in back of his home, working a rope-and-pulley contraption with weights that was affixed to the garage, building up his body. When he announced his campaign for president in 1995, he returned to Russell on the 50th anniversary of his wounding. The ropes and pulleys were still there, testimony to how far he had traveled from those darkest days.

He would go on to serve in Congress for 36 years — four times elected to the House and five times to the Senate, where he became the majority leader, until he quit to focus full-time on his 1996 campaign. He ran for president in 1980 and 1988 before finally winning the nomination on his third try, only to fall short against the incumbent, Bill Clinton.

On his thank-you tour, he mentioned the ’96 campaign. Someone, he said, took a poll that showed he had lost eight percentage points “because Gingrich shut down the government.” He was speaking of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, with whom he sparred over the years.

Gingrich once called Dole the “tax collector for the welfare state.” After Gingrich won the South Carolina presidential primary during the 2012 campaign, Dole, a supporter of Mitt Romney, issued a stinging attack, saying Gingrich had been “a one-man band” as speaker and would drag down other Republicans if he were to become the party’s nominee.

Now Dole has mellowed. “On my 90th birthday, I said, ‘Newt, let’s bury the hatchet,’” he said in a telephone interview before leaving for Kansas. “As far as I’m concerned it’s been buried. . . . We’re too old to have enemies. Better keep the friends we have.”

Gingrich attended Dole’s 90th birthday party last year and in an e-mail message on Saturday said, “Bob Dole is seen today as a remarkable historic figure. His courage in recovering from his World War II wounds and the pain and discomfort he has endured every day for nearly 70 years has earned him a respect beyond any ideological bickering.”

True conservatives

But Dole is still a target for some younger conservatives who are waging an ideological war inside the party. In a speech earlier this year, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Dole was one of a string of Republican presidential nominees — he also cited Romney and Sen. John McCain — who were not true conservatives.

“I was one of the top supporters of President Reagan and had a pretty conservative record when I was in the Senate,” Dole said in the phone interview. “But he [Cruz] didn’t know any of that. He was just making a speech.” Asked what he would tell the young senator if Cruz came to see him, Dole said, “I’d tell him before he criticizes anyone or anything in the party, he ought to look at it first and get the facts.”

In his prime, Dole was known for his sharp tongue. As the vice presidential nominee in 1976, he lashed out at what he called “Democrat wars.” On the night he lost the New Hampshire primary in 1988, he went after the man who defeated him, George H.W. Bush, snarling into a television camera, “Stop lying about my record.” Today he recalls the elder Bush as the president he enjoyed serving with most.

Asked in the interview what things about his career were most satisfying, Dole responded with accomplishments few Republicans today would list: passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act; a deal to shore up Social Security; passage of the Voting Rights Act, and passage of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, of which he was floor manager.

“I had a great civil rights record,” he said to an African American well-wisher on Monday.

Dole has been out of elective office for almost two decades, but not out of politics or active life. He still goes to his office at the law firm of Alston and Bird nearly every day. He spends time on veterans issues. Last December, he pushed for Senate to approve a United Nations treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act. Members of his own party defeated it.

When friends visit, they talk politics and current events. Dole thinks this will be a good year for Republicans, though he is cautious in his predictions. He gives his party a 50-50 chance of taking control of the Senate. “Some people are more bullish, and I don’t follow it as closely,” he said. “I know we’re going to pick up seats. The question is, will we pick up enough?”

He has earned the label elder statesman, revered by Republicans and Democrats alike. Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, wasn’t surprised when he heard about Dole’s planned tour of Kansas. Last winter, around Christmas, Dole called him “just to thank me for being his friend,” Daschle said in an e-mail message. “. . . I love that man.”

In Kansas, he was surrounded by evidence of affection and admiration, praised as an American hero. In Ottawa, Elaine and Ronald Dunbar showed up with copies of three books about Dole and his wife, Elizabeth (who Dole said would join him on a future visit). The Dunbars posed with Dole and later talked about what his visit meant to them and to others in Kansas.

“We were thrilled that he was coming back,” Elaine Dunbar said. “We’re so happy to have our native son and statesman back with us for a little while in the state. . . . We don’t see people like him so much on the scene any more these days.”

Dole’s visits are steeped in memories, but ever the politician, he is looking ahead. When he arrived at the Dole Institute Tuesday morning, someone held up a sign that read, “4th Time’s The Charm. Dole 2016.” “If something happens to me before the 2016 election, I plan to vote absentee,” he quipped. “But I plan to be around.”

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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