Bob Dole, the Republican presidential nominee, and his wife, Elizabeth, arrive at a campaign rally in San Diego on Oct. 14, 1996. (J. David Ake/AFP via Getty Images)

When he ran for president as the Republican nominee in 1996, Bob Dole harkened back to his Kansas upbringing and the ethic of duty, obligation and perseverance that he believed characterized his generation and those who shaped it. “Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action,” he said. Looking back has rarely been an ideal campaign strategy in forward-leaning America, and Mr. Dole’s opponent, incumbent Bill Clinton, was quick to respond: “We do not need to build a bridge to the past, we need to build a bridge to the future.”

Bob Dole: America needs unity to rediscover its greatness

In the years since, the rise of a crude and divisive politics in America, the decline in respect for institutions and the disdain for consensus have given us a better idea of what Mr. Dole, who died Sunday at the age of 98, was getting at. He looked back on his own life — perhaps idealizing it a bit, as most do — and reflected on what it had taken for a typical Kansas family of his time to get through the calamities of Depression and war. His family made do in hard times by moving into the basement and renting out the rest of their house. Mr. Dole left college as a war beckoned his generation to duty. He returned to Kansas grievously wounded, broken in body, dependent on the kindness and concern of others, who literally brought him back to life.

Mr. Dole never fully healed. He lived the rest of his life with pain and impairment and pursued his political career with a determination that might be called grim were it not for an acerbic and sometimes subversive sense of humor that never left him. Mr. Dole came to Washington in 1961 as simply another conservative Midwestern congressman — conservative at least by the standards of the time — with large ambitions. He moved on to the Senate eight years later and eventually into the leadership of his party in that chamber, where he served for more than a decade until leaving for his unsuccessful run at the presidency in 1996.

Bob Dole, the longtime senator from Kansas and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, died on Dec. 5 at 98. (Video: Joshua Carroll, Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Appreciation by George F. Will: The goodness of Bob Dole

Mr. Dole was a sometimes controversial figure occasionally given, especially early in his career, to irritated outbursts. None of that should obscure the substance and significance of his accomplishments. He led — as minority and majority leader — with a sense of the need to get things done. We didn’t always agree with him, but on big matters such as the vital civil rights bills of the 1960s and later on expanding food stamp coverage, he took strong and principled stands in favor. And he worked with members of both parties.

“The Senate does not reward extremes,” said a colleague, Bill Bradley of New Jersey, when Mr. Dole left that body in June 1996. Mr. Dole, he continued, “knew how to use power because he understood how to make things happen in the center of this institution. And that is ultimately built on a couple of personal facts. I mean, he always kept his word. He listened very carefully. He never held a grudge.”

This was, keep in mind, a prominent Democrat discussing the leader of the Senate’s Republicans, and it was barely 25 years ago. Kind of makes you wish there really was a bridge to the past.

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