Talking Points

Bob Dole, the complicated pride of Kansas

It's shocking that Bob Dole is dead. It seemed like he had always been part of the political firmament, and always would be.

Now, it's possible that I think this way because I'm a native Kansan, and Dole was entrenched in the U.S. Senate before I was born. He was never not there. Dole is known to much of the public as a failed presidential candidate, but for many Kansans of a certain age — my age, which is not that old but old enough to have voted in his last Senate race — he was also a beacon of state pride, proof that you could come from a small town and still make it big. (His hometown, Russell, also gave Arlen Specter to the Senate.) That meant something.

But like anybody who made it big, Dole's legacy is complicated.

On one side of the ledger, Dole was a snarling partisan — the GOP's 1976 vice-presidential candidate who got stuck with the "hatchet man" label after blaming Democrats for all the Americans who had died during the country's 20th-century wars. He narrowly kept hold of his Senate seat in 1974 by running what is regarded as one of the ugliest races in modern political history, attacking his Democratic opponent for conducting abortions. And in his status as elder statesman, Dole was the lone living former Republican presidential nominee to back Donald Trump in 2016. In form and substance, Dole helped make Trump possible.

But Dole wasn't only a partisan. He could, and did, reach across the aisle now and again to get useful things done for Americans — most notably as the force behind the Americans with Disabilities Act, which made the country a better, more fair place for millions of his fellow citizens to live. Newt Gingrich memorably labeled Dole the "tax collector for the welfare state" because in 1982 he voted for a tax increase. Dole thought it was the right thing to do to keep the country from sinking into debt.

I only met Dole once. It was the late 1990s, and he was conducting a sort of farewell tour of Kansas after losing the presidential race and having retired from the Senate. When I finally got to the front of the line, I had to remember to stick out my left hand for a handshake — Dole's right arm had been shattered in Italy in World War II. Say what you will about his politics, but the sacrifice he made for his country was undeniable, a visible reminder in his every public moment. And after that sacrifice, he went on to have a remarkable public life. The small-town boy did something big.