Guest Commentary

The great twin legacies of George Bush and Bob Dole

Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole stands to salute as President George H.W. Bush lies in state

Former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas pays his respects as President George H.W. Bush Lies in State at the nation's capitol in Washington, D.C.
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Former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas pays his respects as President George H.W. Bush Lies in State at the nation's capitol in Washington, D.C.

I have had a plethora of times to be proud of Sen. Bob Dole in my 30-plus years of knowing him, but none more so than Tuesday when he summoned the courage and sheer will required to get to his feet and salute the casket of President George H.W. Bush.

It was a stunning moment — one that I will never forget. I know how emotional that must have been for Dole. History will write that the two men’s legacies are inexorably intertwined.

They both served in World War II and almost died in combat. They were rivals for the GOP nomination for president in 1980 and 1988. The ’88 campaign was particularly challenging. They were the two frontrunners and shared some harsh words.

However, after Bush won the presidency, Dole became his strongest ally. Together they accomplished a great deal, including the passage of one of the most important pieces of legislation in contemporary history: the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

I also spent a lot of time this week reflecting on my own personal experiences with Bush. I worked for President Ronald Reagan during the fight for the 1980 Republican Party nomination, but then worked closely with Vice President Bush in the Reagan White House.

In 1988, I worked for Dole during the presidential primary race. After Dole withdrew his candidacy, I received a phone call and eventually wound up running Bush’s campaign in the state of California. I later worked in another role on the president’s 1992 reelection campaign.

Three personal experiences stand out most.

One was how I had the misfortune to miss — not once, but twice — a thank you phone call to my home from President-elect Bush after his victory in 1988.

The second was a splendid day on the campaign trail in San Francisco. There was a huge parade in Chinatown and the Bushes participated. Thousands of people lined the main road as traditional Chinese drummers pounded out distinctive rhythms and others participated in several dragon dances, where dancers emulate the movements of a dragon with poles at regular intervals attached to a colorful cloth dragon.

In the middle of these festivities, Bush and his wife Barbara walked the length of the parade in front of their limousine. That was definitely the “good old days,” when national figures could walk safely in open air. It was exhilarating and a moment I will never forget.

The final event I remember remains one of my proudest days at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, where I serve as director. In November 2008, Bush joined us to accept the Dole Leadership Prize.

I had been working for four years to create a strong student culture and our Student Advisory Board. Watching the president interact with that dedicated group of students, snap a group photo with them and even befriend our advisory board coordinator was a great delight. The day was topped by a program at the Lied Center, where over 2,000 people had gathered to hear the experiences of an outstanding president. And it wasn’t until this ceremony that I finally had the chance to express my regret about those missed phone calls in 1988.

The president served only one term, but it was a critical one. I have had the chance to interview both former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and presidential historian Richard Norton Smith at Dole Institute programs this year. Both made the point that Bush was uniquely qualified to lead our nation and the free world during the most momentous event of my life: the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Bush’s passing put the hyperpartisanship and division in our country on pause for a few days.

I know that President George H.W. Bush — and Sen. Bob Dole — would hope that pause becomes daily reality.

William B. Lacy is director of the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.

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