The annual meeting of Kansas Farm Bureau broke for lunch Sunday (Dec. 5), and the news trickled through the hallways of the Manhattan (Kan.) Conference Center, through whispers and bowed heads.
Former Sen. Robert Joseph Dole, R-Kan., died in his sleep at the age of 98.
It wasn't entirely unexpected news. In February, he told us of his stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis. And so, we Kansans knew our time with the food and ag policy leader was coming to a close.
And yet that didn't dull the sting of the news.
Like so many other Gen X Kansas farm kids, I grew up in a household that put Dole up as an example of what a citizen-leader can do for his country. He sacrificed his health on the battlefield in Italy during World War II, and yet he didn't let the scars define him.
Instead, they fueled his drive to improve the lives of Americans, like himself, who live with disabilities. And if the vehicle for that change was the Americans with Disabilities Act, written by Democrats, then so be it. Sen. Dole used his Republican clout to make sure it passed and was signed into law. And today, there are generations of disabled Americans who can live and work in our society without the hurdles they would have faced 30 years ago.
Hungry children needed full bellies and access to education — so Sen. Dole partnered with the late Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., to work to expand food stamps and eventually create the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program.
For him, going to D.C. wasn't about how many times he could sit in the chair on a Sunday morning political show — which, as Senate Majority Leader, he did quite a bit. It was about what he could get done for the people who sent him to D.C.
PARTNERSHIP: Former Sen. Bob Dole passed away one day shy of his 46th wedding anniversary to former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (left), R-N.C. Dole is also survived by his daughter, Robin Dole.
In my years of listening to politicians speak, I'll tell you that there’s a difference in the speeches that you hear today versus those of Sen. Dole's time. Sure, there would be a few jabs at the opposite party, but the speeches almost always led off by listing the accomplishments Sen. Dole had made for the people of Kansas.
Today, though, political speeches rarely even get to the list of accomplishments and instead spend the majority of the time pointing fingers, laying blame and listing all the reasons why nothing has been done, but why we should send them back to D.C., or the state Capitol or city hall.
That plays great on Twitter and on the 24-hour news networks, but it does nothing to advance our nation. And Sen. Dole told us that time and time again.
Perhaps nothing is a testament to his bipartisanship than the fact that Sen. Dole has been eulogized by country and city folk, Democrats and Republicans, University of Kansas (KU) Jayhawks and Kansas State University Wildcats alike.
Former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, R-Kan., spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal this week about her friend and colleague, Sen. Dole. She said he knew that if he was going to get real solutions for food and agriculture issues, it would take working across the aisle. Even with people he didn't always agree with in his own party.
"You could disagree on issues, but you respect those you were working with or against," she said. "It was the issue, not the person, and that respect for what you're trying to do."
Of course, that was back before 24-hour cable news networks, which started passing off divisive rhetoric and commentary as hard news in order to keep viewers riled up enough to sit through commercial breaks. It was before neighbors hid behind keyboards and memes, and stopped having thoughtful conversations about the issues of the day. Back before school board members and city council members had to have police escorts to their vehicles after public forums.
The historians may say that Sen. Dole’s bipartisanship cost him elections. But as he once famously put it, "You can't run all the time." There is life outside of elected office.
Sen. Dole could have let his failed presidential runs cloud his life, but instead he moved passed them and found peace. A year after his presidential election loss to Bill Clinton, he graciously accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from his former adversary. And he then invited former President Clinton to give the inaugural Dole Lecture in 2004 at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at KU.
Who would do that today? "The Base" — whichever political base you subscribe to — wouldn't have that.
But Bob Dole did.
It was somehow symmetrical to learn of Sen. Dole's passing while at the KFB meeting, where ag policy and politicians were the topic of the day. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat; and 1st District Congressman Tracey Mann and 2nd District Congressman Jake LaTurner, both Kansas Republicans, all led their remarks with remembrances of the senator's impact on Kansas and national politics.
But maybe a better outcome from this shared sorrow of losing a fellow Kansan would be for all politicians, from all parties, to go beyond the platitudes and remember Sen. Dole's lasting legacy of getting stuff done for the good of all.
Like a pragmatic Kansan, Sen. Dole left us with an op-ed to be published after his death. It was his final word to Americans and gave one more nudge for us to do better, to come together.
"When we prioritize principles over party and humanity over personal legacy, we accomplish far more as a nation," he wrote. "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."
That's the Kansas way. That’s the Bob Dole way.
Lying in state and funeral
Sen. Dole lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Thursday (Dec. 9).
According to the Dole Institute, today (Dec. 10), the public is invited to the National World War II Memorial for a special program honoring the life and service of Sen. Dole. Tributes will be offered by Gen. Mark A. Milley, 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Savannah Guthrie; Tom Hanks; and the U.S. Army Band.
Sen. Dole's funeral will be livestreamed, and Sen. Elizabeth Dole will lay a wreath in her husband's honor. Following the funeral, the late senator's casket will be transferred to Joint Base Andrews for his final trip home to Kansas.
If you would like to send cards to the Dole family, please mail them to: The Dole Family, 700 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.