Bob Dole's exceptional life was an example for Washington to follow

·4 min read

When I heard of Sen. Bob Dole's passing, I thought, "Will the greater D.C. noise machine stop the partisan nonsense for even a few days to honor one of the most remarkable leaders our nation has known?"

I was blessed with the distinction of serving as Dole's director of communications for a number of years after he left the U.S. Senate. Our friendship goes back almost a quarter-century.

I loved Bob Dole.

The reason has nothing to do with politics. There are a number of his fellow congressional colleagues, friends and staff who knew him much better than I, and hopefully they, too, will speak to his greatness as a political, legislative and national leader - as well as his Herculean effort to build the World War II Memorial.

I came to love him simply because of his empathy and generosity. I had never seen anything like it - especially for those less fortunate than he.

Without getting into his extraordinary biography, Dole had a tough childhood at times. At one point, to survive hard times, he and his family moved into the basement of their home to live on its dirt floor and rented out the upstairs. Soon after joining the Army to serve in World War II, he became a second lieutenant in the acclaimed 10th Mountain Division. As the war was winding down, Dole was almost fatally wounded in the hills of Italy while trying to rescue a fallen soldier.

Horrific wounds required more than three years of convalescence and deprived him of lifelong use of his right arm; he also lost a kidney and all feeling in his left arm.

His tough childhood and war experience forever locked his mind into a gear that kept him always looking out for those who were enduring any sort of suffering - physical, mental or financial. If he could find a way to help, he would.

Bob Dole wore his empathy on his sleeve and was never ashamed of the tears he shed for those going through the worst that life had to offer. I lost count of the times he would read or watch a news story reporting on a poor American's financial or medical crisis and would send them money or pay their bills. Sometimes he did this anonymously, or with the stipulation that they never tell anyone that he helped them.

Because I, too, came from the "wrong side of the tracks," he and I often talked about poverty and those less fortunate. He told me that he really wouldn't want to associate with someone who had "never been scarred by life" because that person might not have a natural connection with the 99 percent of people who have experienced some sort of hardship.

Personal lives and politics aside, Dole's childhood was one reason that he held an abiding respect for what former President Clinton accomplished - including Clinton's defeat of Dole in the 1996 presidential election. Dole knew that Clinton himself went through a somewhat dysfunctional childhood and he believed that experience added to the foundation of Clinton's strengths.

Because I came to know Dole as an incredibly kind and generous person, I always hated that - because of the 1976 presidential campaign, when he was President Ford's running mate - some in the media labeled him as a "political hatchet-man." Anyone who really knew him knew that Dole was nothing of the sort. Although he could - and did - fire off tough political arguments and sometimes an ill-conceived one-liner, he almost always showed deep respect and caring for his political opponents.

Among others he admired, he spoke often of his affection for Democratic Sens. George McGovern and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as well as former President Carter. I was with Dole the first time I met then-Sen. Joe Biden and my overriding memory of that meeting is of the two of them laughing together, enjoying each other's company and sharing a senatorial bond that few would ever know.

In our new age of poisoned, polarized social media, it might be hard for some to imagine - or worse, to accept - that Dole and Biden had a friendship that lasted a lifetime.

But for me, the enduring image of him that I will always treasure in my mind is one that literally personifies the love, emotion, generosity and caring that filled Bob Dole's heart. It happened during an event that took place three years ago this month.

On the floor of the Capitol Rotunda, as his friend and one-time political opponent, former President George H. W. Bush lay in state, Dole, then 95, struggled to his feet from his wheelchair and, with tears welling, raised his "good" arm in a final salute. The video of his heartfelt salute should be required viewing for anyone who believes that those who disagree with them are "the enemy."

There is a reason that Bob Dole became one of only eight senators to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He led an exceptional life, one that became a gift or a prayer answered for so many of his fellow Americans in need.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was communications director for Sen. Bob Dole, a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and a special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.