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Laugh of the Week: Bob Dole as a Tribune of Civility | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Laugh of the Week: Bob Dole as a Tribune of Civility

So now we’re supposed to fall in love with Bob Dole: the enfeebled old solon went on Fox News this week and said his beloved Grand Old Party should be “closed for repairs” for having abandoned civility and comity, and for lacking “ideas.” All right then; let’s give Bob Dole half credit. It is true that Bob Dole was on the Republican side of the hyphen for plenty of pieces of bipartisan legislation (never mind that many of those laws were awful—like “Bayh-Dole,” the 1980 law that let universities patent, and thus privatize, their publicly financed inventions). But let’s also call it half bullshit. All in all, Bob Dole was much more an architect of the Republican Party’s culture of hyper-partisan nastiness than a tribune of civility.

Once, when LBJ was thundering toward his 1964 landslide, megalomaniacally rolling up road miles to defeat as many incumbent Republicans as possible, he told the reporters traveling with him, “You all know a bit about the Republicans in Congress, and there must be at least a few of them that you think deserve to be defeated. Give me some names and either Hubert and I will try to get into their districts in the next few days and talk against ’em.” After they got over their shock, one piped up proposing that Dole kid, the young congressman out of Kansas: he was a nasty man, a hatchet man—a traducer of the civility of Washington. Which was largely how Bob Dole rose in Republican counsels. How soon we forget.

It’s one of those ineluctable patterns in American political culture. As I wrote in 2004 upon Ronald Reagan’s death: “each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater. Nowadays, as we grapple with the malevolence of President Bush, it’s Reagan we remember as the sensible one.” As, thus, does Robert Dole: in today’s Republican Party, “Reagan wouldn’t have made it.”

And now, like clockwork, Bob Dole volunteers Bob Dole as the cuddly one, thereby basking in the pundits’ lionization of Bob Dole. Bob Dole!

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Rick Perlstein is not buying it. Bob Dole, who in 1971 when Richard Nixon expanded the Vietnam War into Laos, called Democrats who protested to Nixon publicly (but not Republicans who did the same thing privately) “the new Chamberlains in what they hope will be another era of appeasement,” saying George McGovern has went “as close as anyone has yet come to urging outright surrender.”

The next year, as Nixon’s Republican National Committee chair, Bob Dole eagerly stood up on his hind legs for the Watergate-plagued president, then peed on Woodward and Bernstein: “For the last week, the Republican Party has been the victim of of a barrage of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations by George McGovern and his partner-in-mudslinging, the Washington Post...McGovern appears to have turned over the franchise for his media attack campaign to the editors…who have shown themselves every bit as surefooted along the low road.”

Others can add their greatest hits from their own personal Wayback Machines. Meanwhile, let’s count down for another Bob to bob forth with some blathering about Bob: Bob Woodward. It can’t really be long.

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