An emotional Bob Dole bade farewell to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday to concentrate full time on his presidential campaign. He reminisced about his life and times - "a great ride" - over 35 years in Congress.
"You think about the Senate," he said. "You think about your family. You think about . . . late hours, not being home on week-ends."His wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Robin, watched from the gallery. Senators sat in total silence. Sheila Burke, a longtime aide, wept in a seat at his side. Dole initially seemed to struggle as he started his emotional talk.
At noon EDT, Dole walked through the swinging doors onto the floor and senators rose and clapped - at length - as he made his way down the aisle to the leader's desk up front.
By unanimous consent, without an instant's debate, the Senate agreed to name the balcony off the office of the Senate majority leader - a place Dole escaped to for a moment of sunshine, a breath of air - "the Robert J. Dole Balcony." He used it so much the balcony became known as "the Dole beach."
Dole accepted the honor with a characteristic quip, saying there should be a sign on the balcony.
"Will it be in big letters or neon?" he said, to laughter. "I know it can't have any political advertising on it."
"Yes, the institution has its imperfections, and we're like America in the Senate - we're a work in progress," Dole said while at the same time praising the institution as a forum for lively debates on national issues.
On Dole's last day as majority leader - he's held that position longer than anyone else in history - he called the Senate into session, conducted routine Senate business, made a speech on an issue close to his heart - the disabled - and listened for a while to an outpouring of flowery salutes from other senators. Then he abandoned the floor as the bouquets flew.Said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, his counterpart: "I've learned from him, and his has been an invaluable education."
Dole told his colleagues "there are some issues that transcend politics and result in legislation that makes a real and lasting difference."
In his next-to-last speech on his last day in office, he said, "I can't think of any more important issue than disability."
He is disabled himself, his body bearing the wounds of war. One of his first speeches as a freshman senator was on behalf of those with disabilities. One of his achievements was a law to give the disabled access to public places.
His final legislative act was to introduce a bill to address one of the nation's most pressing problems, preserving Medicare. He urged that a blue-ribbon commission be appointed to recommend ways of fixing the health-care system for the elderly and disabled.
The Senate chaplain, the Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie, set the tone of the day, using his opening prayer to thank God "for our friend, Bob Dole."
"He can never leave the place he holds in our hearts," the clergyman said. "Bless him with the knowledge of your love and our lasting esteem."
As the morning's tributes piled up, the galleries filled with tourists, and one senator after another slipped into his seat.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., seeking to succeed Dole as majority leader, called the Kansan "a legislative leader in the truest sense of the word, on a wide range of issues a consummate, fair, intelligent, courageous leader."
Dole officially resigned in identical letters to Vice President Al Gore, who is president of the Senate, and to Kansas Gov. Bill Graves.
"I hereby resign my office as a United States senator from Kansas effective June 11, 1996, at 2 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time."
During his whirlwind final 24 hours on the job, Dole mixed nostalgia, campaigning and business as usual, managing to cut a deal among Republicans on a health insurance bill that had seemed improbable just days ago.
"I must say as I closed down the Senate for the last time, I didn't know whether to close it down or keep it open all night," Dole told 4,000 of the party faithful whose Washington Convention Center dinner Monday night raised more than $8 million for Republican House and Senate candidates.
"If I'd have kept it open, I'd have had to stay there," he said. "But it is a place that I have loved."