When the word of Sen. Bob Dole's passing came this Sunday morning, it was not a surprise. After all, he was 98 years old, and had been battling Stage 4 lung cancer. Still, it took a while for me to accept the fact that perhaps the greatest member of the Greatest Generation was gone. The legacy he leaves behind, however, is one that will endure for decades to come.
It was January 1991 when I began working as Sen. Dole's chief of speechwriting. I knew on that very first day that I was incredibly privileged to be able to work for one of the true giants of the American political scene. What I did not know and could never have predicted that the job would turn into a friendship that would last for 31 years.
Those years produced countless moments that I will always remember. There are a few, however, that stand out, and that define the character of Bob Dole.
There was January 1996, when Sen. Dole was campaigning for the Republican Presidential nomination. President Bill Clinton had asked Congress for approval to send American troops to Bosnia to stop the ethnic cleansing that was ongoing under Slobodan Milosevic. Polls of the American public, and — more importantly for Sen. Dole — polls of New Hampshire Republicans showed overwhelming opposition to the proposal. Campaign consultants advised Sen. Dole to lead the effort against the President's proposal, assuring him it would help lead to victory in the critical New Hampshire Presidential Primary. Saying that "America can have only one commander in chief at a time, and Bill Clinton is our commander in chief," Sen. Dole led the successful effort to approve the proposal of the man he hoped to replace in the White House. It played a role in his loss in the New Hampshire primary. Sen. Dole would go on to win the nomination, but in that moment — and in many others over the years — he showed a willingness to put what he believed was in America's best interests above what was in his best personal political interests.
Then there were the days leading up to Sen. Dole's final days in the United States Senate, in June of 1996, which arose after his decision to resign from the seat he held for 27 years so he could devote his full efforts to his presidential campaign. We spent countless hours working on his farewell address to the body he served for so long and so well. A good share of the speech was devoted to discussing the many legislative accomplishments he had achieved by working closely with senators from the Democrat Party — saving Social Security with Sen. Moynihan of New York, writing the Americans with Disabilities Act with Sens. Kennedy and Harkin, expanding programs to alleviate hunger with Sen. McGovern. I sent the final draft of the speech to the managers of his presidential campaign who returned it to me with the orders to remove all favorable comments of Democrats. I shared their orders with Sen. Dole, who told me in no uncertain terms to file their comments in the garbage can.
And then there was Nov. 5, 1996 — just two days after his Election Day defeat to President Clinton. Sen. Dole walked into my office to tell me he was thinking about Whitney Duggan, a young Oregonian who had been severely disabled in a horse riding accident. The two had met the year previously when Whitney and her mother came to Washington, D.C., and the senator had arranged a VIP tour of the Capital City's monuments. The meeting led to a pen pal relationship, and Whitney wrote many notes providing encouragement during the campaign. "I bet Whitney is feeling pretty low," he said. "Let's give her a call."
He did just that, and he went on to ask me to bring in other letters from young people who had been sending him encouraging notes during the campaign. He called them, too, thanking them for their support, and telling them that there were more important things in life than losing an election.
To be sure, having spent 31 years studying the man, I know that Sen. Dole was not perfect. But in those three moments, I saw the values that we should all desire in our public servants and the true legacy of a remarkable man: Doing what is right rather than what is political expedient. Understanding that compromise and bi-partisanship are to be celebrated and not dismissed. Treating human beings with compassion, civility and decency.
I end with one final moment and one final memory. It occurred in July 2018. My wife and I were in D.C. to drop off our son for an internship on Capitol Hill with Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici. Sen. Dole invited us to join him for what had become his Saturday routine — greeting the World War II veterans who came to town to visit the World War II Memorial, which was built thanks to Sen. Dole's remarkable fundraising efforts. If seeing the reaction of the veterans when they spotted Sen. Dole didn't make you emotional, then you were a stronger person than I was.
In one of our conversations that occurred after his physical limitations made those visits impossible, Sen. Dole said that he hoped that Americans would ask their children and grandchildren to visit veterans memorials across America, and to never forget the sacrifice made not just by his generation, but by all those who wear the uniform of our country. To do that would be the ultimate memorial to this true American hero.
Kerry Tymchuk is executive director of the Oregon Historical Society. His career in public service includes work as a Marion County deputy district attorney, director of speechwriting to U.S. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole, director of speechwriting and legal counsel to U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, and Oregon Chief of Staff to U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith. Tymchuk co-wrote four books with the Doles, and worked with four Oregon business icons — Gert Boyle, Harry Merlo, Al Reser, and Ken Austin — in writing their autobiographies.
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