Because I have a story for everything: Before I was hired by my hometown congressman, I took a one-day trip to Washington, D.C., soon after I graduated college with the goal to pass out résumés in congressional offices across Capitol Hill in the hopes of landing a job.
The heat index that day was a suffocating 110 degrees, and I was soaking wet, dripping sweat in my only suit. I went into then-U.S. Sen. Bob Dole’s office, asked if they had any job openings, and the receptionist went to find someone to talk with me. While I was standing there, I felt like I was going to die and suddenly passed out. When I came to, people were hovering over me, and I jumped up and ran out of the office in embarrassment.
Not taking any chances, I left the building, and when I went to the next office (never give up!), I realized I left my folder full of résumés in Dole’s office. I went back over to get them, and when I walked in they had them for me and told me to wait for a minute.
Suddenly, Dole came out of his office, shook my hand with his left hand (for those who don’t know, Dole lost the use of his right hand in World War II, and to keep people from grabbing it to shake his hand, he kept a pen in his injured right hand), and asked me if I was OK. I was shocked and said yes. He suggested I sit for a while, and he had the receptionist go get me water and a snack. I will never forget how kind he was. They didn’t hire me, but that’s fine. It all worked out for the best.
The next time I shook his left hand (and I remembered this time to extend my left hand) was at the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act on the White House lawn on another hot summer day in 1990. The congressman I worked for had a part in the passage of that bill, and he took me with him to the signing of it.
Sen. Dole almost single-handedly — and the irony is not lost on me there — pushed that bill into law. I still have the button from that day. It was a revolutionary piece of legislation and did so, so much for a community that was very often ignored or left behind.
Dole, like many from his generation, presumably did not know how to handle LGBTQ+ issues, and most likely out of unfamiliarity didn’t do much for our community, which was also being left behind while he was in the Senate. However, when he ran for president in 1988, Dole lambasted his competitors for their AIDS-bashing speeches, saying, “There is, you know, such a thing as compassion.” At that time and during that tragedy, getting anyone in power to show some compassion was a rarity.
In 1995, running for president again (he became the GOP’s nominee in 1996), Dole clumsily flip-flopped with a donation sent to him by the Log Cabin Republicans. He accepted it, then sent it back saying he didn’t agree with the gay group’s agenda, then accepted it again, saying it had something to do with a mail mishap. It was rather embarrassing, to say the least.
I think that’s how Dole approached LGBTQ+ issues, out of embarrassment, with hidden compassion. During the late ’80s to mid-’90s, most members of Congress were older white men, and the last thing in the world they wanted to talk about was “homosexual” issues. This is why the government was tragically so late in the game when it came to fighting AIDS.
If you were a member back in those days, you were probably aware of your gay staffers, but you just didn’t talk about them, because you weren’t comfortable with it. I think that’s how Dole was. I knew two people who worked for him who were gay, and they said that personally he was very supportive of them, even though he never addressed their sexuality. Dole would never admit that publicly, of course.
I’m not saying that as a blanket description for all those crusty old men back in those days. Clearly, there were some in the House of Representatives, like the evil William Dannemeyer, and in the Senate, with the despicable Jesse Helms, who seemed to revile gay people. And many members piled on the LGBTQ+ community because they felt their constituency didn’t support us, so in the desperation to get elected and maintain incumbency, they bashed the gays. It was not fair. It was not right. It was hurtful, but that’s the truth about what was happening during that time and during Dole’s heyday.
Then along comes the young, first boomer candidate, Bill Clinton (he was called the “first gay president”), who wasn’t afraid to speak about LGBTQ+ issues. The far right was just approaching the zenith of their influence in the Republican Party, so Dole was beholden in a way to them, and being anti-LGBTQ+ was a way to show loyalty. While Clinton brought up LGBTQ+ issues like queer people in the military during their debates, Dole just squirmed in his chair.
Clinton campaigned on letting gays, lesbians, and bisexuals serve openly in the armed forces. I remember clearly that Dole was adamantly opposed to that while the two were running for president, mostly making that point by issuing statements. He used the fact that he had served so notably as a way to say that queer people didn’t belong, because he had been there and knew they would be a disruption. They would make the other troops feel “uncomfortable.” Clinton went on to win, and in part won by portraying Dole and his generation as old-thinkers, narrow-minded, and out of touch.
Dole gave up his Senate seat after serving for over 30 years when he ran for president, so once Clinton was in office, Dole had little sway over policy, but he was opposed not only to gays in the military but also to same-sex marriage, and that was as late as 2014, before same-sex marriage became legal nationwide. By then, Dole was in his 90s, and most likely still stuck in his ways.
We can’t say that Dole was an ally, but I’m not so sure he should inspire our ire. He was from a generation that is disappearing at a very rapid rate. They were raised during a time when things like speaking about sexuality were taboo. Who really knew what was in his heart? I just always thought about the two guys I knew who worked for him, who loved him very much.
However, we can — and should — commend him for his tremendous sacrifice during World War II. He nearly died defending our country and lived with his disabilities astonishingly until age 98. He was, and is, a legitimate American hero. Because of him and his generation, we are free — at least for the time being, and hopefully after 2024.
We can also commend him for his comity. When he became the GOP leader in the 1980s, he said, “I don’t wait for the consensus. I try to help build it.” He was not only successful in working with the very liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, Democrat from Massachusetts, in getting the historic ADA passed, but also worked with Democrats to help expand food stamp and school lunch programs, and to create nutrition programs for low-income pregnant women, mothers, and young children.
He also played a leading role in passing a ramped-up clean air act, public housing laws, and an extension of the Voting Rights Act. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Dole was sitting in McConnell’s seat right now and understood the assault on voting rights that are currently taking place in state legislatures? He would understand the urgency to pass a bill to help strengthen and protect voting rights for all.
And wouldn’t it be nice if Dole, who could be equally crusty as the other men in Congress and who had an acerbic wit, could nonetheless have had a leadership role in getting to the bottom of the January 6 insurrection? He fiercely loved democracy, the Senate, and our Constitution perhaps like no other member of Congress in history. And that’s because he almost died from all of that. He would surely want to convict anyone — even the former president — who betrayed all that he revered and stood for. I heard that he wept while the Capitol was under assault.
When I attended the signing of the ADA, I was fortunate enough to sit behind and catty-corner to Dole during the ceremony, and I watched his reaction during the entire event because he was so close to me. When President George H.W. Bush gave him full credit for bringing such sweeping legislation to fruition, I saw Dole quickly wipe away a tear. A man from his generation was loath to cry in public. But when I saw that moment of emotion from him, I remembered his worrying about a dehydrated young man trying to get a job in Congress.
Dole might not have been our biggest ally for queer rights, but he might go down in history as being one of American democracy’s most notorious defenders and biggest advocates, and that’s how he should be remembered.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.