At 95, Dole looked far different than the man he was when he vied for the presidency decades ago. He was more frail now, in a wheelchair. His eyes were fixed on the casket before him.
It’s unclear how, in the silence of the Rotunda, Dole communicated what he would do next.
An aide helped Dole out of his wheelchair so he could stand briefly before Bush’s body.
With his left hand, Dole gave a brief salute to Bush, a fellow World War II veteran.
Then Dole’s hand dropped and he fell back into his wheelchair, saying nothing but gazing ahead. At one point, he seemed to sigh deeply.
Jeb Bush, the former president’s son, said on Twitter of the moment: “Just incredible. Thank you Senator Dole.”
Dole, the former Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican nominee for president, was among many who gathered to honor Bush as he lay in state in the Rotunda. Those included Bush’s relatives, people who served under him while he was commander in chief and onetime political rivals.
And Dole and Bush were certainly rivals, once.
The two politicians were engaged in a tight race for the Republican nomination in the 1988 presidential election. A January 1988 report by the Chicago Tribune described a “deep personal animosity” between Bush and Dole, and indicated that the two couldn’t help but trade barbs — even after vowing to stop bringing such attacks into the campaign.
''It`s important for Bob Dole and George Bush and members of our campaign committees to stop all of this Mickey Mouse,” Dole said at the time, according to the newspaper. “I want to discuss issues and I am sure he does, too.''
Bush eventually won the nomination, then the presidency. The two gradually repaired their relationship, eventually gaining each other’s respect and becoming unlikely friends.
The New York Times reported in November 1988 that Bush, who by then was set to take office shortly, had invited his primary opponent to the White House. A smooth relationship with Dole, then the Senate minority leader, was seen as crucial to Bush’s presidency — and so the pair were beginning to end their “Grand Old Rivalry,” the newspaper declared.
By 1992, Dole was among Bush’s closest political allies, according to Dorothy Bush Koch, who wrote about her father losing his reelection bid that year to Bill Clinton.
In “My Father, My President: A Personal Account of the Life of George H.W. Bush,” Bush Koch described a private dinner Senate Republicans had planned to honor her father. But Bush “saved his final and most poignant comments” for Dole, she wrote:
“It’s well known that he and I went head-to-head in tough primary days long ago,” Dad said that night. “But the beautiful thing is ... here’s a guy who took on this role of leader and worked with a president with whom he had done combat in the past, but subsequently we became, again, fast friends. He never put his agenda ahead of the president, and that’s the way it ought to work in the White House.”When it was Senator Dole’s turn to speak, he also gave a very warm tribute to Dad and even broke down at one point during his remarks.“We were all so emotional,” Senator Dole recalled. “We respected the president. We knew he had integrity. We knew he did a good job, and a lot of us felt without any criticism of Clinton that Ross Perot cost us the presidency. So it was really a great evening in a way. I mean, you don’t celebrate defeat, but our view was that we ought to get the president and First Lady up there and let them know that we’re your friends, and we’re your supporters, and we’ll always be that way.”He added, “It’s always easy when you’re sitting in the White House or anywhere else having won, but this was only several days after the election when we had this dinner, and it says a lot about President and Mrs. Bush that they were able to come up there.”That night, Dad returned to the White House and immediately penned a handwritten note to Senator Dole:11-10-92late at nightDear Bob,When you invited me, I didn't want to come. I didn't think I could face the music. But now I am so glad you asked me.The warmth of your generous remarks made it all so worthwhile. You have been a truly noble leader, and as I leave Washington I will take with me a friendship I value—a respect for a true leader I'll always feel. Thanks, Bob.George
Dole would go on to win the Republican nomination in the 1996 presidential race — though he, like Bush, would ultimately lose to Clinton.
Eventually, both men retired from their political careers and stepped away from the Washington spotlight. In retirement, they remained close, Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, said in a statement after Bush passed.
“We smile when we recall the photographs of President Bush and his beloved Barbara riding their bicycles as they forged new paths of friendship during their years in China or the skydiving adventures to celebrate his birthday,” the Doles said. “In retirement, he continued to inspire us, leading by example as he graciously stepped off the world stage, continued to meet with leaders who sought his wise counsel, and navigated with courage his final illness.”
The Doles remembered Bush as a “cherished servant leader who has truly been the man for all seasons.” Decades after their intense rivalry, all of the bitterness had dissipated. All that remained was a deep mutual respect, an ironclad friendship — and one final salute.