, Salem, MA


August 10, 2013

Shribman: A touch of greatness


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 “” 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.

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