Republican Sense of Humor

Twenty years ago, former U.S. Transportation Secretary, President of the Red Cross and future North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole was a decidedly long-shot candidate for the Republican presidential nomination — an honor her husband, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had won four years earlier, only to lose in the general election to Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton.

Then out of elective public office for the first time in 36 years, Bob Dole was most often seen as the television pitchman for a product promising to improve erectile function. Curious about why Elizabeth Dole, a certified dark horse, was running for the White House, I asked humorist Mark Russell, who explained. “If you were married to the test pilot for Viagra, you’d do almost anything to get out of the house.”

Bob Dole was that most special of political leaders who subscribed to John F. Kennedy’s thesis: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.” Of all the politicians I have covered, none — certainly no Republican — has done more for and with humor than Robert J. Dole the favorite son of Russell, Kansas.

He had been President Gerald Ford’s running mate in the photo-finish 1996 election won by Democrat Jimmy Carter, leading to this Dole insight: “I don’t know how many people run for vice president and for president and lose both.” Of the vice presidential nomination, custom of which somehow dictates that no one who covets it be seen overtly seeking to be chosen, Dole wisely observed: “The vice presidential nomination is like the last cookie on the plate; everybody insists they don’t want it, but somebody always takes it.”

Someone as exceptionally witty as Bob Dole sometimes gets credit for great lines whether or not he was the author. Take this one, following the obvious tension between him as Senate Republican leader and GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had disparaged the consensus-builder Dole as “the tax collector for the welfare state.” When Gingrich’s public popularity in the polls plummeted precipitously, the story goes, he sought the counsel of the older, wiser Dole. “Why do so many people take such an instant dislike to me?” asked a shaken Gingrich. Dole’s succinct explanation: “Because it saves them time.”

Bob Dole could disarm with his candor. He once observed: “Some of us in the Senate are uncomfortable taking honoraria (for speeches before groups). I am uncomfortable taking campaign contributions. So I compromised. I decided to take both.”

My personal Dole classic: Once, at a White House ceremony, there standing next to each other were former presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon — or, as Bob Dole identified them, “See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Evil.” He could be caustic.

Reflecting upon his Senate leadership, Bob Dole once spoke with pride about what he had worked on successfully and where he had made a difference: passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, working to pass the Voting Rights Act, compromising and collaborating with Democratic House Speaker Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill to shore up and save Social Security and helping create the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. Pretty serious body of work for a man of such wit.

Boy, could we use a party leader and a Senate leader who, yes, makes us smile and chuckle but who also makes such a large and positive difference in our nation.