Over the last year, it has been difficult to find things to feel optimistic about when it comes the federal government. But at the end of January, we had a day of pride for every Kansan who shares a memory of one of the great public servants of the 20th century: Bob Dole.
For one day, Congress halted its partisan tribalism and endless bickering and decided to agree that Dole was a public servant worthy of being honored with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the nation offers.
When I moved to Kansas in 1990, Dole was Senate majority leader. The other Kansas senator was Nancy Landon Kassebaum, daughter of the legendary Alf Landon, a former governor of Kansas and presidential candidate. It was a proud time in Kansas politics. Republican Pat Roberts represented the Big First of Kansas, and Democrat Dan Glickman represented the 4th District. Joan Finney was about to upset John Carlin in the Democratic primary and Mike Hayden in the general election to become the state’s first female governor.
In case you haven’t gotten the picture, back in those days Kansas was purple and not just for K-State. The Republicans of that era were true moderates, and Democrats were pretty moderate too. There wasn’t a lot of “far right” or “far left” bickering, and there absolutely was not the current era’s mean spirit and information silos. Politicians across the state appeared to like each other.
To say things have changed would be the understatement of a lifetime. But Dole hasn’t really changed all that much. He’s still a proud veteran who literally gave his right arm in service to America. My daughters learned his story early on (they were at the right point in school for state history and they had a mother who emphasized knowing your legislators) and admired him greatly.
My youngest daughter, Jacky, was a National History Day finalist and we went to Washington, D.C. for her to present her project in the competition. One of the highlights of her trip was the chance to visit Sen. Dole in his office.
She was (and still is) a major introvert who struggled to step up to the front of the line and ask for anything. But standing in Dole’s office with the senator right there, she wanted nothing more than to share what was a major moment in her life with her older sister.
“Sen. Dole, may I call my sister on your phone and tell her that I am here in your office?” she asked. Dole smiled at her. He loved having kids in his office. He loved their awe and their pride and their joy.
“Of course,” he said. And he picked up the phone and dialed for an outside line.
Minutes later, Jocelyn answered. There was no caller ID on that phone, but of course she immediately recognized her little sister’s voice,
“I’m in Bob Dole’s office and he is standing right here next to me,” Jacky said.
“You’re making that up! You are not!” her sister replied.
Dole walked over and took the phone. “Hello, Jocelyn,” he said. “This is Bob Dole. And yes, your sister is here in my office in Washington, D.C. She wanted to share the visit with you.”
I don’t know which kid was the most amazed, but I do know that neither one of them has forgotten the magic of that moment from more than 20 years ago.
What I remember most was the warmth of Dole, the genuine caring that anyone who interacts with him can feel. That hasn’t changed. I haven’t been in the room with him for at least five years now, but I remember that genuine interest and connection that he strived to make. I loved looking through the various wire service photos of the gold medal presentation and the joy on Dole’s face. There’s nothing fake about this man.
In his smile, I see the same man who championed feeding hungry children around the world as something of benefit to all humans on the planet. I see a man who reached across the aisle on a regular basis — not to gain political points, but to do the right thing for the people who elected him and even for the people who didn’t.
He traveled a long way from his roots in Russell, Kan. He served his country in war, in peace and in a lot of conditions somewhere in between. He is a great American, fully deserving of the country’s highest civilian honor. In reality, his great legacy is not the honor he received, but the honor he has given.
God bless you, Bob Dole. My greatest wish for America is that every congressman and every senator would wake up tomorrow and reflect on what you brought to the office and try, maybe even for a day, to bring to the process the honor that you gave for decades.