Opinion The goodness of Bob Dole

Bob Dole waits to be introduced before a speech during his 1996 presidential campaign. (David Ake/AFP via Getty Images)

His voice, flat as the prairie from which he rose to prominence, proclaimed what Bob Dole was: a Midwesterner, a man of the middle of the country and of the political spectrum. Like another Midwesterner — a contemporary — Hubert Humphrey, Dole was a senator who came agonizingly close to seizing the presidential brass ring of politics.

Dole, who could have become the United States’ 41st chief executive, was born in Russell, Kan., 270 miles west of the Missouri birthplace of the 33rd, Harry S. Truman, another plain-spoken son of the Middle Border. Elected to Congress in 1960, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Dole served during eight other presidencies.

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If he had won the Republicans’ 1988 nomination, he almost certainly would have won the White House because Americans then wanted something more like a third Ronald Reagan term than a first Michael Dukakis term. Dole probably would have won that nomination if he had won New Hampshire’s primary. And he could have, if he had campaigned as what he really wasn’t — a fervent conservative. He might have won anti-tax New Hampshire if he had made a “no new taxes” pledge, the making of which later helped his opponent, George H.W. Bush, win the presidency, and the breaking of which helped Bush lose it.

Dole finally won a Republican nomination too late, in 1996. He then would have been the oldest person — 73 — ever elected to a first term.

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Dole was never one of those puffed-up politicians who constantly act as though they are unveiling statues of themselves. He had a Midwestern cheerfulness — see Ronald Reagan, of Dixon, Ill. — about the United States’ possibilities, but his mordant, sometimes acidic wit fit a man with some grievances against life’s close calls.

If he had been a few yards away from where he was on that Italian hill on April 14, 1945, or if the war in Europe had ended 25 days earlier, he would have escaped the severe wound that left him in pain the rest of his years. A few thousand more Ohio and Mississippi votes in 1976 would have made Dole vice president.

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But his aptitudes were not those of an executive. The presidency is a fundamentally rhetorical office; rhetoric can make mighty its rather meager de jure powers. Dole was unrhetorical — almost anti-rhetorical.

In one of his three campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, an earnest grade school pupil asked him a question about acid rain. Dole’s full answer was: “That bill’s in markup.” The child must have looked dazed, but Dole could not help himself. Long acculturation in the legislative branch rendered him fluent in, but only in, Senate-speak, a dialect unintelligible to normal Americans. Uncomfortable with a text, he spoke easily only in the conversational, sometimes cryptic discourse by which colleagues in a small, face-to-face legislative setting communicate with each other.

List the most important American public servants who never became president. Two, perhaps the top two, were named Marshall: John, chief justice for 34 years, and George, soldier and diplomat. Others were jurists — Roger Taney and Earl Warren, were, Lord knows, consequential — as were some legislators, such as the Great Triumvirate: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun.

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But few congressional careers loom large. This is because legislative accomplishments are collaborative, the result of blurry compromises presented in pastels rather than sharp pictures painted in bold strokes of primary colors. Dole’s legislative life was the political life as Plutarch described it:

“They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage or a military campaign, something to be done with some particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. It is not a public chore, to be got over with. It is a way of life. It is the life of a domesticated political and social creature who is born with a love for public life, with a desire for honor, with a feeling for his fellows.”

The melancholy dimension of Dole’s life was not that he failed to attain the presidency, for which he was not well-suited, but that in 1996 in quest of it, he left the Senate he loved and where he excelled. When Democrats considered offering their 1948 presidential nomination to Eisenhower, taciturn Sam Rayburn, House speaker, said of him: “Good man, but wrong business.” Rayburn’s words were wrong about Ike but would have been right about Dole the presidential aspirant. Two of those words are especially apposite: good man.