A 'legislative craftsman' walks away from his trade After 35 years, Dole leaves a legacy as a consensus builder

Campaign 1996

June 10, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bob Dole's champions wince when he lists as his greatest Senate achievement the 1983 compromise he struck with New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan to save the Social Security system from bankruptcy.

That last-minute deal raised taxes, cut benefits, was brokered in a back room and didn't have Dole's name on it. Not great stuff for a presidential campaign ad.

But as the Kansas Republican leaves Congress tomorrow after 35 years, the rescue of Social Security ranks high among many tales of legislative derring-do that illustrate what Bob Dole does best: reach beyond party and ideology to bring order from the chaos of competing egos and conflicting interests.

He listens, he waits, he pushes, he pulls, he gets angry, he jokes away the tension, but he never gives up. The Senate Republican leader's fingerprints are all over nearly every important law passed in the last dozen years -- from budgets, taxes and farm measures, to civil rights, defense and foreign policy.

"He's a master legislative craftsman, and the best vote counter I've ever seen," says California Gov. Pete Wilson. As a member of the Senate in 1985, Wilson was wheeled into the Senate chamber on a hospital gurney at 1: 30 a.m., shortly after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, to cast a critical vote at Dole's request. "In a way, it's a shame he's a candidate for president."

Some colleagues wept when Dole, 72, announced last month that he was resigning to run full time for the White House. Their tears testified to how far Dole has come from the hot-headed stridence of his freshman days in the 1960s. He departs as a senior statesman, widely respected by his adversaries and regarded with deep affection by his friends.

"It's been an extraordinary career, and an extraordinarily positive one," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "At the end of the

century, when they put together a Hall of Fame or a Top 10 list for the Senate, Bob Dole's name will be there."

The last few months of partisan rivalry between Dole and President Clinton chilled some warm feelings for Dole on the Democratic side. Leading a GOP-controlled Congress for the first time, Dole has shown less flexibility as he tried to shore up support among the party's right wing.

Yet he continues to be admired.

"I think he's a remarkable leader," declares Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey, who said Dole has often been "willing to risk a great deal [and go] against public opinion."

Tough beginning

Dole had some rocky years at the start.

"When I first came to Congress, I was way out in right field," Dole told reporters in a recent session aboard his campaign plane. "I was very conservative except for farm subsidies."

Like the soldier he once was, Dole also came to Congress willing to inflict casualties when he considered the cause just. He gained a reputation as a hatchet man defending President Richard Nixon's policies on Vietnam and two doomed Supreme Court nominations. Dole's floor debates with Sen. George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat, set a standard for harshness rarely matched since.

At the time, then-Sen. William Saxbe of Ohio -- an anti-war Republican -- declared Dole to be so disliked "he couldn't sell beer on a troopship."

Colleagues say Dole seemed embittered by his World War II injuries and was almost prudish in his Midwestern reserve. No ribald jokes, no after-hours drinking, not much tolerance for such behavior in others.

But over the years, Dole mellowed, particularly after his 1975 marriage to his second wife, Elizabeth.

"I always said that Liz Dole took off the rough edges," says Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of a handful of senators who have served longer than Dole.

The legislative game

Dole learned well the rhythms of the legislative process and how to look into the hearts of his fellow lawmakers to understand their motivations. He became a gifted broker of compromises, a consensus builder more interested in results than holding out for an elusive principle.

He found himself working with McGovern to create the food stamp program, with Moynihan on tax and health care bills, and Kennedy on civil rights legislation -- particularly a measure imposing sweeping new requirements on businesses to provide access for the disabled.

"I think I became more national," he says of his metamorphosis.

Democrats came to trust him as a man of his word. Republicans chose him as their leader 11 years ago and kept him on longer than any GOP leader in Senate history.

"He has a knack for knowing when to give in, but holding out as long as possible for the best deal," says Democrat Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who like Dole served as both majority leader and minority leader and was often on the opposite side of the bargaining table from him.

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