Congress, which the Founding Fathers hoped would be the power center of American government, has become a broken and often incapacitated institution. Lawmakers know it too. Just take it from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who recently said, “This place sucks.”
Political science offers some reasons, pundits others, but if you ask me and many other former members of Congress, what’s really missing from the institution is true leadership. Congress is designed to be chaotic, and only great leaders are capable of forcing the place to work.
One such leader should be a model for Republicans and Democrats aspiring to help Congress reclaim its role as the arbiter of federal policy: Bob Dole.
What’s most important about Bob Dole as a model of leadership isn’t his deep understanding of the issues or his knowledge of Senate procedure. It’s the kind of man that he was as a professional politician. As a senator, he was never too busy to listen to his allies and adversaries alike. He has an acerbic wit, but is never spiteful or hateful. He actively made friends across the aisle, whether liberal or conservative, understanding that despite disagreements on tax policy or foreign affairs, you could still get along as Americans and as human beings.
He is a Republican politician who genuinely cares about poor and hungry people and wasn’t afraid to say it. He is no soft moderate and has strongly held views, but was always decent to his colleagues while remaining true to his conservative values formed in rural and small-town America.
He and I were not always on the same side of the issues. I was an ambitious Democratic congressman from Wichita who often made noises about running against him for Senate, which I know didn’t make him happy. Ultimately I never made that decision to run, knowing I likely could not win.
But even though he often treated me as a political adversary, he never treated me as an irredeemable enemy. And we shared our love of Kansas and worked collaboratively on issues affecting Kansas, especially aviation and agriculture.
Dole was the Republican Majority or Minority Leader in the Senate for most of my time in Congress, and still he treated me with respect from when I started as a back-bencher through my committee chairmanship.
After I left Congress, he helped my nomination for Secretary of Agriculture sail through the Senate unanimously, our earlier political jousting notwithstanding. What he knows, and what so many in politics have forgotten, is that there was nothing personal about our disagreements in politics or policy.
He also has an optimistic view on life and a great sense of humor, often self-deprecating. He was often described as the funniest politician in Washington, and it’s hard to have a sense of humor that good if you have a giant ego to match it. Who can forget his Viagra ads?
Dole deservedly received the Congressional Gold Medal recently for his service to this country. At the ceremony, all the current congressional leaders talked about his biography: a war hero, small town Kansas boy, veterans’ advocate and many other laudable roles. Everyone’s speech was similar. And no one mentioned his leadership that made the Senate function. Not one person mentioned his desire to get things done and his willingness to take political risks in the process. No one mentioned his efforts to work across the aisle or his flexibility in understanding what his adversary needed in order to get big legislation passed.
His career in the Senate is such a contrast to today’s political world, and it’s especially poignant after what has been happening the last few weeks.
So here’s a model for all legislators on both sides of the aisle to emulate: Be a funny, decent, patriotic leader, always working to solve the nation’s problems, always working to build bridges and not walls. Be a tough partisan, like Dole , but remember that the end game should always be to get something done. Never intentionally bully or hurt your adversaries, no matter how hot the debate.
Be more like Bob Dole, and perhaps Congress might once again be a great institution.
Dan Glickman served as Kansas congressman and secretary of agriculture.