The moment that crystallized this most perfectly might be his farewell to the Senate he led and loved. On June 11, 1996, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee announced he was leaving the Congress in which he had served for more then 35 years, a move designed to demonstrate his total commitment to his presidential run. (Today, of course, candidates run without ever giving up their safety net in the Capitol.) In an address that lasted more than 40 minutes, Dole celebrated a type of collaboration and get-things-done spirit that now would mark him as a “RINO,” or worse.
He talked of his partnership with Sen. George McGovern, the famously liberal Democrat: “We worked together on food stamps. And I’ll confess, when we first — when I made my first tour with George McGovern, I said, this guy’s running for president. I wasn’t convinced. There are a lot of skeptics in this chamber, probably some on each side. But you can’t have pure motives, it’s always something political. But after being on that trip about two or three days, I changed my mind.”
He celebrated the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act—a cause particularly meaningful to Dole, who came back from World War II with injuries serious enough to require years of rehabilitation. (The story is unforgettably told in Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes: The Way to the White House.”) And it was Democratic senators he credited.
“And I’m forever grateful. I know Sen. [Ted] Kennedy and Sen. [Tom] Harkin and others are. Have you ever seen so many wheelchairs at the White House at a signing ceremony? Never,” he said. “And now more and more Americans with disabilities are full participants in the process. They’re in the mainstream.”
He reached back to the bipartisan effort to rescue Social Security from financial distress.
“I remember 1983, and I know [Democratic Sen.] Pat Moynihan remembers. We were standing right over in this aisle. We had a bipartisan commission on Social Security. We had met week after week, month after month, and it was about to go down the drain. … And Sen. Moynihan and I, I think just by chance or fate or whatever, happened to meet in this aisle on my right. And we said, ‘We got to try one more time to rescue Social Security — one more time.’ It wasn’t a partisan issue. And we did.”
He cited his friendship with liberal icon Hubert Humphrey, the special bond he felt with Daniel Inouye and Phil Hart, both survivors of serious World War II injuries; the mutual trust he had with Democratic Senate leaders Robert Byrd, George Mitchell and Tom Daschle.
If it is not exactly likely that either Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell would express such a sentiment about politicians across the aisle, consider the probability that a party leader in Congress would say this:
“I always thought the differences were a healthy thing, and that’s why we’re all so healthy—because we have a lot of differences in this chamber. I’ve never seen a healthier group in my life.”
Dole’s comments in his Senate farewell, remember, came from a figure who was regarded as one of the more partisan “attack dogs” of his era—a figure portrayed by Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” as a dour, brooding grievance-collector.
What they reveal is something telling about politics then and now. For Dole, the partisan battles were surface skirmishes; the underlying point of politics was to ease the afflictions of the people who had put him into office. For any number of today’s office-holders, that must seem so 20th century.