He's 88 now and visibly frail after struggling with serious health problems in recent years. He hasn't held public office since 1996, when he stepped down as Senate majority leader to run against President Clinton, who defeated him in a electoral landslide. He lost his bid to become vice president as President Ford's running mate in 1976, and failed to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, and again in 1988.
Yet, Bob Dole remains one of the most durable figures in modern American politics, still a man to be reckoned with in the nation's capital, where he arrived as a freshman congressman from Kansas more than a half century ago. Indeed, he's shed his image as a political hit man to become one of his party's elder statesmen whose opinion still matters in the political realm.
Witness, for example, his recent criticism of GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, whom he basically declared unfit to fill the office he once sought. "What I said about him is true," he said last week when I interviewed him at his office at Alston & Bird, where he heads the Atlanta-based law firm's government affairs office. "He was just a hard guy to work with because he was a one-man band."
Like Sens. Daniel Inouye and John McCain, Dole is a genuine war hero. Badly injured in 1945 by German machine gun fire in Italy left his right arm paralyzed, he can shake hands only with his left hand. But his grip is firm and his mind still sharp, along with his famous wit and his much-parodied penchant for referring to himself in the third person.
Dole said he doesn't have a favorite as a running mate for Mitt Romney -- whom he supports -- should he win the GOP nomination, but added, in an obvious reference to Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum, "I think he needs to pick a mainstream conservative, not somebody way out there, but some real conservative who will appeal to evangelicals and independents."
When I suggested he might be describing someone like himself, Dole replied, "I'm not running for anything. I can hardly walk."
Dole, who was Senate majority leader from 1985-87 and again from 1995-96, and is the only person nominated for president and vice president who failed to win either office, lamented the hyper-partisan tone that permeates Congress and the campaign trail. "I hope they're going to tone down their increasingly bitter rhetoric," he said.
Dole recalled that after the 1976 election, when Barbara Walters blamed his performance as President Ford's attack dog running mate for Ford's defeat by Jimmy Carter, he was approached on the Senate floor by then-Sen. and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon by a razor-thin margin, invited Dole to share a dish of ice cream and consoled him by saying, "They've always got to find a scapegoat."
Dole made it clear he believes the rise of the so-called super-PACS that can contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns are distorting the electoral process by putting candidates who are not well-known at a disadvantage. "We were always told there's too much money in politics, and now that's probably true," he said.
And while he declined to offer an assessment of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, or compare his performance to his own as minority leader from 1987-95, Dole noted that when he was there, the Senate was "more collegial and we trusted each other." He also criticized the "use and overuse" of the filibuster.
Dole pointed out that he has since joined with three former majority leaders, Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchell and Republican Howard Baker, to form the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank, to develop bipartisan support for federal policies.
Dole, whose wife Elizabeth served in two Cabinet posts before seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 and one term as senator from North Carolina until losing her seat in 2008, said he has no regrets about his long and eventful life, other than agreeing with Sen. McCain, who, asked if he had any regrets about the 2008 presidential election, said "Yes, I didn't win."
But he conceded that "in hindsight, I probably would have some regrets" about his hawkish position on the war in Iraq during President George W. Bush's administration. He said he supports President Obama's decision ordering early withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. He also praised Obama as a person, noting that he visited him when he was hospitalized last year and "said he wished I was still in the Senate."
Dole's transformation from the "hatchet man" image he earned as Republican National Committee chairman in 1971-73 and in later years -- then-Rep. Albert Quie of Minnesota described Dole as a "gut fighter" when he was chosen as President Ford's running mate -- is evident in his role as leader of Alston & Bird's bipartisan lobbying shop.
The firm's recent hires include two veteran Democrats, former Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and former Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, as well as former Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who served 25 years in Congress, first as a Democrat and then a Republican.
"One of the great things about this firm is that we see ourselves as a team," Dole exclaimed. "We're clearly bipartisan, we kind of check our politics at the door." Dole said he rarely talks to his former colleagues about legislative issues.
Clearly, Dole is enjoying life in his twilight years, even though they've been marked by a series of health problems, mostly stemming from his war injuries, that have regularly hospitalized him since 2001. He spent most of 2010 in Walter Reed Army Hospital recovering from knee surgery and pneumonia, and another week there in 2011 for treatment of an infection.
While that's limited his mobility, it hasn't stopped him from promoting domestic and international hunger and school feeding programs with Democratic former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, as well as programs helping wounded veterans. He's also raised funds for the National World War II Memorial and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
And on March 21, the Bipartisan Policy Center will honor him and fellow former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker for their combined hundred years of service in Congress. It will mark an important milestone for both men, but especially for the man from Kansas whose remarkable life and career of public service now link America's past and present.
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