We lost another political giant this week. Robert Joseph “Bob” Dole. 98 years old.
He was a son of Russell, Kansas, war hero, longtime Senate leader, and unsuccessful candidate for Vice President and President. For decades Bob Dole personified the values of Mid-West character and public service.
One day in 1991, I literally hid from him.
It was June 3, 1991, to be exact and he was the keynote speaker for the National Archives kickoff of the World War II 50th Anniversary Celebration. At the height of his Senate power and the personification of America’s sacrifice in the War, Bob Dole was the logical person to take this role that day. The speech was from the ornate portico of the National Archives Building on Constitution Avenue. It was the venue for our annual Fourth of July celebration where families fill the steps and crowd the streets to hear some high profile speaker recite the words of the Declaration of Independence.
But this day was a little different. We had the high-profile speaker. His speech had been carefully crafted. The lectern with the Archives emblem had been carefully put in place. The leather chairs for Don Wilson, Archivist of the United States, and the other guests of honor had been brough out and arranged. Our Public Affairs staff had thought of almost everything.
Except an audience.
While notices had been sent out and press releases, well, released...the normal tricks had not been deployed. No buses were dispatched to retirement villages with promises of a free lunch. No threats to the Archives staff to appear or else. No invitations to neighboring agencies or carnival barkers stopping pedestrians. Nothing except the hope that a Monday, noontime crowd would magically gather for this occasion.
Well, I was policy director for the Archives at the time with no dog in this hunt except for the reputation of my Agency. But being a political junkie, I chose to delay my lunch and walk around the building for the festivities.
As I came down 7th Street towards Constitution Avenue, I could hear Senator Dole being introduced by Don Wilson. When I peered around the corner and looked toward the steps, I literally gasped. Nobody was there. Well, one homeless sunbather in a greasy baseball cap who wasn’t even facing the stage and a few pedestrians who looked around thinking that this was surely a rehearsal for a later event.
I had the choice of being literally the only member of the audience or hiding like a coward under the old magnolia tree to watch the dumpster fire. Yep, I hid. Just long enough to watch Dole flip through the pages of his speech so he could quickly get to the end of this embarrassing moment.
In the week that followed there was Hell to pay, but none of the lightning struck me or my team.
Turn the clock forward almost exactly five years. It is June 11, 1996, the day that Bob Dole retires from the Senate to run full time for President of the United States. He had rolled up an increasing number of Republican primary victories and was headed for the nomination. He decided to retire from the United States Senate and as he said, “either go to the White House, or go home” after the election.
I am Director of Congressional Affairs at the Archives at the time. At about 2pm the phone rings on my desk and an extremely nervous docent says, “Mr. Constance, Senator Dole and his wife are here at the front desk.” I don’t know that I hung up the phone before racing out my door.
Taking the marble steps two at a time I rounded the corner and approached the Doles. I had never seen the Senator out of his dark suit and bright tie. He was wearing a sports jacket and slacks. No tie. Liddy Dole was smartly attired as always with a pretty red, white, and blue scarf.
I introduced myself and stuck out my left hand toward the Senator for a shake. He smiled with the recognition that I was someone who knew that his left hand worked, but his right hand (usually holding a pen) didn’t. We shook hands and he introduced me to Elizabeth. He then said this.
“John, I know that you are just doing your job, but we are trying to be on our own today. We realized that we have been in this town for years but had never seen it as tourists. That’s what we want to do today. No escorts, no guided tours, no ceremony. Just us looking around. We’ve been to the Library of Congress, the National Gallery, and want to spend some time here.”
I told him that I was sure the jungle drums were rumbling, but I would try to intercept the next wave of Archives officials and convey your wishes.
I thanked them both for their tireless service and said goodbye.
About an hour later I glanced out my window and saw them crossing Pennsylvania Avenue to hail a cab.
Only in America.