The Media Is Rewriting Bob Dole’s History as a Vicious Right-Wing Attack Dog

Today, pundits are pretending that Bob Dole, who died this past weekend, was a patron saint of compromise and decency. But for virtually his whole career, Dole was an unscrupulous partisan warrior who did big favors for wealthy donors and pushed a radical anti-government agenda.

Bob Dole at a trade association meeting in San Diego. (J. David Ake / AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a tiresome ritual that seems to have started with the Trump era, which comes every time an older generation’s Republican dies. Like clockwork, as if every reporter was sent the same sheet of talking points the night before, a stream of articles, tweets, statements, and other ephemera spills onto the Web, telling us what a moderate force this man was, how he’s the last of an era of bipartisanship and civility, how different he was to the disagreeable, corrupt, and often extreme right of today, and wouldn’t it be nice to be back there again.

It happened with John McCain. It happened with Colin Powell. It happened with George H. W. Bush. Hell, it happened with Bush’s son, and he’s not even dead yet. And sure as the sun comes up, it’s happening again with former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, who died this past Sunday at age ninety-eight.

Here’s an obituary from his native Kansas, mourning his “spirit of compromise,” and his “legacy” of “tireless effort to find common ground with political opponents.” Here’s Dole as a symbol of “a better path not taken,” a man we should remember for how he “took governing seriously.” He “led to get things done,” the Washington Post editorial board tells us, spurred by his death to “wish there really was a bridge to the past.” He “came to epitomize a kinder day in an increasingly partisan Washington.” He “reminds us of an era in which the two parties were willing to work together.” His “faith in the possibility of collaboration and compromise seems all too rare now.” Even the New Republic got in on this tedious act, lamenting that Dole’s “pragmatism” made him “out of step with a changing GOP.”

It’s certainly possible to make this case — all it takes is glossing over or omitting every defining element of Dole’s career. An alternative account, one that accurately reflects Dole’s contributions to the endless political crises the United States finds itself in today, would have made it harder to portray him as Generic Moderate Republican #34.

No, Dole wasn’t the worst Republican official of his time, or of this one, and to that extent, he does represent an older, post–New Deal GOP establishment that no longer exists (something you could just as easily say about his pal Richard Nixon, whose return few would pine for today).

But he was as craven, corrupt, and vicious a politician as any of his era, and had he been born some decades later, he clearly would have comfortably adjusted himself to the pathologies of today’s GOP. In fact, he very much did. And for all the tributes to his pragmatism and bipartisanship, Dole’s greatest legacy is the casual Senate obstructionism Republicans have used for over a decade now to make the country practically ungovernable.

“To the Right of Genghis Khan”

“I’m a conservative, not right-wing,” Dole would later say.

In practice, the distinction was meaningless. When Dole first entered Congress in the 1960s, he opposed virtually the entire suite of Great Society programs put forward by Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats that would prove vital to American well-being in the decades ahead: Medicare, Medicaid, fair housing, food stamps, and federal aid to education, to name a few. Contrary to the emerging myth about Dole’s bipartisanship, he voted against the first three despite the fact they were backed by most other House Republicans.

From start to bitter end, Dole backed the disastrous war in Vietnam, and didn’t care how low he sank to do it. He excoriated the media for its supposed bias in covering the war critically, alleging an “attempted media sabotage” that “could cost the lives” of US troops, and was “encouraging to every damn crook in the country.” He did the same to his colleagues critical of Nixon’s war effort, calling them “the new Chamberlains” and worse.

George McGovern would later complain about Dole’s suggestions that he and other critics were “personally disloyal or unpatriotic or even hostile to the best interests of American troops.” Even decades later, when he’d spent years out of power, Dole kept this up, joining the GOP smears on John Kerry’s war record in the 2004 election, saying he had “never bled that he knew of,” and questioning whether he should’ve received Purple Hearts for “superficial wounds.”

There were two exceptions to this utterly conventional set of right-wing positions. Dole’s horrific war injuries gave him empathy for the disabled, and would both vote for disability aid in the 1960s and help shepherd the Americans With Disabilities Act to passage later in 1990. He also voted for both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, though anyone wowed by this act of bare minimum moral decency should be aware both bills passed in the House with huge Republican majorities hovering around 80 percent: 138-34 and 112-23, respectively. Otherwise, he was considered a hard-liner, one colleague calling his politics “somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.”

What proved most critical for Dole’s ascent was his relationship with Nixon. For the president, Dole was a useful “hatchet man,” as a fellow Nixon loyalist would complain, becoming the soon-to-be-disgraced president’s attack dog and apologist all in one. Nixon made him chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in 1971 because he could “say things which the President himself cannot.” For example, Dole charged that Edmund Muskie was trying to “destroy public confidence in law enforcement” by criticizing the FBI. (Unfortunately for Dole, his adoration of Nixon was a one way street, with the president largely keeping him out of his inner circle, and eventually unceremoniously shunting him from the RNC position).

But Dole really earned his stripes over Watergate, which he assured the president was “not nearly as big an issue outside Washington.” He accused the Washington Post of attempting a “rescue operation” for McGovern, Nixon’s opponent in the 1972 presidential election, and charged the paper had “set up housekeeping with the McGovern campaign.”

He attacked Walter Cronkite over his coverage, prompting even fellow party members to ask him to tone it down. At one point, he even authored a resolution to end live TV coverage of the hearings, to “move the Watergate investigation from the living rooms of America and put it where it belongs — behind the closed doors of the committee room and before the judge and jury in the courtroom.” When a constituent wrote him a letter objecting to this, Dole told him: “You write like an anti-Nixon Democrat.”

So it was that by the mid-1970s Dole had solidified a reputation among his colleagues as a nasty partisan: he was a “a hungry Doberman Pinscher,” “a real gut fighter,” or, in Barry Goldwater’s words, “the first man we’ve had around here in a long time who will grab the other side by the hair and drag them down the hill.”

On this flip side, this kind of behavior also made Dole’s reelection in 1974 so tough. Down in the polls for months, Dole saved his political career by launching what one of his own campaign workers called a “vicious” set of attacks on his “abortioner” opponent, suddenly calling for a “human life amendment” to the Constitution to overturn Roe v. Wade. (“Go back and look at the record,” he boasted years later. “And you’ll find that when abortion first became a national issue was at my reelection in 1974.”)

Reagan’s Right-Hand Enabler

Dole’s team-up with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s is, ironically, often pointed to as a leading example of his moderation. He seemed to break from Reagan’s program of inflaming racist resentment, and both worked to create the national holiday in Martin Luther King, Jr’s honor, and hammered out the compromise that extended the Voting Rights Act in 1982 — though one of his own aides admitted the latter was motivated by concern over the party’s hemorrhaging of black support.

But it was his work as chair of the Senate finance committee that turned out his most far-reaching socioeconomic legacy. Dole generally gets points for sponsoring the various tax increases Reagan signed through the 1980s to make up for the deficit-increasing effects of his massive cuts to high earners and the wealthy. Dole was a deficit hawk, after all, and overwhelmingly concerned with ensuring the government spent only as much as it took in, to the point of calling for an across-the-board spending freeze.

But the tax cuts of 1981 (cutting the top marginal rate from 70 to 50 percent) and 1986 (slashing the rate further to 28 percent) were never really undone. Wealth inequality ballooned, the country’s richest used the windfall to amplify their political power, and for all the “revenue enhancements” Dole engineered over the decade to keep the budget deficit from spiraling, top tax rates have never even come close to returning to where they were pre-Reagan — in fact, the very idea of doing so became a political nonstarter.

Dole’s work here served another purpose too: doing a favor for his single biggest donor, ethanol titan Dwayne O. Andreas, whose industry more or less only existed by the grace of federal loans, protectionism, and subsidies Dole had successfully pushed since the 1970s. Through his perch on the finance committee, Dole saved the ethanol subsidy in 1982, and he later extended it for another eleven years in 1989 through an amendment, ensuring he would get to keep flying around on Andreas’s company jets.

Dole made sure to take care of other favored businesses, too, using a deficit-reduction bill to reinsert a tax credit for a donor who was planning a trucking plant that had been eliminated by his 1986 tax bill. No wonder he’d voted against establishing the Federal Election Commission in 1974.

Return of the Hatchet Man

As the 1990s opened, Dole played a leading role in creating another intractable problem that plagues us today. Bent on grinding the newly elected Bill Clinton’s presidency to a halt, Dole pioneered the relentlessly obstructionist use of the Senate filibuster that’s become de rigueur today, filibustering everything from Clinton’s initial stimulus package, his attempt at health care reform, and his judicial nominees to campaign finance reform, restrictions on lobbyists, and lifting a ban on homosexuals in the military, earning himself the nickname “Mr Gridlock.”

In the first two years of Clinton’s presidency, Dole had used the filibuster more times than in all the years between 1917 and 1970. “In the Dole era, the filibuster is more pernicious and more common,” labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan wrote in the Post at the time. “Bob Dole has expanded its use with impunity.”

“We’re thrilled that he’s an obstructionist,” said the hard-right direct-mail campaigner Richard Viguerie. “We don’t want the socialism of Bill and Hillary.”

After briefly moving somewhat to the center in the late 1970s, working with McGovern on improvements to the food stamp program, Dole now duly signed on to the right-wing, anti-government program of Newt Gingrich. Dole worked to try pass it all and shred the post–New Deal order that had helped ensure American prosperity and economic security, from eviscerating welfare (“It’s not compassionate to lead people into a life of drugs, dependency, and despair,” he said. “Americans have lost patience with the Great Society”) to backing the perma-austerity of the mercifully unsuccessful Balanced Budget Amendment.

As in the 1980s, Dole’s legislative work doubled as a windfall for his campaign coffers and proof he could hang with the likes of Gingrich, and he put forward the most stringent deregulatory bill of all his colleagues. “Dole was smart enough to sense that there was a movement out there that wanted government to be smaller and smarter,” said a Texaco lobbyist backing the bill. Dole then dipped into one of the firms lobbying on the bill, Humon and Williams, to hire an aide to oversee its passage, an aide who had just paid his unsuccessful congressional campaign’s debts by raising thousands of dollars from the very business interests calling for less regulations. The effort was only stopped, ironically, thanks to a Democratic filibuster.

All of this had nothing to do with political conviction, which Dole insiders insisted he didn’t really have. “Living by his reflexes, lacking a clear compass of principle, he is in danger of becoming dependent on the agenda of others,” his former speechwriter had told Life. As Dole himself had told his own biographer: “It’s not an agenda. I’m just gonna serve my country.” Times had changed, and Dole, planning another tilt at the White House and well-practiced at serving as someone’s poodle for the sake of being close to power, was happy to say and do whatever the establishment right wanted from him, no matter how extreme.

“If that’s what you want, I’ll be another Ronald Reagan,” Dole had told a meeting of the RNC in 1995. And sure enough, until he lost the 1996 election to Clinton and then retired from politics, Dole proceeded to do his best Reagan impression. He endorsed and campaigned for convicted felon and extremist Oliver North, went after sex and violence in Hollywood, and ran on a platform of absurd tax cuts: fifteen points across the board for every American (thereby handing, once again, the biggest gains to the very richest), halving the capital gains tax, and repealing a 1993 tax increase on the wealthiest Social Security beneficiaries.

Dole closed out his career the partisan attack-dog he started as. Only two years after using a filibuster to gut independent investigations of the executive branch, he now demanded a special prosecutor to investigate the Whitewater scandal. He attacked Clinton for refusing to rule out pardons for his former Whitewater business partners, despite having been “the foremost advocate” for Bush Sr’s outrageous pre-trial pardon of Iran-Contra defendants, the prosecutor in that case said, adding he’d lost all respect for Dole over it.

Most brazenly, he publicly likened the matter and Clinton’s handling of it to Watergate and Nixon: the scandal he’d made his name insisting was no big deal, and the president whose image he’d worked to rehabilitate, even visiting and praising him a few months earlier after he’d secured the Republican nomination.

This time, relentless attacks weren’t enough. Dole went into the election with a near-record-low approval rating of 43 percent, lower than Michael Dukakis during his 1988 defeat, and a little better than Bush Sr when he had lost in 1992. His years-long attempt to ram through a hard-right agenda strangling the government’s ability to protect its citizens turned out to have made him and his party fairly unpopular. Dole was easily beaten and, having resigned from his beloved Senate to run for president, quit politics altogether.

As is Washington tradition, he and Clinton later reconciled and Dole was rehabilitated himself, transformed into a reasonable, moderate statesman right around the time the Tea Party–dominated GOP began regularly resorting to brinkmanship over the debt ceiling and other issues. Now safely unable to actually do anything about it, Dole became one of the most vocal voices for filibuster reform. Conveniently, he raised his voice on killing the judicial filibuster only when Republican nominees were being held up, and the GOP took his advice in 2017, nuking it to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

These were all sidebars to Dole’s real work over the past twenty-five years: cashing in. Until the day he died, Dole was a registered agent for various foreign governments, including Armenia, Kosovo, and Taiwan, and a corporate lobbyist at Alston & Bird, representing virtually every malign corporate interest you can imagine: Big Pharma, finance, real estate, for-profit health care, oligarch and Vladimir Putin ally Oleg Deripaska (later a player in the Trump-Russia scandal), a for-profit college under sweeping investigation by various federal and state officials, and even a Chinese-owned chemical company.

A Trumpian Legacy

It’s hard to square any of these elementary facts about Dole’s career with the media portrayal of him that has emerged seemingly overnight. Dole fails on virtually every metric by which today’s liberal establishment hates Trump: hostility to the press, disregard for the rule of law, scurrilous violations of political decorum, corruption, petty partisanship and gridlock — even literally working for the guy reporters claimed was Trump’s link to Putin. Yet rather than being remembered as one of the many “mainstream” conservatives who prefigured and enabled Trumpism, Dole has now somehow been canonized by the liberal press as the Last Decent Republican before the reality show star took over the party.

That Dole was, for most of his career, marginally less extreme than today’s Republicans was a function of the times he had to operate in, having served the first half of his career during the post–New Deal era, when the political center of gravity was markedly more to the left.

In the Senate until he was seventy-three, Dole eagerly and without trouble conformed to the new, more radical GOP that emerged after Reagan, and had things been different, he would’ve done the same to the one that’s emerged under Barack Obama and Trump. Anyone who doubts this only needs to look at how Dole, at first a Trump critic, soon became one of the only establishment Republicans to publicly get behind him once nominated, and remained a vocal supporter of the former president until he died this past Sunday.

Commentators rewrite the history of figures like Dole because they want to sell the public on a history that never happened, of a moderate, decent Republican Party gone tragically astray when Trump and a gaggle of radicals took it over. They’d do better to ask what it means that “moderate” conservatives like Dole were on the wrong side of history on almost everything, and why, if Trump was the antithesis of everything they stood for, they were so easily won over by him.