WASHINGTON--The famous Douglas MacArthur line that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away" certainly doesn't apply, not yet anyway, to World War II combat hero and later Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Now age 90 but still going strong, Dole was back on Capitol Hill the other night where he reigned in the 1980s and 1990s as Senate Republican leader. The occasion was the renaming of a school meals and education program linking him with the late George McGovern, his old Democratic foe but wholehearted partner in humanitarian endeavors.
Actually, as he spoke from a wheelchair, bipartisanship seemed to be breaking out in a rare budget deal between Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. Indeed, the previously recalcitrant House Speaker John Boehner chided tea-party and other ultraconservative groups for attacking the deal, which marked a sudden pivot to cooperation after the recent disastrous government shutdown.
Dole had last been prominently seen in a Fox News television interview in May in which he characteristically said something pointed about the legislative dysfunction. "I think they ought to put a sign on the (Republican) National Committee door that says, 'Closed for repairs' until New Year's Day next year," he said then, "and spend that time going over ideas and possible agendas."
As a man who served as both Senate majority and minority leader in his day before stepping down as he sought the presidency in 1996, Dole said he doubted whether he or his contemporaries could have made it in the current climate. "It seems to be almost unreal that we can't get together or a budget or legislation," he said in May. "We weren't perfect by a long shot, but at least we got our work done."
Boehner seemed to be picking up on that same advice in his gripe against his party's naysaying kibitzers. Ryan, in shepherding the compromise through the House Thursday night in a true bipartisan vote of 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats, made the same point: "This is good government, it's also divided government. And under divided government, we need to take steps in the right direction."
Dole, meanwhile, in having his name placed on the World Food Program USA's Leadership Award along with McGovern's, was a reminder of how even once-fierce political opponents were able in earlier days to find common ground on worthwhile undertakings.
As a severely wounded combat soldier in Italy in 1944-45, Dole came away from the war bitter toward the Democratic Party, memorably blaming it, as well as previous and subsequent fighting, as "Democrat Wars" in his 1976 vice-presidential debate against Democratic Walter Mondale.
But in receiving the shared honor with McGovern, he took the occasion to defend the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee against allegations then as a draft dodger, noting McGovern's World War II service as a bomber pilot who had flown 35 missions and later flew food relief missions in Europe.
Although Dole had an early reputation as a severe partisan with a sharp tongue, he eventually mellowed and his cutting wit took on a more playful edge. For example, in the midst of the Watergate fiasco, when asked whether he wanted President Richard Nixon to campaign in Kansas for his reelection, Dole replied: "I'd settle for a flyover in Air Force One."
Later, when President Ronald Reagan sent three former presidents--Ford, Carter and Nixon--to represent him at the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Dole said it reminded him of the statues of three deaf and dumb monkeys: "See no evil, hear no evil, and--evil."
But Bob Dole was not always so flippant, and as the Republican Senate leader he was in the tradition of other party stalwarts of bipartisanship like Everett Dirksen, Hugh Scott and Howard Baker. The current Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, facing reelection next year and a target of a tea-party challenge, might do to well to give the old Kansas jokester a call.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)
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