His body frail at 90 but his wit and spirit intact, Kansas political icon Bob Dole told a Wichita audience Wednesday that compromise – not divisiveness – is the key to good government.
In what could be his final address to a large crowd in Wichita, Dole decried the take-no-prisoners gridlock that pervades politics today.
And he was critical of the right wing of the Republican Party that he once led as Senate minority and majority leader and nominee for vice president and president.
“We have people like Mike (Rep. Mike Pompeo) who want to get things done, and we have some who are conservative – I’m a conservative – but they’re way out in right field,” Dole said. “They’re so far right, they’re going to fall out of the Capitol.”
Dole said he was once like that but learned better.
“When I first went to Congress, I was very conservative,” he said. “But I learned that sometimes you can’t get everything you want in legislation. Sometimes you need to compromise.”
He said the greatest compromiser he knew was President Ronald Reagan.
“He told me one day, ‘Bob, if you can’t get everything, at least get me 70 percent, and we’ll get the rest next year.’ That’s sort of pragmatic conservatism. We’ve got to get things done.”
Dole, who lost the use of his right arm from World War II combat wounds, said he felt his biggest accomplishments as a senator were saving the Social Security system from bankruptcy in 1983 and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
He said his biggest disappointment was losing the battle to get a balanced budget amendment through the Senate – an effort that failed by a single vote when a Republican switched sides.
But as important as major policy is, taking care of the details and helping constituents deal with federal bureaucracy is just as important, he said.
“You’ve got to understand that people have problems, and if you’re elected to office, to the Congress of the United States, you have an obligation to try to deal with that problem,” he said. “It’s the little things you do in public service that people appreciate.”
Scattered throughout the audience were people whose lives were deeply affected by little things Dole had once done for them.
Design engineer Dan Heflin, a longtime Republican activist and former candidate for the state Legislature, had a special reason to come see Dole.
In 1997, Heflin severely damaged his hand in an industrial accident, severing three fingers with a table saw. After surgery to reattach the fingers, he told his boss that he wished he could talk to Dole about how he dealt with his crippling injury.
A few days later, the hospital nurse told Heflin to pick up the phone because Dole was on the line.
“Bob Dole told me to focus on two things: Whatever you walk out of the hospital with, you make the best of; and focus on those three little girls and make them your priority in life, and everything will be fine,” Heflin said.
Heflin said that one phone call helped him put his injury in perspective and changed his attitude from despair to determination.
“He brought everything back to sense for me so that then I was ready to fight the fight to recover, because I was in the hospital 18 days trying to keep these little fingers alive,” Heflin said.
Since then, Heflin said, he has always wanted to shake hands with Dole, left-handed, as is Dole’s custom. On Wednesday, he got that chance.
Carla Bouska Lee, director of La Familia Senior/Community Center, said Dole also had a big effect on her life.
When she was a young child in 1951, a flood destroyed the bridge between her farm home and the school in Dorance.
At her father’s request, Dole, who was then the Russell County attorney, got the school boundary redrawn so Lee and her siblings could go to school in Wilson, six miles to the north, rather than a tiny school three miles to the south.
“Because of Bob Dole, we weren’t put in a little, crowded, dilapidated one-room schoolhouse,” she said.
She said she “fell in love with school” in Wilson and went on to earn seven college degrees in nursing and education, including a doctorate in adult education.
“I think of Bob Dole every day,” she said. “It’s because of him that we were able to get a good education.”
Dole, famed for his dry sense of humor, made light of what is likely his farewell tour of the state.
“This is one time I can say to you that I don’t want any of your money,” Dole said. “I’m not running for anything, though I’m thinking about 2016.”
As the laughter abated, he added, “Just thinking.”
He noted that no Republican has yet emerged as frontrunner for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination but said someone eventually will.
“If I’m not around, I’m going to vote absentee,” he said to another round of laughter.
Dole was helped onto the stage and spoke from an easy chair. But despite his physical frailty, he stuck around long enough to share a few words and shake hands with everyone who came to see him, more than 200 people in all.
“You know, when you reach the age of 90, you’re a little even worried when you order room service,” he said. “So I thought I’d better get out here and thank the people who gave me the opportunity. … I had a great experience that wouldn’t have happened without people like you.”
And in his trademark fashion, Dole ended with a smile.
“I didn’t mean to take that long,” he said. “But senators never stop talking.”