I forgot about Bob Dole.
Not completely. Just one, specific memory.
If someone asked me six months ago if I ever had met the now-89-year-old former U.S. Senator and 1996 Republican presidential candidate, I would have quickly said no. After all, that’s something a person would remember, right?
Dole is an icon of American politics. The pride of Russell, Kan., he not only served as chairman of the Republican Party in the 1970s, but also represented the Sunflower State in both houses of the U.S. Congress, serving as Senate Minority Leader and Senate Majority Leader during his career. Dole was known in the halls of Congress for his keen intellect, sharp wit and ability to work across the aisle.
A World War II veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient, the senator was near-universally liked and respected, though that wasn’t enough to win him the White House — a race in which he faced the wildly charismatic, but polarizing Democrat incumbent Bill Clinton, as well as media and pop culture caricatures of him as a doddering, confused old man.
Who could forget such a legendary figure?
Well, me ... sort of.
A few months ago, I was visiting with an old friend from my youth, chatting about old times and mentally reliving some of our most amusing moments. The conversation bounced around from discussing former classmates to our trips to Star Trek conventions in Tulsa, Okla., then suddenly took a right turn.
“Remember that time you grabbed Bob Dole?” my friend asked, smiling.
For a moment I was puzzled, not knowing what he meant. Then, suddenly, the memory came rushing back.
I was attending a Halloween parade with my friend and his family in the mid-1990s when we saw Dole coming down the street amid the parade procession. Though a chubby little middle school student at the time, I already identified with the Republican politician and felt like I was meeting my first celebrity.
That’s when I pulled a stupid stunt — a stunt I never would have attempted if I had been with my own family, rather than with my friend’s more-laid back, less-restrictive parents.
I ran into the street — into the parade — and grabbed Dole’s hand.
Now, as most people with a cursory knowledge of the Kansas war hero’s injury already know, Dole’s right arm and hand largely are immobile because of a machine gun attack during combat in Italy during World War II. As a public figure, he frequently used his right hand to hold a pen while talking. On this date, he held nothing.
I tried to shake his hand, but found it cold and stiff. He quickly thrust out his left hand, giving me a polite smile.
Still a bit confused, I shook his left hand awkwardly, then ran back to the street’s edge — fortunate my own parents weren’t there to see me misbehaving.
Dole and the parade moved on.
Soon after, apparently, I forgot the whole incident.
But not before asking my friend’s parents why Dole shook my hand so strangely.
Though not Republicans, both knew the senator’s history. They told me about Dole’s combat injury. They also told me about his contribution to a far-reaching law Dole helped push through the Senate. As special education teachers, my friend’s parents were quite familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
More than 30 years after the landmark legislation — which protects people with disabilities from discrimination and improves their access to education, services and employment — passed, Dole was back this week on the floor of the U.S. Senate. This time, however, the longtime advocate for those with disabilities was confined to a wheelchair, his age and ailments showing.
He was there to support the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Already ratified by 126 countries worldwide, the international treaty faced a vote Tuesday in the Senate where it needed two-thirds approval to pass. Modeled after the U.S. ADA law Dole championed, the measure originally was negotiated and signed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and again by President Obama in 2009.
Its passage should have been a slam dunk.
Not only would the treaty have secured rights for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, it also would have brought other nations up to the standards of access enjoyed today in the United States. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce favored the treaty and its globalization of disability laws, Businessweek reported this week, because it would force “foreign companies [read: China] to bear the same costs of compliance that American businesses do. Backing the treaty would improve U.S. industry’s competitiveness.
“That’s usually the kind of activity that gets bipartisan support. But it’s a treaty. And in the Republican view, treaties might involve foreigners telling us what to do one day.”
So, instead of backing the treaty, GOP lawmakers gave in to misguided fear and paranoia.
Nothing in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities would have superceded U.S. law or interfered with U.S. sovereignty. In fact, the treaty would have made countries around the world more like the United States. Though there are legitimate reasons to be suspicious of and even highly resistant to vague language or efforts to impose international law on U.S. citizens, this wasn’t one of those instances.
Tuesday’s vote showed some lawmakers at their worst, mindlessly catering to base instincts.
And it showed many Republicans have forgotten Bob Dole — not just the war hero or the advocate for people with disabilities, but the moderate lawmaker who thoughtfully and rationally worked with the political right and the left for the greater good.
That brings a feeling of sadness and embarrassment I just can’t shake.
Tommy Felts is Herald managing editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org