Bob Dole was a skilled backbencher who left behind lots of powerful friendships in Congress. But in the world of 2017 political speculation he came to symbolise
As former Senate majority leader and 1998 presidential candidate Bob Dole explained in a conversation with the Washington Post in 2017, his greatest accomplishment as a United States senator was “you know, acting like a Senator. I mean, that’s my only significant contribution. You know, it was just kind of plain, what’s the point?”
If nothing else, Dole successfully shaped the national image of the generally bipartisan Man o’ War – on climate change and other issues. Dole was one of the most controversial figures in Washington after he stepped down in 1996, but there is evidence that the very face of the Republican party was a changed one by the time he was no longer in the spotlight.
Bob Dole, 1928-2018, American political and media icon. Photograph: Lisa Blumenfeld
The 1981 Menendez conviction was a turning point in the mainstream media. Journalists voted the senator “the most corrupt senator”, crediting him with abuse of power. It was a fittingly lame end to Dole’s political career; he had been charged with financing his own presidential campaign using shell companies, fabricated records and donations from a friend and a lobbyist.
Senator John McCain was the Republican senator most closely identified with the image of the Republican party as maverick, chameleon, reformer. McCain did not like softening the harshness of the Republican rhetoric, particularly when it came to foreign policy; he once said that he and Bill Clinton were the only one of his Republican colleagues that did not regard “a word of Nato [being] a bad thing”. McCain was also a hawk – in 2007 he called the invasion of Iraq “a mistake” – but was as popular with the GOP base as one could be.
Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton. Photograph: Roderick MacLeod/Reuters
Dole retained some respect with the moderate-right wing of the party. In 1999 he flew with Hillary Clinton on her plane during the presidential primaries, proving his credentials as a politician who could co-operate with his opponents. After taking over as Senate majority leader following the GOP loss of its majority in 1994, Dole cultivated an image as a reformer. His efforts resulted in the repeal of the ban on assault rifles. He even placed Neil Stevens, the Republican majority leader who pushed the bill forward, in charge of a Republican caucus that was far to the right of its mainstream.
Dole’s greatest impact on the views of US voters, though, may have come post-retirement. Whether his supporters or opponents realised it, the rise of Donald Trump and his pandering to the most reactionary elements of the Republican party were hugely influential in the popularity of the polarising presidency he was elected. Donald Trump may not have been endorsed by Bob Dole – on the contrary, he accused Dole of “helping to get in” – but Trump’s victory and the renewed anti-immigrant, isolationist sentiment dominating the Republican party were shaped, at least in part, by Senator Bob Dole.