As the GOP presidential contest to succeed Ronald Reagan in March 1988 wound down, I found myself with an unenviable assignment as a cub reporter for The Associated Press. George H.W. Bush had all but wrapped up the nomination, but Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was stubbornly sticking around through the Wisconsin primary.
His campaign coffers drained and his path to the nomination all but exhausted, Dole had dumped his press charter plane as he barnstormed the Dairy State. AP asked me to drive beneath Dole's private jet and cover as many events as I could, an arduous task. I hit the road at 5 a.m. and caught Dole at several stops, driving over 400 miles in my Dodge Omni over the course of the day before retiring at a hotel in western Wisconsin.
Determined to get a bite to eat before bed, I went down to the hotel bar and ordered up a burger. I sat down to wait for the order, when a man in a suit came over and asked if I was the same AP reporter who had covered Dole all day. I said I was. He said he had someone who wanted to see me and brought me over to a table in the corner of the bar. Sitting with his advisers, Dole expressed amazement I was still following him.
"Did you drive under me?" he asked. I nodded. He laughed and quipped I must be stubborn like him.
"Stick around kid, I'll make today worth your while," he said, with that signature wry Kansas smile.
I went back, wolfed down the burger and waited anxiously. About 15 minutes later, I was summoned back to the table for a one-on-one interview with Dole. My first question elicited all the news I needed.
"Why are you sticking in this race?" I asked.
He responded succinctly, saying he had "a few more things to say" to the American people but understood Bush's nomination was a "foregone conclusion." He had just conceded the inevitable, and little did I know he was testing on me the very words he would use anew when he flew back to Washington for a concession-like speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
It was a bona fide scoop for this 21-year-old reporter. I dictated a lead to the AP desk, first in Milwaukee and then to Washington D.C., and by the wee hours of the morning the wires were buzzing with breaking news. Within a few years, I was promoted to Washington for the job of a lifetime.
I had many more chances to interact with the senator — at dinners, in Congress and on the trail in 1996 when he ran again and won the nomination. But that evening in the Wisconsin hotel never left me. I still remember it like it was yesterday: One of Washington's most powerful men was kind enough to trust a cub reporter with a scoop just because that reporter had persevered on one of the last days of his campaign
It's just one tiny anecdote among the many giant tributes rolling in as the nation says goodbye to Dole, who died Sunday at 98. The legislative titan's body lay in state at the Capitol on Thursday, and official Washington sees him off at a state funeral on Friday.
Bob Dole was a war hero, so grievously wounded on an Italian battlefield during World War II he was originally left for dead. He took 39 months to recover from his injuries, including an entire year in a body cast. He knew the real meaning of perseverance.
When he rose in politics, he served as a GOP party chairman, and enjoyed one of the longest tenures in history as Senate Republican leader. He fought hard, but never dirty. He knew the arcane parliamentary rules of the Senate well, and never shied from a battle. He ran for vice president once and three times for president, never losing his sense of humor even as he lost all four races.
His appearance on David Letterman's show three days after losing to Bill Clinton was as epically funny as it was graceful. He trusted the American people's verdict and wanted to signal there was only one country even if there were two parties.
"People are speculating maybe you will take some kind of position in the Clinton administration?" Letterman asked.
"Well, if he wanted to give me his job, I'd think about it," Dole deadpanned, eliciting roars of laughter.
It was great TV, but it also was quintessential Dole. He was a public servant first, and he never forgot who the boss was: the American people. After a bitter campaign, he knew the country needed a bit of levity, and unity.
"That's really his legacy: just his kindness and compassion for others," said Michael Glassner, a fellow Kansan and political adviser to Dole from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s who remained in touch through the end.
Dole's survival from grievous war injuries gave him "a sense of gratefulness, to be alive at all. And also to be able to help others like you have been helped," Glassner recalled in an interview with Just the News on the John Solomon Reports podcast. "And he really demonstrated that throughout his entire life, even till, you know, last week, he was demonstrating support for people who were in need, or people that had weaknesses, or economic problems. He was helpful every day like that, that was actually his motto: trying to do something nice and helpful for someone else every day."
After his retirement from the Senate, Dole continued to serve, determined that his fallen brothers in World War II be forever remembered for their valor with an official memorial in Washington. He raised money and refused to let the idea die, and he succeeded. The memorial opened on April 26, 2004, honoring the 16 million Americans who served in WWII.
He would frequent the memorial often, embracing fellow veterans and their loved ones.
Glassner witnessed Dole's trademark determination in 2016, when the Kansas senator, then an elder statesman, embraced Donald Trump's presidential nomination when most of the rest of the GOP elite shunned the eventual 45th president.
"He had risen out of sort of a prairie populism himself, as a candidate for the Senate in 1968," Glassner explained. "So he was very finely attuned to sort of the distrust that, particularly rural Americans had for the establishment and for the government. So he saw that Trump was capitalizing on that as well. He really saw the Trump train coming much earlier than almost anyone.
"He was the only former Republican nominee to attend Trump's convention in 2016. The only one. George Bush did not go. John McCain did not go. Mitt Romney did not go. So you know, when I asked Senator at the time, I said, 'You know, it's really quite bold of you to be present here.' ... And he said, 'Well, I've been a Republican Party man my entire life. And it's very clear that this is who the Republican Party voters want. So that's who I'm for.' It wasn't complicated at all."
There was one other uncomplicated side to Dole. He never wavered from his distrust of big government, always warning of, and fighting against Washington's growing spending and its encroaching powers. His signature line from his 1996 nomination acceptance speech in San Diego epitomized his position.
"A government that seizes control of the economy for the good of the people, ends up seizing control of the people for the good of the economy," he declared in a memorable line that today might just as well apply to the balance between COVID restrictions and American freedom.