The Dole That Few Got To See

December 9, 2021

The article was originally published for the National Journal on December 7, 2021.

The loss of Bob Dole, the 98-year-old former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, marks the passing of another congressional sequoia, much like the death of John Dingell nearly three years ago.

While Dingell was a good friend (and his wife and successor, Rep. Debbie Dingell, still is), I didn’t know Dole quite as well. But several fond memories came rushing back. Not counting a few times when we encountered each other in early 1973, when I was a freshman in college and working half-time as an elevator operator in the Russell and Dirksen Senate office buildings, the first time I had a real conversation with Dole was in the Meet the Press green room on the Sunday before the momentous 1994 midterm election. It was clear an electoral tidal wave was about to hit—the only question was just how big, and whether one or both chambers would flip from Democratic to Republican.

I treasure a framed picture of legendary Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, on the set with six of us who were on the show that week. Gathered around the table were Minority Leader Dole; Vice President Al Gore; the wonderful and incredibly talented trio of NBC journalists Gwen Ifill, Andrea Mitchell, and Lisa Myers; and a younger, shaggy-haired version of myself. Staff and crew were also gathered around, commemorating the 47th anniversary of the venerable show.

I sensed the weird vibes in that small green room between Dole and Gore. They clearly were not big fans of each other. While Russert interviewed each of them on air, the other hung behind, offering the rest of us his real-time assessment of the other’s answers. Gore made a few snarky comments about Dole, but when Gore was on with Russert, Dole began a wickedly funny running commentary. “Albert, you are lying,” he said over and over in a sing-song voice and with a wicked grin, the word “lying” strung out like a four-syllable word. Dole clearly was enjoying himself, and for me it was a real treat to see these major figures in very candid moments.

My second memorable meeting with Dole came around the turn of the century, a few years after he resigned his Senate seat to devote his full attention to the ill-fated 1996 presidential campaign. The two of us were speaking to a corporate event in Chicago. We spent some time before and after our respective talks, and Dole asked if I wanted a ride back to Washington in the corporate jet someone had lent him. On the trip, I picked his brain about life in politics and heard his very candid assessments of various political players. But soon he turned the tables on me, asking me about myself and my background. I mentioned that my dad had been a B-17 and B-24 bomber pilot in the Eighth Air Force in World War II. Dole asked a bunch of questions about my dad—where he was from, what he did after the war. Then, before we landed, he asked me to write down my father's name and address. A couple of weeks later, my father received a really nice note (saying very generous things about me) as well as a program and ball cap from the recent groundbreaking of the World War II Memorial. Needless to say, my dad was thrilled.

Early in his career Dole had more of an edge, a bite, but he mellowed over time. And the American public began to see the full picture of Dole. In the remarkable What It Takes, the best book about American politics ever written, Richard Ben Cramer told the story of Dole's recovery from horrific injuries in World War II. Privately, Dole was very funny, and after his political career ended, he began to poke fun at himself. He even did an ad for the erectile-dysfunction drug Viagra after his bout with prostate cancer.

The final time we had a chance to talk was in July 2013, the week he turned 90 years old. I took the entire staff of The Cook Political Report over to Dole’s law office, with Dole peppering our editors Jennifer Duffy, Amy Walter, David Wasserman, and me with questions about specific races. While physically he didn’t look good, his brain was sharp as a tack. His humor was a little more sardonic; he was not particularly happy with the state of American politics and some of the things going on in his party.

It was moving to stand in the back of the Capitol Rotunda in January 2018 to watch the tributes that Dole received as he was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. On Thursday he will become only the 36th person to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. 

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