After Bob Dole – the best Senate leader Republicans have had – died last Sunday, tributes began pouring in.

Perhaps predictably, they focused on his runs for national office, where he was not exactly a fish out of water, but certainly out of his element.

There was only casual mention of his work as a senator, and none for the four years he and Democratic Majority Leader George Mitchell put together more important bipartisan legislation than has passed in three decades since.

Unlike Lyndon Johnson, in biographer Robert Caro’s telling phrase, Dole was not “master of the Senate,” but a master in the Senate.

The very qualities that made Dole a great Senate leader, where he served half his nearly 12 years in the minority, hurt him on the presidential stage, where trimming, if not outright hypocrisy, is required.

Dole always spoke his mind. In 1976, President Gerald Ford Ford jettisoned his first vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, and turned to Dole.

Rockefeller by that time was far too liberal; Dole was needed to fend off a formidable challenge from Ronald Reagan, who nearly wrested the nomination from Ford.

In the sole vice presidential debate against Walter Mondale, the audience gasped when Dole condemned the 20th century’s “Democrat wars.”

It was doubly unfortunate; Dole was maimed by wounds in the Second World War, and of the four wars in question, three involved attacks on the United States or its allies, and the fourth, Vietnam, had murky origins we’re still debating. Since then we’ve had only “Republican wars.”

Dole admitted he’d been asked to rough up Mondale. Then, characteristically, he added, “I was supposed to go for the jugular, and I did — my own.”

His second “unpresidential moment” in 1988, as he battled George H.W. Bush, was far more justified.

Bush had beaten Reagan in the 1980 Iowa caucuses, then was swamped in New Hampshire. Determined to avoid a repeat, Bush suggested Dole might well raise taxes – rank heresy, with Reagan’s aura peaking.

Dole loosed the ultimate zinger: “Stop lying about my record.” At the time, it was shocking.

There was, however, a grain of fact, showing how a great senator may not be a presidential winner. In 1982, chairing the Senate Finance Committee, Dole assembled a tax package making up part of the enormous deficits Reagan’s huge income tax cuts created. It was statesmanlike, but, in GOP circles, suspect.

Dole got the last laugh when he helped convince Bush, who’d pledged “no new taxes,” to support a 1990 bipartisan deficit-reduction budget that benefited the country but helped sink Bush’s 1992 re-election.

The list of bills he and Mitchell produced is long, and impressive. Highlights include the Americans with Disabilities Act, which transformed life for millions of Americans, and the Clean Air Act of 1990, still the only legislative bulwark we’ve built between the planet and global warming; there were many more.

Dole left the Senate in 1996 while trying to do what George Mitchell concluded in 1992 he couldn’t – run the Senate while also running for president.

For me, it’s a vivid memory. I was interviewing Maine Sen. Bill Cohen in his office when he announced he’d have to head over to the Capitol; Dole was resigning.

As I watched on television, then when Cohen returned, I could see it was an emotional moment, and not just among Republicans. During 29 years in the Senate, there was hardly a member whose respect Dole hadn’t earned.

Soon, bipartisanship was swept away, largely by radicalization of the Republican Party. Now, it’s not only neglected, but almost forgotten.

Dole never lost his keen sense of humor. When I was privileged to interview him, the warmth of his relationship with Mitchell – they became lifelong friends – was evident.

Then he asked me about Mitchell’s age, a decade less than his own. “Ah,” he said, “a mere youngster.”

As a party loyalist, Dole soldiered on. He was the only prominent former GOP officeholder to endorse Donald Trump in 2016, explaining that since Trump was the nominee, he supported him.

It didn’t matter to Dole, as he surely knew, that for Trump loyalty is a one-way street.

Following the Nov. 2, 2020 election, when GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy were still burying their heads in the sand, Dole said it was over. He told a reporter, “It’s a pretty bitter pill for Trump, but it’s a fact he lost.”

Bob Dole, like George Mitchell, was a partisan leader, but neither used partisanship as a weapon, as so many others have done since.

Unless the GOP dramatically changes course, we will not see his like again.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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