Two warriors of a different time share a bond

David Shribman.
David Shribman.

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Two old men, neither of them particularly grumpy, have been in the news in recent weeks. Their re-emergence in the public eye is a sobering reminder of how different our civic life is from even a few years ago.

At times in their lives, George H.W. Bush, 89, and Robert Dole, 90, were bitter rivals and fierce pugilists. Today, the two men are beloved figures — Mr. Bush celebrated for shaving his head in support of a Secret Service agent whose 2-year-old son is battling cancer, Mr. Dole feted in the capital this summer upon entering his 10th decade.

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, Mr. Bush wrote Mr. 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 controlled two of the three branches of the government in ways that have no modern analogue.

Mr. Bush was 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.

Mr. Dole 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. These two seem to have grown in the eyes of the countrymen both sought to serve.

Mr. Bush and Mr Dole are of a different era — and of a completely different outlook from today’s political figures. But despite their ambition, the two men — of different geographical, educational, and economic backgrounds — shared service in World War II, where they had distinguished records.

They returned to civilian life with a strong sense of nation — and of national service. Both were partisans and ferocious fighters. But both believed that compromise rather than contention was the grease that made the political machinery work.

Mr. Bush once issued a read-my-lips disavowal of new taxes, only to embrace new revenues in a 1990 budget agreement with the Democrats. As Senate leader, Mr. 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. 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.

It was only a few days after having his head shaved, 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.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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