Members Only | December 6, 2021 | Reading Time: 15 minutes
The mean old man of the GOP is dead
Bob Dole 1923-2021.
Let’s be very clear up front here. Bob Dole was not a nice man. He was never a nice man. Just because he was the last World War II veteran to win the nomination to the presidency at the same time that Boomers were dealing with their parental issues through the ahistorical and frankly absurd “Greatest Generation” nostalgia does not mean he was a nice man in 1996.
He was mean early in his career. He was mean when he was close to Nixon. He was mean in his later career. He was mean in the Senate. He was mean as a presidential candidate. And he was mean as an old man being all-in on Donald Trump, unlike the rest of the Republican elite.
Where Dole became such a hard man
Born in 1923 in Russell, Kansas, Dole grew up as a boy of the Midwest at a time when a place like rural Kansas seemed like a place of the future America. This … did not last much longer. The Doles weren’t a rich family. His father ran a local creamery. The young Bob Dole was a good athlete and legendary Kansas basketball coach Phog Allen recruited him to play for the Jayhawks. At Kansas, he not only played basketball but also ran track and was an end on the football team. But before he graduated, Dole went to war.
Dole’s story in World War II is well-known because it played such a large role in his later political career. He joined the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps in 1942, but he did not go to fight until very late in the war. By 1945, he was in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division as a second lieutenant. Fighting in Italy that April, just days before the end of the war in Europe, Dole was hit by German machine gun fire. His upper back and right arm were riddled with bullets and few thought he would survive. Very, very slowly he recovered.
He was transported back the US, treated with experimental drugs, and went through a serious depression that his athletic life was over and who knows what would replace it. He received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. He never did recover entirely from his injuries and mostly lost use of his right hand. But he did come around both mentally and physically.
Whatever you want to say about his political career, no one can critique the man’s toughness and determination in coming back from injuries that would have destroyed the lives of many men, even if they survived. Some have speculated that this is where Dole became such a hard man. Well, maybe.
To the right of the right
Dole started back at college at the University of Arizona. Before graduating, he returned to Kansas and decided to dedicate his life to politics. He ran for the state legislature in 1950 while still in college, finishing an undergraduate and then getting a law degree at Washburn University in Topeka. He won that legislature race and served one term. He then returned to Russell and was County Attorney between 1952 and 1960.
That year, he went to Washington as a congressman from Kansas’s 6th District. When the state lost a seat in the 1960 Census, he won the race for the newly combined 1st district, covering the gigantic empty areas of western Kansas. To his credit, he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, though these were not particularly controversial positions for a Kansas Republican at the time.
Unlike the present, the Republican Party wasn’t fully committed to being the White Man’s Party, though by the time Dole was in power in as Senate Majority Leader they were moving apace in that strategy, without Dole really objecting to it.
When Dole ran for the Senate in 1968 to replace the retiring Frank Carlson, he was largely seen as a hard-line conservative. That’s because he was a hard-line conservative. He did have occasional bouts of moderation. He worked with George McGovern on a bill to expand food stamps, for instance.
But he both hated Democrats and on the vast majority of issues was on the right of the Republican caucus. He rose fast in the Republican apparatus though, based mostly on his hard-line approach to Democrats that appealed to the New Right. In 1971, he was named chairman of the Republican National Committee and became a close advisor to Richard Nixon.
Attack dog, not perpetrator
During Watergate, few Republicans were as pro-Nixon all the way to the end as Bob Dole. Dole actually lived in the Watergate Hotel at the time (as he did upon his death; not sure if he ever moved out actually. In 1998, Monica Lewinsky moved in next door to him), but he was out of town at the time of the break-in. When the story came out and grew in the press, Dole was happy to serve as Nixon’s public hatchet man.
The story got worse. Dole did not care that Nixon had committed massive constitutional violations. What mattered was owning the libs. His reaction was to make sure that Americans wouldn’t know what was actually going on. He stated: “It is time to turn off the TV lights. It is time to move the Watergate investigation from the living rooms of America and put it where it belongs — behind the closed doors of the committee room and before the judge and jury in the courtroom.”
Dole met with Nixon during the hearings and told him it would all blow out, that it was just a Beltway scandal real Americans didn’t care about. Instead, Dole suggested Nixon attack Walter Cronkite as an out of touch elite, a strategy that the rest of Nixon’s advisors thought would go over very poorly.
All of this actually led to Dole himself being investigated a bit by the Senate Watergate hearings, but he was cleared of doing anything wrong. That’s probably accurate. He was the attack dog, but not the perpetrator. After all, that was ultimately his best role — attacking the libs.
In 1976, Gerald Ford selected Dole to replace Nelson Rockefeller on the ticket as vice-president. In fact, Ford had nearly selected him when he chose Rockefeller in 1974. Did he run a nasty campaign? Oh, you know he did! The whole point of Dole was to be Ford’s “hatchet man,” in the words of Rick Perlstein.
When Dole tried to attack Carter for using tax loopholes in his peanut business (ah, for the days when Republicans at least claimed to be against using the government to personally clean up and loot the taxpayers), the media pointed out Dole’s own sketchy history, including a $5,000 campaign contribution from a lobbyist running an illegal slush fund from Gulf Oil. Whoops!
In the VP debate with Walter Mondale, Dole stated, “I figured it up the other day: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit.”
Democrat wars. Fun to know that included World War II, which evidently Dole now opposed. Of course, he didn’t oppose World War II. He didn’t oppose Vietnam either. He didn’t oppose any wars, at the time or in retrospect. He was just being a cheap cynical politician claiming to make a point in 1976, as if his buddy Richard Nixon hadn’t been more than happy to continue Johnson’s war in Vietnam.
Bob Dole wanted to be president from the moment he went into politics. He tried so hard. After Ford’s defeat, he was seen as a strong candidate in 1980, but he was totally wiped out in both Iowa and New Hampshire by both George Bush and Ronald Reagan, so he dropped out. Dole had attempted to create space for himself after the ’76 defeat by claiming that Republicans could only win if they eschewed extremism. I wonder if we’ve ever heard that again? Moreover, I wonder if that’s been proven wrong over and over again? Hmmmm. In any case, Reagan showed Dole that was not at all the case in 1980.
What did moderation mean to Bob Dole? First and foremost, it meant the childish politics of having a national balanced budget. From a policy perspective, this was Dole’s top obsession. He had not only introduced the Balanced Budget Amendment into the Senate time after time but also had personally written all fifty state governors urging their support for what just seemed like common sense to his tiny rural Midwestern mind.
And of course being mean. Nothing was as important as that. That was the real appeal of Dole — trolling the libs. When Carter had his incident with the rabbit coming toward his boat, Dole went full troll, telling the press Carter should apologize to the rabbit because it was “doing something a little unusual these days — trying to get aboard the president’s boat.”
Dole may not have gotten the nomination in 1980, but he was still an important figure in the Senate. He had become the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee in 1975. Then, in 1981 with Republicans taking the Senate, he headed the powerful Finance Committee.
Sometimes, the media wanted to create a moderate Dole. In 1982, a Times article said that he had moved from his initial position as a “hard-line conservative” to become a “mainstream Republican.” What the Times and other media outlets refused to get in 1982 and really still resist is that it wasn’t Dole who changed. It’s the Republican Party already becoming increasingly radicalized, making someone like Dole seem more moderate than he actually was because the new people were even crazier and meaner than he.
He ran for president again in 1988 and did defeat Bush in Iowa. But as we all know, the worst moment in the American electoral cycle typically does not lead to any predictive power in who is going to win the nomination and that was true in ’88 too. He lost in New Hampshire and then blew up at Tom Brokaw in an interview after the loss, saying Bush should “stop lying about my record” over his tax positions. Well, that didn’t go over well. Neither did Dole calling Bush a “qualified loser,” though I happen to like that myself, although it’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle black because what was Dole if not a qualified loser?
Dole’s meanness was always an issue in his political career. Irascibility plays well in very small doses. It does not play well on TV day after day in the midst of a political campaign. He was toast; even though he had the coveted endorsement of Strom Thurmond in the South Carolina primary, he still lost to Bush. I’d like to not hold Thurmond’s endorsement against Dole. But I am absolutely am. There’s a reason that Thurmond liked Dole over Bush. And it’s not a good one.
But still, Dole did learn one lesson in 1988: lie. He told the truth that Bush’s “no new taxes” pledge was irresponsible. And he got pilloried by New Hampshire Republicans over it, contributing to his loss. He would learn from that. Lying was no longer going to be an objection again for Bob Dole.
On policy, usually awful
Dole’s positions remained horrible through these years. He was as hawkish on foreign policy as Jesse Helms and often aligned with that horrible jowly goon on sanctions against Cuba and other nations that didn’t kowtow enough to right-wing interests.
He was freaked out against the idea of teaching American history that wasn’t overtly about patriotism. Rap music came from the devil. Environmental regulations were destroying American business. Labor unions were bloodsuckers on the glorious American capitalist. Speaking Spanish or, even worse, allowing bilingual education, would destroy American culture. Campaign finance reform would get in the way of corporations controlling American, anathema to Bob Dole. That was especially true of agribusiness, for which he was a bought and sold hack.
I guess he didn’t care all that much either way about abortion. He also never bought into the supply-side nonsense about tax cuts leading to an expanding economy. But on policy, Dole was usually awful. Oddly enough, Dole had a chip on his shoulder about growing up poor and occasionally expressed his attempt for corporations, bragging about passing bills over the objections of the Chamber of Commerce. But then he would go right back and fight for the most pro-corporate agenda possible. This is how you get a guy who denounces Time-Warner for making profits off of the nation-destroying musical genre of gangsta rap (the horror!) while also taking large donations from … Time-Warner.
One positive thing
In 1990, Dole pushed through the one positive thing he did in his career and it is highly telling. This was the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is of course an unvarnished good. It has significantly improved the lives of millions of Americans in the decades since. Dole put all his energy behind it. But that was the rub — the only reason he did this is that he personally was disabled.
Yes, he deserved credit for the ADA. But Bob Dole is the platonic example of the conservative politician who hates government except for this one thing which personally benefits me and so on this issue I am a big supporter of government. Did Dole ever extrapolate from his disability to think, hey maybe the government could also help other people who have other problems out of their control? Ha ha ha ha ha, of course not.
It’s not exactly rank hypocrisy. After all, he did really help people through the ADA. What it represents is the smallness of the conservative mind, the cheap meanness that disallows empathy and instead tells people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Dole couldn’t do that because he had only one functional arm. But others can’t because of race, class, gender, sexuality, education, etc. For Dole though, that was a totally different situation with no comparison to what he went through. After all, he was a war hero.
As Majority Leader during the Clinton years, Dole was known as “Dr. Gridlock,” a moniker which of course he liked. He also played his favorite attack dog role. In the many Clinton scandals, nearly all of which were vastly overstated if not outright fabricated, Dole attempted to paint himself as the symbol of honest government as opposed to Clinton. He stated about the supposedly notorious FBI files, “I think it smells to high heaven. I remember Watergate.” Given that this came from the mouth of the most notorious Nixon defender in the Senate, that’s pretty rich!
He also wasn’t really that effective as Majority Leader. For instance, the government shutdown in 1995 wasn’t really Dole’s doing so much as it was Gingrich and the hard right. But Dole did not keep his own caucus in line. He knew the shutdown wasn’t a great idea and that compromise was needed. That wasn’t what his caucus wanted to hear. So of course he went along with it as the increasingly fascist tale wagged the reluctant but not that reluctant dog.
(A story from a friend who hails from Arkansas: His father bumped into Dale Bumpers in a parking lot one day. Bumpers was still a senator at that time. His father asked him why Republicans were blocking everything Democrats proposed. Bumpers told him directly, and this is a quote: “Bob Dole is an evil man.”)
In 1996, Republicans smelled blood. Cocky from their big victory in the ’94 midterms, hating Bill Clinton and really hating Hillary Clinton, they felt the world was their oyster. Newt Gingrich was the real frothing lunatic here, but again, Bob Dole was more than happy to go along with him if it was to his political advantage.
When they passed their ridiculous budget in 1995 and Clinton vetoed it, the government shut down. Despite Newt’s cockiness, the public mostly blamed Republicans. Dole was already gearing up for his presidential run and Iowa was coming. He got nervous and wanted to settle.
Newt and the other extremists such as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay refused. In fact, a Republican electorate increasingly radicalized was already skeptical of Dole. Despite his huge resources and enormous name recognition, Pat Buchanan actually beat him in New Hampshire.
That kind of rebellion wasn’t going to succeed nationally in 1996 and Dole ran away with the nomination. But the writing was on the wall and “conservatives,” which more accurately given what has happened since should have been called “crypto-fascists,” were not that excited.
This civil war was played among Dole’s aids. Some of them wanted him to be Gingrich/Limbaugh. Others wanted him to be Bob Dole, Senior Statesman. More importantly, the latter is what Dole wanted to be. Somewhat interestingly, Dole was the first sitting party leader in the Senate to be nominated for the presidency, though he resigned upon receiving the nomination.
Most of Dole’s campaign was about three major things. First, lower taxes and balancing that budget. Second, that Bill Clinton was a moral reprobate. Third, that he was Bob Dole and was a member of the Greatest Generation. Dole’s campaign coinciding with the rise in World War II nostalgia as that generation started dying off was a major theme; he was the Republican daddy, quite literally, that a good number of Baby Boomers wanted. As for taxes, Dole bringing on Jack Kemp as his VP was a nod to the libertarian wing of the party, what with Kemp’s closeness with Steve Forbes and the flat tax nonsense. He promised the nation a 15 percent cut in the income tax. This did not work out for him, despite Americans’ normal greed.
On the nostalgia front, Dole went all-in against that hippie draft-dodging pot-smoking womanizing Bill Clinton. In his convention speech, Dole said, “Let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action.”
This was a ridiculous statement on the face of it. It’s not as if America was ever this tranquil place where we all just got along. But then nostalgia never has much connection to the lived past. It’s all about the present and that’s what Dole played to.
The problem for him is that Bill Clinton easily batted that back into Dole’s court like Dikembe Mutombo taking out a weak shot, saying in response, “We do not need to build a bridge to the past, we need to build a bridge to the future.” Even at the height of World War II nostalgia, most Americans didn’t actually want to return to the past. They wanted the America of the future, whatever that might be.
“He’s old and mean”
To make it worse, Dole’s real policy agenda was Bob Dole. When asked why he should be president, he told Esquire, “I think I fit the job description.” Uh, OK? What this meant is on the stump and in the debates is that he basically took the political positions of Newt Gingrich because his own agenda was so muddy. Both liberals and conservatives noted how far Dole moved to the right in the primaries, which Frank Luntz called “more a leap than a slide,” but then that didn’t change much in the general.
What no one could understand is whether Dole believed any of this or not. Many saw him as a pure opportunist. That seems to have included Bob Dole. He told the Republican National Committee, “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want,” and responded to Al Gore’s claim that he had become an extremist by saying that’s what he needed to do in the primaries.
What Dole did do though was to bring the question of “stolen elections” into the limelight. Despite evidence to the contrary, Dole had always said that all the Perot votes in 1992 would have gone to Bush and thus Clinton had somehow stolen the election. He used that terminology as well in 1996, claiming that the news media wanted to “steal” the election for Bill Clinton. This was insane on the face of it, given how much the media so openly hated the Clintons and how much they were fawning over Greatest Generation Dole.
Once, in the spring of ’96, I flipped on CBS on a Sunday evening to watch something. I caught the last 20 seconds of “60 Minutes.” It was, of course, Andy Rooney’s segment. All I heard was “That’s why I like him. He’s old and mean, like me.” What more could sum up Dole’s appeal, such as it was.
His sunny side
In the end, Clinton wiped the floor with Dole. A 379-159 electoral college vote was shocking to Republicans who were sure they were going to get rid of the pot-smoking womanizing hippie draft-dodging reprobate. And while the Republicans during these years were very much a “it’s my turn to get the nomination” kind of party, there’s not much reason to think that anyone younger or more energetic would have defeated Clinton. The economy was pretty good. Even with groups such as unions that Clinton had alienated through NAFTA, it’s not as if Dole or other Republicans were really an alternative on the left or that they appealed to the left anyway.
I doubt it really mattered, but Dole’s advisors really tried to make him play up his sunny side during the campaign. But he didn’t have a sunny side. He was a mean old man. Whatever extent Dole had charm that would appeal to the American public, this is what it was, not being a regular politician. So he came across as kind of pained and not totally true to himself in the campaign. Again, I doubt it mattered but it’s worth noting.
After his defeat, Dole mostly stayed out of the political limelight. He did become something of a television personality. After all, for the mean old man he really was, he also could joke about himself. He appeared on The Daily Show several times. He cameoed on Saturday Night Live. He was even on the Brooke Shields NBC vehicle Suddenly Susan. Not Must See TV. But more importantly, Dole did what old politicians do: cashed in as a lobbyist. He was a paid foreign agent of Taiwan, registering as a lobbyist for that quasi-nation, as well as his client states of Kosovo and Slovenia.
Bob Dole could joke about Bob Dole
Dole did not get nicer as he got older. In 2008, Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary, wrote a book criticizing his former boss. Dole just unloaded on him for daring to do such a thing. He wrote in an email to McClellan, which Politico got ahold of:
There are miserable creatures like you in every administration who don’t have the guts to speak up or quit if there are disagreements with the boss or colleagues. No, your type soaks up the benefits of power, revels in the limelight for years, then quits and, spurred on by greed, cashes in with a scathing critique. In my nearly 36 years of public service I’ve known of a few like you. No doubt you will ‘clean up’ as the liberal anti-Bush press will promote your belated concerns with wild enthusiasm. When the money starts rolling in you should donate it to a worthy cause, something like, ‘Biting The Hand That Fed Me.’ Another thought is to weasel your way back into the White House if a Democrat is elected. That would provide a good set up for a second book deal in a few years.
“That would have taken integrity and courage but then you would have had credibility and your complaints could have been aired objectively,” Dole concludes. “You’re a hot ticket now, but don’t you, deep down, feel like a total ingrate?”
That’s the Bob Dole we know!
Outlived Norm Macdonald
And then there was Dole’s vigorous support for Donald Trump. This was the perfect way for the mean old man to end his mean old career. Whereas the rest of the senior Republican establishment either kept their distance from Trump or outright rejected him, Dole completely embraced him. It’s obvious why — they both lived to own the libs.
Given how much Dole had embraced the idea that Clinton had stolen the election in 1992, he was more than happy to embrace Trump’s way of politics. Even before the 2016 election, Dole touted how Trump would be “a great president.” Dole particularly lauded Trump’s ability to cut deals with Congress, saying, “I think that’s his strength,” he says. “He’s done that all his life. He’s made deals. He’ll compromise. He’s not a rigid conservative and that’s why, you know, I think I’d call him a pragmatic conservative.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha.
When confronted with the Access Hollywood tapes that demonstrated for all to see what a utter reprobate Trump was, Dole’s response? “The Clintons aren’t pure either.” Of course! Trump paid him back, signing a bill in 2019 to give Dole an honorary promotion to colonel.
Dole complained that the 2020 Debate Commission was biased against Trump, because he said he knew all the Republicans and none of them were fervent Trump supporters, as if a nonpartisan group is supposed to include partisan hacks at the Dole level. At least Dole admitted that Biden won the election, but that’s about as good as it got here.
Somehow, Bob Dole outlived Norm Macdonald, who had the most iconic impression of him.
So this is the legacy of Bob Dole. He’s not the worst American the nation ever produced. But he was a nasty guy, someone who contributed materially to the disintegration of American politics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His support of the ADA was the height of his career, but also demonstrated what a small-minded man he was since he completely lacked the basic empathy to make comparisons between the disabled and other people struggle. It’s not surprising.
In the end, he was a small-minded Midwestern man from a small-minded Midwestern town. He could never grow out of that perspective and that ultimately is his legacy.
Erik Loomis is the Editorial Board's obituarist. An associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, he's the author most recently of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press). He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Find him @ErikLoomis.
Thanks for the DOLE history lesson. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, every word. I wasn’t tracking politics that closely back then although I did vote for Perot (and in the end, he was RIGHT about that “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving our shores after all).
Can’t wait for Eric to visit Dole’s grave…