James M. Perry
Bob Dole has been touring Kansas these days on what he calls a "gratitude tour." Kansans have greeted him warmly, as if their favorite old grandpa had come to town.
Make no mistake, though. Bob Dole, at 90 years of age, is one tough old bird.
Dole, for many years a Kansas senator and the losing candidate for president in 1996, grew up in Russell. a small Kansas prairie town where I discovered on a reporting trip that, slightly to my amazement, they used recycled sewage to water the golf course. He was a tall, movie-star handsome young man, a star athlete at the local high school and a soda jerk at the local drug store.
He enlisted in the army in World War II and found himself a lieutenant and a platoon leader in the slightly elite 10th Mountain Division in Italy in April 1945. He and his platoon were pinned down by German gunfire near Castel d'Aiano not far from Bologna when shells tore into his right shoulder and right arm. Comrades shoved and rolled him to a foxhole and a medic gave him a huge shot of morphine and wrote the letter M on his forehead in his own blood to alert others they shouldn't give him any more.
His rehabilitation (seven or eight operations) and convalescence back in the United States must have seemed almost endless. Much of his time was spent at a military hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, that is now named the Hart-Dole-Inouye Medical Center. Dole and two other future senators, Philip Hart and Daniel Inouye, were all treated there for war wounds. Dole's friends back In Russell dropped contributions in an old cardboard box at the drug store to help pay for his bills. Dole still has the box.
He never regained the use of his right arm, and his left arm is sometimes painful.
He wasn't sure when he got back from the war whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. He settled on Republican because he thought he'd do better with Republicans. He served in those early days as a state representative and as county attorney for Russell County (he'd recently earned his law degree). He was elected to the U.S. House for the first time in 1960 and the Senate for the first time in 1968.
He was always conservative, but he knew when to deal with Democrats. He and George McGovern, for example, worked together to help American farmers and to lower eligibility requirements for food stamps, even though McGovern was anathema to most of his GOP colleagues. Dole voted for the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965.
For reasons not entirely clear to me, he formed an early attachment to Richard Nixon. "I got along very well with President Nixon," he once said. "We were friends in the good times and bad." Maybe it was because Nixon was one of the few men in Washington to reach out with his left hand to shake Dole's left hand. Dole soon gained a reputation as a hatchet man, willing to do almost anything to defend the embattled president. His fellow senator, Wiliam Saxbe, famously observed that Dole had become so antagonistic "he couldn't sell beer on a troop ship."
Dole was the Republican national chairman as the Watergate scandal unfolded, and supported the President right to the bitter end. The day Nixon resigned, Aug. 9, 1974, Dole never emerged from his inner office.
He was Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976, and in a debate with Jimmy Carter's vice president, Walter Mondale, said that "if we added up all the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans -- enough to fill the city of Detroit." That ugly remark was not well-received.
But there is a soft side to Bob Dole. He visited wounded soldiers and Purple Heart veterans wherever he could find them, and in one of these visits I could see tears come to his eyes as he talked quietly to one of them. He, more than anyone else, spearheaded the drive to build a World War 2 memorial on the mall.
And then he has always had this caustic sense of humor. My favorite Dole dart was when his attention was drawn to a photograph of Presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon. "See no evil," he said, "hear no evil, and evil."
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. . Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.