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Bob Dole, Forgotten Master Politician

The 1996 presidential nominee was as great as any at his chosen profession.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17: President Donald Trmp listens to former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS), speak, after he received the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, on January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

What It Takes: The Way to the White House, the rollicking Fear-and-Loathing-style stemwinder of a dispatch on the 1988 presidential campaign, is taken these days as the New Journalism Bible on America’s present unexpected president, Joe Biden. 

Now “46,” Biden’s outlandishly abortive first campaign for the top job was chronicled by the late Richard Ben Cramer, as good an heir for H.L. Mencken’s perch as the “bard of Baltimore” as any (in another sad defeat for Charm City, though he was educated, employed and died there, he actually lived 70 miles across the bay in Chestertown). 

Cramer knew the arteries of the Southern Mid-Atlantic like the back of his hand, which is why he got Delawarean Biden—“Joey,” as both he and his family refer to the future president in the tome. He sagely comprehended Biden’s unbridled ambition, the future president’s Kennedy obsession, and his trauma; Cramer presciently observed that the-then senator was from basically nothing and and when he got something, he dispatched with it. He is bad with money

Interesting stuff. It was Cramer who noted later that Biden thought he was as good at the game as Bill Clinton, basically his age, and it was a perspective slept on by those who knew him, including, famously, President Barack Obama, as the fire of Biden’s ambition burned late into life and, now, onto the world-historical stage.   

But as much as Cramer understood and respected Biden, it was another man from that putatively sleepy campaign (who remembers 1988 betwixt the ages of Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and Trump?) that most impressed him. Rare for many journalists—often tediously uninformative, moralistic sideline critics—Cramer understood that politicians are real people, because Cramer legitimately talked to them, and he concluded, rightly, that if they had arrived at the great American Colosseum, it was because they were usually charismatics par excellence.   

“Everybody who gets to the point where they are a credible candidate for president, they are big, imposing, charming, intelligent winners,” Cramer told the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics shortly before his death, in 2013. “Every one of these guys, if you know him, you would be telling your friends, ‘you got to meet this guy, this guy is fantastic.’” 

To hear him tell it, for no one was this characterization more appropriate to Cramer than the namesake of the event he spoke to: Dole. The future Senate majority leader, though he peaked at that, was ultimately more impressive to the reporter than the winner of the 1988 campaign, George H.W. Bush, as well as the winner of the 2020 campaign.  

Former Senator Dole died at 98 over the weekend. Had he won the 1996 election, or that 1988 election, he would have passed over the oldest president in American history.

But it was not to be. 

After an unbowed early life—like future comfortably beaten GOP presidential nominee John McCain, Dole was severely injured during war—Dole charged into Congress. Cramer regales readers in his treatise with the story of how Dole was elected to Congress the same year Kennedy was elected president, 1960. The cool Kansan, either out of Protestant probity or street smart awareness, only stayed with the golden-boy new executive at a White House reception for the new members and their wives as long as the meter on Penn. Ave. lasted. 

He was a party man for President Richard Nixon; that is, like future rival and future President George H.W. Bush, Dole served as Republican National Convention chairman during a weird era of GOP dominance and subsequent disaster. “Both in and out of public office, Bob Dole has inspired countless numbers of his fellow citizens by his courage, character, and commitment to our nation and its veterans,” Nixon’s foundation said Sunday. “How American.”

He wasn’t portrayed in Vice, Adam McKay’s absurdist recent portrayal of Dick Cheney, but he should have been, because he was the young White House chief of staff’s rook in an early play for power. Along with then-Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney made Dole the principal beneficiary of the series of moves that began at “the Halloween Massacre” and that, at last, ended the philosophical dominance of Henry Kissinger, which had extended past Nixon’s defenestration. Dole replaced Nelson Rockefeller on the 1976 ticket with then-President Gerald Ford, as the Michigander fought back a plucky challenge from a Golden Stater called Ronald Reagan. “In the end, Rumsfeld outboxed him,” an inside account from that era reads. “Nelson moved like an aging heavyweight, dazzled by a fast, younger puncher.” Advantage: Dole. 

But like so much in Dole’s life, only for so long. 

The Republicans lost that race and Dole arguably never got a better look at the presidency. The election of 1988 was uphill from the start, against a sitting vice president, President Bush the senior. Dole was eventually, at long last, nominated for president in 1996, almost by default, against the gadfly candidacies of government-abolishers like Steve Forbes, and as Colin Powell and then-”revolutionary” Speaker Newt Gingrich declined bids. 

But Dole, whose age was an issue in that campaign—comparatively hilarious now as he was just in his early 70s—was outshone by his younger opponent, Bill Clinton. President Clinton emerged phoenix-like from the 1994 midterms to trounce Dole, as an uneasy sense pervaded that his true opponent was Gingrich, another figure who likewise ultimately mistimed history. The Times aptly described the Kansan as the mere “standard-bearer” of Newt Gingrich’s revolt on Sunday. 

Weird race.

The election of 1996 was this now-fourth-decade-year-old’s first political memory, and I remember telling my Republican father that Clinton would win because he had better hair. It is about as rigorous as the average American’s vote, so what the hell? I probably should have just kept to such analysis. An effort to make his second wife, then-North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, the first woman president in 2000 was likewise vanquished by House Bush. 

But Dole was, ultimately, not to be underestimated. Indeed, as McCain and “H.W.” passed from the scene, he arguably got the last laugh, even against the blue haze of those ads for Viagra—the product they advertised ended up a more durable revolution than Gingrich’s. A true Machivallean, indeed. 

Dole’s most interesting legacy, for the purposes of the living, may have been his May 2016 endorsement of Donald Trump, the only former GOP nominee to do so. If you think clans Bush, McCain, and Romney declined to do the same out of principle, instead of false prognostication, I commit you to your Cramer.  

At minimum: Bob Dole was no fool. Ever on the right side of history, he died just shy a master of it.

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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