WASHINGTON – With the death of Bob Dole, a leading figure in American politics for decades, there will be those misguided souls who describe his Kansas birthplace of Russell as a small town.
I know better.
For my father, a contemporary of Dole's, Russell was the big city. Bob Page was born in El Dorado. But after first his mother and then his father died, a half-sister who was getting married agreed he could move in with her rather than be sent to the Kansas state home for orphans. For this act of grace, I will always be grateful to my Aunt Thelma, long passed.
Their struggling farm was in Luray (current pop. 190), 25 miles southwest of Russell (pop. 4,475). Russell was the county seat, with government offices and a main street, a destination for shopping and the occasional excursion. Dole was just six months older than my father, and it seems all but certain that at some point their paths crossed, perhaps at Dawson’s Drugstore, a community hub where Dole worked as a soda jerk.
Bob Dole graduated from Russell High School in 1941. Bob Page graduated from Luray High School in 1940, hurrying to finish a year early. He was 16 years old and eager to head to Lawrence to enroll in the University of Kansas. By 1942, though, both interrupted their studies at KU to enlist in the Army, and they were soon on their way to Europe to fight in World War II.
They shared geography, a generation and a war. And they shared the traits that those factors bred in them, most of all the place from which they came.
The values of western Kansas include a belief in hard work and an aversion to big talk. No reason to recite a paragraph when a sentence would suffice. Indeed, who needs both subjects and verbs when a single word or two could do?
True? You bet.
I hadn’t met Dole until I moved to Washington as a reporter, but I recognized him from the moment I encountered him, in 1980, when I was covering the first of his presidential bids. His acerbic wit and dislike for pretension made me feel as though I was back home.
Dole and my father shared a suspicion of big government, an aversion to wasteful spending and a working assumption that government spending was probably wasteful. I grew up thinking that every family referred to the IRS disparagingly as “The Revenuers,” as though we had a moonshine still in the backyard that we were trying to protect. Like many others in Kansas, they were conservative Republicans and fiscal hawks. While he later mellowed, Dole in his early years in Washington was a sharply partisan figure who defended President Richard Nixon during Watergate and decried “Democrat wars” in a vice presidential debate in 1976.
But they also shared an understanding, grounded in their own experiences, that life can be unfair and sometimes people need and deserve a hand up.
The GI Bill, for instance, allowed my father to return to KU after the war to earn his undergraduate degree, an MBA and a law degree. He became a successful business executive in Wichita until his death in 1998. Dole returned from the battlefield with grievous injuries that required years of rehabilitation and cost him the use of his right arm and hand for the rest of his life. He would become a Kansas senator, Republican national chairman, Senate majority leader and, finally, GOP presidential nominee.
Dole partnered with one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, George McGovern of South Dakota, to fund the food stamp program – admittedly, federal spending that also was good for the farmers back home. He worked with Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. He joined the bipartisan negotiations in 1983 that saved Social Security, which included tax increases anathema to many in his party.
Dole never achieved one goal: the White House. In 1976, President Gerald Ford dumped Nelson Rockefeller from the GOP ticket and put Dole on it, but Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In 1980 and 1988, Dole unsuccessfully sought the presidential nomination. In 1996, he finally won it but was swamped in President Bill Clinton’s reelection.
In his final years, he was at odds with the direction of the Republican Party he had loved and led. “Some are so far right they’re going to fall out of the Capitol,” he said of Tea Party supporters in an interview with me in 2014. “And I don’t know what they contribute if they’re against everything. If you’re going to be a national party, there are some things you should be against, but there’s got to be some things you’re for.”
The last time I saw him was this July, two days before his 98th birthday. He had no apologies for supporting Donald Trump for president in 2016 and 2020 – "I'm a Trumper," he said – but he also said he was "sort of Trumped out." And he said there was no question Trump had lost his reelection bid, fair and square.
He was as sharp as ever mentally and was interested in inviting West Virginia Joe Manchin over to talk. But he was also battling lung cancer. He told me he wanted to make "one more trip home," to Kansas – something that proved impossible.
Dole had worked to build the World War II Memorial, to honor those who fought. Many of them had seen their lives reshaped by the war. That was true of Dole and of my dad, although he would never discuss what he did, or what he saw. (He did name one of my brothers Max Charles, in honor of his two closest buddies from the Army Air Corps.) Dole told me the proudest achievement of his life was his work for veterans.
“I go every Saturday to the war memorial to greet other World War II veterans from states all over the country,” he said then, in 2014. “There are a lot of tears shed by these old, rugged guys.” And perhaps by him, not that he’d want to talk about that.
Thank you for your service, Senator Dole.
To which he might well respond: You bet.
Susan Page is USA TODAY’s Washington Bureau chief.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bob Dole and the Kansas roots he never lost: An enduring legacy