A Statement from David Adkins, CSG executive director/CEO:
As a kid growing up in the middle of Kansas, I wasn’t an athlete or an artist, but I loved politics. My mom was an active volunteer for the Republican Party and often took me along when she was canvassing, phone banking or putting up yard signs for the candidates she supported. The town of my boyhood, Salina, wasn’t far from Russell, Kansas, the hometown of Bob Dole.
During the years Dole was on the ballot, my mom would wear a ribbon sash emblazoned with the words “Dolls for Dole.” This meant she was one of the people who would pour the Dole pineapple juice often served at Dole campaign events. During one campaign swing, Dole was scheduled to attend an event at the Saline County Republican Headquarters, but a blown fuse cancelled the event. My mom asked Dole if he wanted to visit my elementary school instead. He agreed, and they travelled together to my school in our family’s Ford Fairlane 500 station wagon. I was seated in Mr. Powell’s sixth grade math class when in walked Senator Dole and my Room Mother mom. He told the class about his work in Washington and said that he had spoken to President Nixon, who had called him from Air Force One, earlier that day. I was wearing a pair of burgundy bib overalls and sporting a button I had picked up at the county fair which said, “Proud to Be a Farmer.” Dole, one of the funniest political figures to ever live, saw the button and asked me how my crops were doing.
To grow up with a front row seat to Bob Dole’s career in public service was to have a master class in the art of legislating. Dole was a fierce partisan, but also a master at forging compromise.
In junior high, I wrote a letter to Dole asking his advice about the best path to become a politician. He wrote back a two-page letter in which he talked about what I should study and how his own life story shaped his interest in elected office.
After being left for dead on the World War II battlefields of Italy, Dole went through a grueling, nearly three-year rehabilitation. The citizens of Russell raised the funds to support him during those darkest of days.
When he was picked as President Ford’s running mate at the 1976 GOP Convention in Kansas City, the first stop for the ticket was at the courthouse in Russell — the same courthouse where Dole began his political career as the county attorney. My dad, the captain of the Kansas Highway Patrol whose division included Russell, quarterbacked security for the hastily arranged event. In the moment, recalling all that the people of Russell had done for him, Dole broke down and wept and the crowd fell silent. When it was clear he couldn’t regain his composure, President Ford stepped up and began the applause. The crowd erupted in a loud embrace of their favorite son.
Bob Dole was my hero. He inspired me to become a politician. He made me laugh. He made me see how a politician can work a room. He had that uncanny gift for remembering names and details of the Kansans he had met — the same kind of skill that allowed him to be an effective majority leader in the Senate. He knew the members of his caucus, he remembered the names of their spouses and kids and he knew exactly how far he could ask each of them to go as he forged compromises. I was in awe of Bob Dole.
The citizens of Russell elected Dole to the Kansas House of Representatives, his first foray into legislative service. I was serving in that same body when Dole returned to Topeka in 1996 to announce his bid for the presidency. I was backstage next to him at the kick-off event, originally scheduled for the state house steps by moved indoors to the Kansas Expocentre because of snow. As he waited to go on stage, I turned to him and said, “There’s still time to change your mind. Are you sure you want to do this?” “I might as well,” he said, smiling. “It’s not like I have anything else to do.” And with that, I turned on the backstage microphone and in my best radio announcer voice said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the next President of the United States, Bob Dole.”
By Election Day, it was clear Dole wasn’t going to beat Bill Clinton. That didn’t stop Dole from making a last-minute whirlwind tour of a number of states the day before the election. Candidates who know their chances are slim often like to reassure their supporters by referencing Truman’s expected victory over Dewey in 1948. So it was with Bob Dole in 1996. I was standing in front of the courthouse in Independence, Missouri, at 3 a.m. on Election Day as Bob Dole made his final campaign stop on his way home to Kansas. I will never forget the song blaring over the loudspeakers as the candidate took the stage: “I can see clearly now the rain is gone. It’s gonna be a bright, bright, bright, bright sunshiny day.”
Bob Dole would be the last of The Greatest Generation to run for president. His war injuries rendered his right arm useless, but it never limited his reach. Because of Bob Dole, Social Security was saved from insolvency, millions of families received nutrition support because Bob Dole created the food stamp program as part of the Farm Bill, and Dole was a tireless advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
While Dole’s death gives us the opportunity to recall all of the achievements of a life well lived, for me, the best of Bob Dole’s character is revealed in all the quiet, unseen ways he worked to lift others up.
In the fall of 2017, my dad celebrated his 90th birthday. On a whim, I sent Bob Dole an email asking if he might consider calling my dad and wishing him a happy birthday. I never heard back and had, frankly, forgotten I had made the request, when I got a call from my dad. “You’ll never guess who just called me to wish me a Happy Birthday!”
That’s the Bob Dole I will remember.
Godspeed, Senator Dole. Thank you for your inspiration and the enduring example of your life of service.
On another dawn, I’d like to think my mom just offered her favorite senator some pineapple juice and the thanks of a grateful nation.