Amid accolades and tears, Majority Leader Bob Dole on Tuesday fulfilled his promise to run for president as “just a man,” resigning from the Senate that had defined his political persona for almost three decades.
“It’s been a great ride,” Dole said in his farewell speech on the crowded Senate floor. “A few bumps along the way.”
Dole insisted he was leaving with a joyous heart, not a heavy one, even as his longtime chief of staff, Sheila Burke, sobbed beside him.
“We all take pride in the past, but we all live for the future,” he said. After a morning of laudatory goodbye speeches from his colleagues, Dole entered the Senate chamber around noon to a minute-long standing ovation.
Flashing a thumbs up, he was accompanied by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who followed protocol for House members and stood in the back of the chamber.
In the visitors gallery above were Dole’s wife, Elizabeth, and daughter from his first marriage, Robin.
In resigning, Dole became the first majority leader ever to voluntarily give up the post. He had served 35 years in Congress - eight in the House and 27 in the Senate, the last 11-1/2 as Republican leader.
The farewell speech was vintage Dole - soaring on the page, but disjointed in the spoken word. It was also marked by the dry, inside humor that has made the Kansan popular among reporters and Hill staff, but less accessible to the general public, with whom he is trying to connect by leaving the arcane world of the Senate.
His prepared text, for instance, read: “In a democracy, differences are healthy - only indifference is to be feared.”
But what Dole actually said - to knowing laughter from often-warring senators - was as much stand-up comic as statesman. “I always thought the differences were a healthy thing, and that’s why we’re all so healthy. Because we have a lot of differences in this chamber. I’ve never seen a healthier group in my life.”
At other times, Dole appeared to have an eye on the general election, speaking of issues that are not now generally championed by Republicans.
He referred to his work with liberal Democratic South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, the conservatives’ nemesis, on such social welfare legislation as food stamps, school lunches, and the Womens, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program.
“That crops up now and then in conservative articles, that I can’t be a conservative because I know George McGovern,” Dole said. “I think George McGovern is a gentleman and has always been a gentleman.”
He recalled his past support for the Martin Luther King national holiday and the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act.
In fact, his first Senate speech on April 14, 1969 was about disabled Americans, recalled Dole, 72, who has been unable to use his right arm since he was wounded on a World War II battlefield in Italy.
Dole did not mention that his last few weeks in the Senate have been marked more by legislative failures than successes.
For the second time in two years, the Senate on June 6 narrowly failed to approve a balanced budget constitutional amendment, killing its best chance ever to go to the states for ratification.
Legislation to temporarily eliminate a 4.3-cent gas tax passed in 1993 also appears to have, well, run out of gas.
An illegal immigration reform bill has been bogged down in talks between the House and Senate for weeks over whether to bar the children of illegal immigrants from attending public school. Also stalled is a popular health care reform bill that would make insurance portable and would prohibit insurers from denying benefits to people with pre-existing conditions.
But there was no mention of these issues Tuesday. Democrats and Republicans alike wished Dole well.
After one last luncheon with Republican senators, Dole headed into his uncertain future, walking down the Capitol’s enormous cascade of steps with Elizabeth and Robin Dole at his side, giving his best candidate’s wave.