Opinion: If only today’s divisive politicians could learn from Bob Dole
The late Sen. Bob Dole was a uniter. He crossed divides in search of transformative solutions, affirming the values of equality, justice and dignity along the way.
On Nov. 11, 1996, just days after he lost his bid for the presidency, Bob Dole appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” Letterman and the crowd greeted him with smiles and loud applause. Letterman’s first question was straight: “Bob, what have you been doing lately?” Dole smiled. “Apparently, not enough!”
Wrong! Dole — lifelong Republican, son of Kansas, war hero, senator and presidential nominee — was up to more than enough throughout his life. His list of legislative accomplishments is long and the list of Americans whose lives he touched is much, much longer.
After his death on Sunday at the age of 98, beautiful tributes have poured in from all over the world. He deserves them all and more.
I am particularly drawn to the way in which Sen. Dole did what all uniters do: He crossed divides in search of transformative solutions. Look at history and it is a quality that you see in almost all innovators and healers: Somehow they know how to move out of their own group and discover a path forward that includes the “other” group. Great religious figures like St. Paul or Rumi or Dorothy Day or Rabbi Sachs? They all built bridges beyond their own tradition. Great political leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. did so as well. Great artists almost always find their vision in some integration of art forms that they reimagine into something new.
Dole did this most powerfully in the field of disability rights. He joined with Democrats like Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and my uncle Ted Kennedy to craft and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. President George H.W. Bush signed the bill to the cheers of both parties, declaring it to be a second American “Independence Day.” “Our problems are large,” he said on the South Lawn of the White House, “but our unified hearts are larger.” Dole must have been beaming.
Sadly, one of Sen. Dole’s last appearances in Washington was in 2012 when he came in a wheelchair to advocate for the United States to adopt the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Years had passed since the passage of the ADA and commentators were quick to point out that Washington had become more divisive. At the age of 89, Dole pleaded with senators to join our nation with more than 150 others in proclaiming this “independence” to the world by extending the “remarkable bipartisan achievement” of the ADA. Many Special Olympics athletes joined him, as did veterans groups, disability rights groups and faith-based leaders.
The treaty failed and Dole left the Senate chamber in defeat. The cause? Lies and disinformation — a series of false claims that if CRPD were passed, Americans would be barred from home schooling, forced into abortions and dragged into international courts. All were clearly false. But we all know how this goes: Fear combined with divisiveness can defeat even American war heroes, bipartisan coalitions and the virtues of respect and equality and rights.
The kind of divisiveness that defeated the CRPD may be our current condition, but I refuse to believe it’s permanent. Hatred and contempt are powerful, that’s for sure. So are lies. MIT Technology Review recently confirmed data showing that of the top 20 American Christian Facebook pages in October of 2019, 19 of them were run by “troll farms” with ties to external intelligence agencies who have one goal: to paralyze our country with divisiveness and fear. They are using the pretense of being “Christian” to sow fear and hostility toward others. Millions of Americans have no idea that the site they are visiting is actually the work of those using division and contempt to destroy the very values they cherish.
I grew up in a Democratic family and campaigned dozens of times against Republican opponents throughout my life. But never once did I hear a member of my family speak with contempt or hatred about Bob Dole. And I suspect the same could be said of the way his family spoke about mine. Politics was about the ideals of the country and the best way to achieve them, not about the foibles of an opponent and the easiest way to humiliate them.
This week I will join with millions of Americans of both parties in mourning the death of Bob Dole. But I will join even more fervently with those who commit themselves to overcoming the tactics of contempt and hate and replacing them with his passion for justice, his empathy for those who are different, his faith in the sacred value of human equality, and his work for dignity for all. Those are the values of uniters by any name or party or background. And if we are going to make it as a country, they are the essential values.
I imagine Bob Dole arriving at the gates of paradise. If he is asked, “Hey Bob, what have you been up to lately?” I hope he will answer with the words he used to describe the CRPD and his life’s work: affirming the essential core American values of equality, justice and dignity. In that race, Dole was more than enough. He won big.
Tim Shriver is the chairman of Special Olympics and founder of UNITE, an organization dedicated to celebrating difference and ending division in American society. Readers can find his other writings here.