Reflecting on The Life of Senator Bob Dole

This post can be attributed to DCI Group Founder, Tom Synhorst.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career.  The two elected officials I’ve been closest to and most influenced by are Sen. Chuck Grassley and former Sen. Bob Dole.

The Grassley work – from driver in his 1980 campaign to campaign manager in the 1986 re-election – led directly to the work for Sen. Dole.  When the Dole for President campaign hired me to be its Iowa state director in 1987 it was a huge opportunity and I was determined to make the most of it.

The Iowa caucuses in 1988 were a life-changing experience.  Sen. Dole criss-crossed the state meeting with people in all 99 counties.  I spent an enormous amount of time with him driving across the state and got to know him very well.  We were up against then-Vice-President George HW Bush’s political machine, which had shocked the world in 1980 by defeating then-frontrunner Ronald Reagan in Iowa.  We viewed it as a David-vs-Goliath battle, and we were happy in our role as David.

The 1988 campaign experienced several changes in leadership at the national level, and each new team wanted to install its own people in the early states of IA and NH.  Sen. Dole developed great loyalty to our Iowa team, and each time he told his national operation, “Make whatever changes you want, but don’t touch Iowa.”  His faith in us was rewarded when we won 37% in the caucus, with Pat Robertson placing second at 25% and Vice-President Bush coming in third at 19%.

Fast forward to 1996 when Sen. Dole seeks the GOP nomination again, this time as the front runner.   As he was preparing to make his national announcement in Kansas, a small band of virulently anti-gay protestors were picketing with signs questioning Sen. Dole’s pro-family, pro-life credentials because his campaign had gay staffers and specifically had a gay man (me) running his Iowa operation.  I’d share what the signs said but it was really offensive.  You can assume the worst.

I was horrified – the last thing I wanted was to become an issue in his campaign.  And sure enough, a senior leader in the campaign called and suggested I start writing a resignation letter for exactly that reason.  I was crushed.

Shortly thereafter Bob Dole himself called and asked how I was doing.  He dismissed the protestors as “nitwits” and told me not to take my eye off the ball.  His specific words:  “We have work to do and an election to win.”  It clearly had never even occurred to him to jettison me.   I’ll forever be grateful for his kindness and his confidence in me – especially when other politicians would have cut and run.

In 2021, it’s really hard to appreciate what a monumental display of conscience and loyalty this was.  Right now there’s a strong gay presence in the GOP and it’s not a big deal.  But then?  What he said was borderline unthinkable.  As recently as the mid-2000s the Republican party made attacking gay relationships part of its grand strategy for increasing voter turnout, going so far as to endorse ballot measures in key states that singled out our private lives for discrimination in state constitutions.

Bob Dole was many things – a patriot, a great public servant, and a role model to name just a few.  I got to see – up close and personal — a side of him that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.  Bob Dole was a fundamentally decent man who cared deeply about people and had the courage of his convictions.  I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet to have known him, and I’m grateful every day for the time I got to spend with him.

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