Monday, August 15, 2011
Bob Dole's Best Speech
I don't know if Bob Dole harbored presidential ambitions for a long time — or if that was a relatively late phenomenon in his political career.
Thirty–five yeas ago — almost midway through Dole's congressional career — President Ford picked him to be his running mate.
In those days, Ford was seen as a centrist, especially after winning a bruising battle with conservative Ronald Reagan for his party's nomination — and lots of folks believed he chose Dole to boost his credentials with his party's right wing.
Perhaps it was on that night in 1976, as he accepted the vide presidential nomination, when the idea of a Dole presidency took hold. Maybe, before that night, Dole was content to be a senator from Kansas.
But after Ford picked him to be his running mate, Dole must have realized that, if Ford won the election, he would be prevented by law from seeking another term in 1980 — and, as Ford's vice president, Dole would be the favorite for the nomination.
On the other hand, if Ford lost, Dole must have figured that it wasn't likely Ford would run again in 1980. The exposure of a national campaign would almost certainly benefit him under those circumstances as well.
But that isn't exactly how things played out.
Ford did lose the 1976 election, but, by 1980, Dole was not the frontrunner for his party's nomination. Reagan was.
Dole sought the nomination again in 1988 but lost to Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush. He sat on the sidelines in both 1984 and 1992 when Reagan and Bush sought re–election.
Then, in 1996, it was his turn.
There really never was any doubt Dole would be at the top of the GOP ticket that year. He was challenged in the primaries by Pat Buchanan's insurgent candidacy — and a few other more credible rivals — but he was always treated as the presumptive nominee. Sometimes the primaries or caucuses didn't turn out as expected, but those were regarded as temporary setbacks.
Eventually, Dole was the choice of more than 58% of the people who participated in GOP primaries that year. Buchanan got nearly 21% of the vote, and Steve Forbes got about 11%. Everyone else was in single digits.
But Dole, as I say, was dealt some early setbacks, losing the New Hampshire primary to Buchanan and the primaries in Delaware and Arizona to Forbes. He bounced back in late February, winning every remaining primary and losing only one caucus.
Then he resigned from the Senate, where he had served for 27 years, to focus all his attention on his presidential campaign. He didn't have to make such a dramatic choice. His term in the Senate had two years to go, and he had been routinely re–elected in the past, but he wanted to show the voters that he was completely committed to the presidency.
Dole always struck me as a rather plain–spoken — blunt at times — Midwesterner. He had a sense of humor that could be biting at times, and it often surfaced on the campaign trail.
But it was largely kept in check on this night 15 years ago. Dole's acceptance speech was mostly humble and direct — and one of the first issues he tackled was the issue of his age (73).
"Age has its advantages," he told the delegates, "and the first thing you learn on the prairie is the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land. And under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small, and if he thinks otherwise, he is wrong."
Whether one agreed or disagreed with him, one could not help but be moved by his devotion to his deceased parents in his defense of government's obligation to help those who cannot help themselves.
He recalled when his father endured personal hardship to visit him in the Army hospital after he was injured in World War II.
"My father was poor, and I love my father," Dole said. "Do you imagine for one minute that, as I sign the bills that will set the economy free, I will not be faithful to Americans in need? ... [T]o do otherwise would be to betray those whom I love and honor most. And I will betray nothing."
And he was eager to embrace the symbolism he saw in his candidacy.
"My life is proof that America is a land without limits," he said. "And with my feet on the ground and my heart filled with hope, I put my faith in you and in the God who loves us all. For I am convinced that America's best days are yet to come."
Dole's best days weren't ahead of him — at least, not in 1996.
But he may have delivered his best speech on this night 15 years ago.