Bob Dole: boss, mentor, and friend

We knew the news Sunday would come one day — but, as a friend said, it would be hard nonetheless. Sen. Robert Dole died at age 98. A remarkable age, for a remarkable man, who did remarkable things with his life.

For the last 30 years, I had the good fortune of having Bob Dole first as my boss, when he was Senate Majority Leader and I his staffer on intelligence, then — after our Hill days — as an ever-encouraging mentor, and finally, as a friend whom I could spend hours talking with about the politics of the day and our lives growing up in small towns. 

Embodiment of the ‘Greatest Generation’

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Dole was the embodiment of the “Greatest Generation” — my parents’ generation. From a small Kansas town, he was an athletic farm boy who wanted to be a doctor. That dream was smashed as he was severely wounded in Italy during the last days of World War II. His right arm and shoulder nearly blow away, it took him nearly two years to regain some mobility, but the damage was permanent and often painful. Still, Dole persevered with grit, determination, and a good humor that would serve him well throughout his life.

Dole remade his life, first as a lawyer, then a Congressman, and then on to the United States Senate, where he would eventually become the senior Republican and the Majority Leader for nearly eight years.

His leadership style was straight forward. Bob Dole was a fair man who looked for solutions to our country’s problems. He could be partisan in his beliefs and a tough competitor, but never a mean one, nor one who would not reach across the aisle to compromise for the greater good of his country.

Senator Dole was also a fair boss. He was not high handed with the staff, as can often be the case on the Hill. He expected a lot — but you were willing to give a lot because the Senator worked so damn hard himself, and he truly appreciated his staff’s efforts. Unlike many people in power in D.C., if Bob Dole liked your work, he told you so.

My favorite memories of him during our Hill time were in the afternoons when occasionally he would sit down at the empty desk in a shared staff office and just shoot the breeze with a few of us. Could be sports. Could be a comment about the politics of the day. But he was funny and direct and a person who was obviously comfortable in his own skin. As I write this, I am reminded that not once did I hear a fellow Senator say anything personally about him that was not kind. Trust me, a rarity then and even more so now.

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Bob Dole truly loved the Senate. I think he hated leaving the Senate to run for President in 1996. As I stood on the floor of the Senate the day he resigned — standing discretely against the wall by the door leading out of the chamber — I could see the pain in his eyes. I don’t think he had any illusions about the difficulty of running against an incumbent president. And, of course, he lost.

Mentor and a friend

I went to see him after the election. By that time, he was in a law office and surrounded by a few of the staff from the old days. I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a man in great humor, planning for his future, and with whom I ended up spending over an hour chatting about everything in D.C. and beyond.

So, the second phase of my relationship with Bob Dole began — during which he was my encouraging mentor and a friend. He put me forward as a potential staff director for the Senate intelligence committee, a challenging job that I did not get. He reached out to comfort me, to make sure I was okay.

He also asked me to be involved with Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s presidential run in 2000 and her successful Senate run in North Carolina in 2002. And I got involved with the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas, where I eventually become a fellow. All of this I was grateful to do for him.

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But, more importantly to me, we became friends. He used to chide me for not calling him enough or stopping by to see him, first in his office, and later as he grew less mobile, at home. I always told him I did not want to impose — but I would get the call every few months from his staff: the Senator wants to see you. And off I would go.

We shared a brief text message at Thanksgiving in which he thanked me for my friendship over the years and wished me a happy holiday. I’d seen him Labor Day at his home in the Watergate. He was frail and weakened from the cancer, but he was still very lively and wanted to know what I was doing and what was happening around town. We spend over two hours together, which seem now both golden and valedictory.

When the end came Sunday, I was not surprised. 

But, I am sad.

Sad that I will not see my friend again. Sad because our country has lost a great statesman. 

But glad as well for the time we had Bob Dole among us — and glad for him showing the way of how to get things done, putting your country first. That’s the legacy of Robert Dole, and it's entirely fitting that he lies in state at the U.S. Capitol today.

Ronald Marks served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.