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.