Bob Dole: heroic, prickly and effective

In mid-September 1974, I had a long conversation with Sen. Bob Dole, flying back to Kansas. He offered humorous asides, most funny, many dark.

It was the Watergate year, he was running behind a popular Democratic congressman, Bill Roy, and then-President Gerald Ford had just pardoned Richard Nixon. Dole had been the Republican Party chairman and savagely had gone after Nixon's critics. The first-term Senator considered himself a dead man walking.

In a vicious campaign, Dole came from behind to win after labeling Roy, who was an obstetrician, an abortionist. Two years later, as Ford's running mate, he was the attack dog, assailing “Democrat wars.”

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After 16 years in Washington, Dole had a clearly defined reputation as a smart and mean-spirited hatchet man.

Then something unusual occurred.

It wasn't a new Dole, but a different one.

He kept his moderate conservative political stripes, while becoming an influential congressional leader who effectively could work across the partisan aisle. Later, in 1996, he was the party's presidential nominee, losing to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House To progressive Democrats: Follow the lesson of Maine state Sen. Chloe Maxmin MORE.

That's the legacy of Dole, who died yesterday at age 98. He was one of the most effective Republican lawmakers in the last quarter of the 20th century, a man whose remarkable rise to power merits the tributes that are pouring in.

He worked with liberals Like Ted Kennedy and George McGovern on issues like food stamps, voting rights, making Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday, and the one closest to his heart: the 1991 Americans for Disabilities Act. Dole had suffered life threatening injuries in World War II, losing the use of his right arm.

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As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he shepherded through Ronald Reagan's massive tax cuts. But then he successfully enacted three small tax increases to offset the excesses.

When Howard Baker retired in 1984, Dole became the Senate GOP leader. He could be a tough partisan, but established good working relations with his Democratic counterparts, especially Sen. George Mitchell, an equally smart, tough legislator.

Baker and Dole are the two most respected Senate Republican leaders over the last half century.

Dole left the Senate in early 1996 to run for president.

The best portrait of the Kansas Republican was in Richard Ben Cramer's epic political work, “What it Takes,” about six men running for president in 1988. Dole reflected the hard scrabble nature of his Russell, Kan., hometown. It saved him in 1945 when, right before the war ended, Dole was shot while with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy; he was partially paralyzed, and almost died. He came home in a body cast. They collected dimes, quarters and dollars in a cigar box in Russell to defer some of his medical costs. Displaying incredible courage and resilience, Dole not only survived, but — within five years — was winning elective office.

As well as being an extraordinary legislator, Dole was renowned for his omnipresent wit, sometimes charming, often biting.

When he was elected to the Senate in 1968, leaving the House, he declared that single act had raised the intelligence of both bodies. 

When the Republicans won a huge upset in 1980 to capture control of the Senate for the first time in more than a quarter century, it meant he would replace the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Russell Long. Dole only had one question: “Who’s going to tell Russell?”

At a Gridiron dinner speech, Dole noted that President Reagan had dispatched three former presidents — Gerald Ford, Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterWhy our parties can't govern Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House After the loss of three giants of conservation, Biden must pick up the mantle MORE and Richard Nixon — to represent America at the funeral of slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, Dole mused: “See no evil, hear no evil and evil.”

After Dole lost in the 1996 presidential election, incumbent President Clinton gave him a Medal of Freedom. At his White House acceptance, he said: “I Robert J. Dole do solemnly swear ... sorry wrong speech.”

After 1996, Dole remained an active Republican and big-time lobbyist. He and his wife, Elizabeth, a former cabinet secretary who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination and then was a U.S. Senator from North Carolina, were a top Washington power couple, though the Kansan had limited taste for the social circuit.

He never wavered from his midwestern Republicanism; his political hero was President Eisenhower, who was in the White House when Dole first came to Congress. In 2014, Kansas GOP Senator Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsBiden remembers Dole as 'master of the Senate' at National Cathedral Bob Dole: heroic, prickly and effective McConnell gets GOP wake-up call MORE faced a tough reelection. Several years earlier, Roberts had stiffed Dole's impassioned plea — he even went to the Senate floor — to approve the United Nations treaty on the rights of people with disabilities. Other countries would have had to conform with America's disabilities laws. Roberts, however, caved to right-wing opposition, and the treaty wasn't able to muster the votes necessary for passage. Nevertheless, the 91-year-old Dole personally campaigned for Roberts in Kansas.

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He didn't much like bomb throwers like former House Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE.

The current Senate crop of right wing obstructionists —Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzAll hostages free, safe after hours-long standoff at Texas synagogue: governor Overnight Energy & Environment — Lummis holds up Biden EPA picks Equilibrium/Sustainability — Bald eagle comeback impacted by lead poison MORE, Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHawley says he would have opposed resolution to honor Capitol workers on Jan. 6 Hawley introduces bill banning lawmakers from making stock trades in office Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two MORE, Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSinema scuttles hopes for filibuster reform Republicans threaten floor takeover if Democrats weaken filibuster  Will Putin sink Biden? MORE — were antithetical to Dole's approach. In an interview a few years ago about Ted Kennedy — they did a radio debate show together — Dole remarked: “You don't get much done unless you have some relationship with the other side.”

Publicly, he didn't criticize Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE, but my wife and I had a telephone conversation with him several years ago, and it was clear he wasn't that enamored with the 45th president, concluding: “He's what we got.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.