KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Two old men, neither particularly grumpy, have been in the news in recent weeks, and their re-emergence in the public eye is a sobering reminder of how different is our civic life than even a few years ago.
At times in their lives, George H.W. Bush, 89, and Robert J. Dole, 90, were bitter rivals and fierce pugilists. Today the two men are beloved figures, Bush celebrated for shaving his hair in support of a Secret Serviceman whose 2-year-old is battling cancer, Dole feted in the capital this summer upon entering his 10th decade.
Twice, in 1980 and in 1988, the two men fought each other for the Republican presidential nomination. These battles were brutal, and no one who witnessed them will ever forget the intensity of their rivalry and the depth of their enmity. But that was long ago, almost in another country entirely. This summer Bush wrote Dole with birthday greetings, joking that the former Kansas senator was much older than the former president.
These two men’s lives have been intertwined for decades. They served as consecutive chairmen of the Republican National Committee during Watergate, a job nobody, including themselves, wanted. They were consecutive GOP nominees for vice president and then consecutive Republican nominees for president. One of them was on the Republican ticket for six consecutive elections, between 1976 and 1996, a remarkable period of personal political prominence.
In their day these two men — once the two fastest walkers in the capital, now slowed by age — controlled two of the three branches of the government in ways that have no modern analogue.
Bush may have been a one-term president, but for parts of his tenure he rode a crest of popularity matched in modern history only by his son after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Dole may have lost two GOP nomination fights before capturing the prize in 1996 (only to lose to Bill Clinton in the general election), but his reign as Republican Senate leader stands out for its crispness, efficiency, productivity — and civility.
Today they are frail, seldom appearing in public. But while many men seem to shrink as they age, these two seem to have grown, perhaps not physically but surely in the eyes of the countrymen both sought to serve. Indeed, these men today sometimes seem to be giants.
Wait, you might say, don’t the political figures of old always seem bigger than those of the present, the way Al Kaline and Carl Yastrzemski and Hank Aaron seem more formidable in memory than today’s ballplayers do in reality? Aren’t these two men like Bart Starr and Jim Brown, dominant in their day but somehow larger than they really were now that they are firmly rooted in an era long past?
Perhaps not. Bush and Dole are of a different era — but also of a completely different outlook from today’s political figures.
They were personally ambitious, to be sure. Dole never was satisfied as a sovereign on Capitol Hill and, unlike House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., who devoutly believed that presiding over one of the houses of the Congress was more noble than serving in the White House, he ardently, almost maniacally, sought the presidency. Bush relentlessly pursued higher office as a higher calling than the oil business, which he entered shortly after graduating from Yale.
But despite their ambition, the two men — of different geographical, educational and economic backgrounds — shared service in World War II, where they both had distinguished records.
Bush flew 58 missions in a single-engine aircraft, one of which ended in a rescue at sea by a submarine, and won a Distinguished Flying Cross. Dole was injured in the last days of the war in Italy, winning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star but requiring years of surgery and therapy even to walk down the street in his hometown of Russell, Kan. They returned to civilian life with a strong sense of nation — and of national service.
Both were strong partisans and ferocious fighters. But both believed that compromise rather than contention was the grease that made the political machinery work.
Bush once issued a read-my-lips disavowal of new taxes, only to embrace new revenues in a 1990 budget agreement with the Democrats that enraged Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was a great critic of Dole, as well, whom he archly described as the tax collector for the welfare state, a critique that stung for decades. As Senate leader, Dole believed reaching the deal was the highest achievement of a legislative leader. Despite the respect each had for the other, the two never were close. Their backgrounds — suburban Connecticut, rural Kansas — were too different, and so were their interests, temperaments and styles.
But they shared much, including strong senses of humor and occasional bouts of failing to humor their rivals.
Dole could devastate with a verbal aside, then charm with a quick quip. Bush once exclaimed to House Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski: “If you’re so goddamned smart, how come you’re not the president?” Later, when he retired from office, the playful domain name of his email address was “flfw.com” for “former leader of the free world.”
The other afternoon Bush powered his wheelchair, the words “President of the United States” emblazoned on the back, to a bluff overlooking the sea. In the country-quiet of the noon hour he wanted to peer out onto the ocean, to the view he grew to love as a boy collecting starfish and shells. He seemed much the ancient mariner, as Dole now seems much the ancient infantryman.
It was only a few days after his new haircut, and the 41st president — his tribute to the young leukemia victim fresh, but his determination to fight childhood cancer as old as his memories of his daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 — asked his visitors how they liked the new look. “Want to touch it?” he asked. It seemed rude not to.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.