The Greatest Generation that Tom Brokaw once described is moving on. The outpouring of gratitude for Robert Dole and his service says something about him and about the generation of which he was a part. Dole, whose public service spanned six decades, died in his sleep on Sunday at the age of 98. Born in Russell, Kansas, a product of the nation’s heartland, he served with distinction and courage in the infantry in World War II, and later spent more than 31⁄2 decades in the halls of Congress where his body will lie in state this week.
A multisport athlete in high school, Dole had visions of a collegiate athletic career and then becoming a surgeon. Like others, he and his family made it through the Depression with few of the comforts of life but with a drive that was accompanied by determination without a trace of self-pity. He chose to serve his country in the war. Near the end of the conflict in Europe he was wounded in Italy seeking to assist a fellow wounded soldier. Initially left for dead, he was eventually transported to a medical facility, the first of many where he would spend the next three years.
He never fully recovered from those wounds, eventually losing the use of his right arm. During his political career he championed the rights and needs of the disabled and of those who had served honorably. The title that meant the most to him was veteran.
A vice-presidential candidate with Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and a three-time presidential aspirant in 1980, 1988 and 1996, he finally received his party’s presidential nomination in 1996 only to lose in the general election consistent with the pattern that incumbent presidents are not defeated in their reelection bid by someone from the previous generation.
Balancing competing interests
It was in Congress that he left his mark. U.S. representatives and senators inevitably face competing responsibilities. One involves attending to the particular interests of the voters from one’s district or state; the other involves responding to the general interest — what is best for the country as a whole.
Dole balanced this tension as well as any of his contemporaries. He never forgot his fellow Kansans, including the farmers and small business owners whom he knew well. He was formidable in shaping the details of agricultural legislation. The constituency service his office provided Kansans was among best of his peers in the House, where he served for eight years, and in the Senate, where he served for nearly 28 years before resigning to devote his efforts to his 1996 presidential campaign. He never forgot where he came from.
At the same time, he was among the least parochial of legislators on foreign policy, taxes and budgets, and social issues such as civil rights, the treatment of veterans and the disabled and the environment.
An institutionalist in the Senate
As he moved from a junior senator to leading the powerful Senate Finance Committee to Republican leader, his trajectory brought him closer to the political center. His skill in putting together and keeping together majorities was remarkable, in part because he appreciated the special circumstances of individual senators, and his colleagues trusted his word.
These were invariably bipartisan coalitions requiring a special kind of give-and-take. His humor, oftentimes self-deprecating, eased the tensions that can arise when strong-minded and strong-willed individuals pursue their preferences. A primary objective for him was to make things work. This involved reaching agreements on policy questions, resolving issues, finding common ground.
It also involved life within the Senate. For more than 130 hours, the White House and the Senate negotiated an Administration-Leadership Agreement on the Clean Air Act in 1990. Often after the evening sessions would conclude, Dole and I would retire to his office and he would share his insights with me on where the negotiations were heading and on the Senate as an institution.
He described his experience working as minority leader with Robert Byrd of West Virginia and George Mitchell of Maine. He noted that “George Mitchell and I often disagree on the direction of policy, but he treats me like a majority leader should treat his counterpart. He keeps me informed. He recognizes that members of both parties have lives and need the ability to plan. He has never tried to pull a fast one on me.”
On July 22 each year he received a call from George H.W. Bush wishing him a happy birthday and reminding him that he was still a year older than his caller. The playful exchange demonstrated that two rivals could remain friends. Throughout Bush’s term in the White House, Dole gave his full support and skill in helping to build successful legislative coalitions. They remained lifelong friends.
In 1975, he married Elizabeth Hanford Dole and the two of them maintained a remarkable partnership for nearly half a century. They had much in common: both eventually served in the Senate, although not simultaneously; both ran for president; both devoted their life to public service; both relied on their faith and unflagging determination. They supported rather than competed with one another in their careers.
Dole often ended his remarks on the presidential campaign trail by expressing his faith in America and the opportunities available to those who embraced her. He closed with the words: “Every day a new beginning and every life a blessing from God.”
Dole’s youth and his wartime experience strengthened his empathy for those who faced genuine adversity. His resilience illustrates what one can accomplish through grit and determination. His love of country prompted his lengthy public service. His example serves as inspiration to all who share his great affection for a land of opportunity.
Roger B. Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University, served as the assistant to the president for economic and domestic policy from 1989-93.