The death of Sen. Bob Dole prompted me to dig through an old box of political memorabilia and walk down memory lane. My first real job in Washington, D.C. was minding the financial files on the 4th floor of the Dole presidential campaign office across from Union Station in Washington D.C.
Among the campaign stickers and buttons, a frayed red, white, and blue plastic pom pom, a work badge, debate credentials, and posters lied a picture of a smiling 26-year-old and an indefatigable presidential contender in front of an airplane dubbed the Citizen’s Ship. We were in Missouri where I had been stationed during the last week of the campaign for a get-out-the-vote drive. Senator Dole had touched down for a late-night rally during his ‘96-hours to Victory’ tour at the tail end of the campaign.
I remember shaking his left hand since his right hand, forever damaged by enemy fire during World War II, was frozen in a clenched fist. He was friendly and grandfatherly. Then 73-years-old, Dole had served the country as a soldier, a representative in the Kansas and U.S. House of Representatives, and as the Senate majority leader.
The senator hadn’t intended to go into politics. He was born in a little town in windswept central Kansas where his dad managed a creamery. While in college, he dreamt of becoming a doctor but disabling injuries sustained in combat shattered that dream. It took him three years to recover. Undeterred, Dole finished his undergraduate degree and went on to earn a law degree. He taped his professors’ lectures because his left hand couldn’t record notes fast enough.
Once Dole entered politics, his trajectory upward was unstoppable. His life and career seem to exemplify Kansas’s state motto– ad astra per aspera— to the stars through adversity. That unbeatable momentum, however, would come to an end a few days after we met when he lost to incumbent President Bill Clinton.
Since campaign finance offices live on as zombie entities after the election thanks to reporting requirements, I continued at the campaign for several more months. Eventually, I landed my dream job on Capitol Hill working for newly elected Rep. Bob Schaffer from Colorado’s 4th Congressional District.
It seems like a lifetime ago. In the mid-1990s we had basic email but social media didn’t yet exist. Blockbuster still rented videos. Cell phones were large, unwieldy and uncommon. Love of beer routinely brought young Republican and Democrat staffers together. Those were the days when the budget got balanced, appropriations bills were passed, and major legislation like Welfare Reform could still get signed into law with bipartisan support. With the Cold War over and the economy flying, Washington was flush with optimism.
Of course, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. The Clinton presidency was polarizing and impeachment divisive. Politicians had affairs and lied. Debate wasn’t always respectful. When a firebrand took the podium, we stopped working to watch C-SPAN on the office television. Something ridiculously offensive was bound to come out of the mouth of B-1 Bob Dornan. Pete Stark actually introduced a bill called the “Buck Naked Act.” You could count on James Traficant to be gloriously nutty. “Beam me up!” he’d conclude every thundering tirade. Generally speaking, though, a certain amount of decorum and decency was expected of congressmen and women when addressing the chamber.
And that’s what I remember of Bob Dole — his decency and dignity in office and on the campaign trail.
Before I left Missouri to head back to the District of Columbia, the local campaign staff in Springfield gave me a business card holder. The silver-plated cover, now dented, dinged and worn to copper on the edges, is engraved with the words “Success is a journey not a destination.” It’s true. How we get where we’re going matters as much as getting there. Through adversity and triumph, Sen. Bob Dole journeyed though life with integrity. I am proud to have worked for him.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.