Remembering Bob Dole

“Mr. Penner! It’s so good to see you today, Paul! Thanks for coming! It is always great to visit with a fellow Kansan when away from home. How are you, my friend?”

Those words made my visit even more special as I greeted former Senator Bob Dole at his office suite in the Watergate office complex in Washington DC, in 2014. In my official capacity as President of the National Association of Wheat Growers and as a fellow Kansan, together we celebrated his birthday with a small group of friends and associates.

The Senator always made people feel welcome on such occasions, and we sat around his desk, enjoying shared experiences and posing for photos. His memory and wit had not diminished with time, though his physical abilities were diminishing. Mr. Dole was still in top form holding court and our attention, once again.

His retirement from politics began as I was just beginning my entry into the realm of policy and advocacy, in the late 90s. Our brief encounters prior were at grower meetings or watching news coverage of events on Capitol Hill. Other than that, I was aware of his status as a veteran and wounded warrior, and as a motivated and aspirational politician. We were fellow Republicans as well.

As years progressed, I remembered his early years as an aggressive “hatchet man,” how he attacked his political opponent with the ferocity of a bloodhound. His successful election campaign was especially brutal, going after opponent Bill Roy.

Later, (then) Senator Dole’s moderation and maturation evolved, due to a government shutdown as both sides refused to compromise over a resolution to increase the debt ceiling. Anecdotal testimony by insiders described an angry unemployed veteran who threw a rock through a window of Dole’s Senate office building. Upon hearing about it, he was so impacted by it, he set about to find a way of compromise to end the shutdown. He reached across the political aisle and fashioned an acceptable compromise which became his signature focus through many important legislative battles.

Most notable of the many pieces of legislation in which Dole’s efforts were crucial, in my opinion, was the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plus, the most important component of achieving it was his bipartisan effort with Democratic counterparts. Later Senator Dole and (then) Senator Joe Biden worked together to halt the massacre of Bosnian men and boys; Muslims who were the focus of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces. They were unsuccessful in overriding President Clinton’s veto and unable to halt the arms embargo during the war. It is said, having fought against the Nazis and the brutal slaughter of Jews and others deemed expendable, Dole was determined to never let this happen again if he had the power to do so.

Fast forward to last week’s memorial and events surrounding the late Senator’s passing; as legislators, former Presidents, family and dear friends united as one to remember and pay their respects, the scene unfolding in the Capitol building captures the essence of what democracy is; people who have differences of opinion, coming together, serving for the common good of all citizens.

If we are to take stock of who we are as a nation and people, this picture, frozen in time through media and in our collective mind, this is it.

The January 6th insurrection attempt reminds us of democracy’s fragility, and every citizen has a duty and responsibility to ensure that never happens again.

I end this column with some of Dole’s last written words. I encourage the reader to secure a digital copy in its entirety

“There has been a lot of talk about what it will take to heal our country. We have heard many of our leaders profess ‘bipartisanship.’ But we must remember that bipartisanship is the minimum we should expect from ourselves.

America has never achieved greatness when Republicans and Democrats simply manage to work together or tolerate each other. We have overcome our biggest challenges only when we focused on our shared values and experiences. These common ties form much stronger bonds than political parties….

When we prioritize principles over party and humanity over personal legacy, we accomplish far more as a nation. By leading with a shared faith in each other, we become America at its best: a beacon of hope, a source of comfort in crisis, a shield against those who threaten freedom.”

– Bob Dole, in an op-ed piece written earlier this year, to be published around the time of his death (source: Washington Post, 12/06/2021)

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