Bob Dole may be 92 years old, but his grasp of the current political climate shows no sign of aging. When we spoke by telephone last week, the former Senate majority leader, two-time winner of the Iowa caucuses, and 1996 GOP standard-bearer was eager to share his views on the 2016 Republican front-runners, particularly Sen. Ted Cruz.
"I don't think Ted is a Republican. He's a conservative extremist, and I think he uses the title Republican because there's no conservative extremist ballot. You know, he doesn't get along with anybody in the Senate. There are 54 Republicans and none are supporting him," Dole opined.
"I think we've got 25 senators running for reelection, and I think it would be havoc to have Cruz as our nominee, because I think we would lose senators, governors, . . . state legislatures, and members of Congress. He doesn't get along with anybody. Nobody really cares for him in Congress. I think he has a few House members, but that's about it."
That's tough talk from the Kansas native who himself felt victimized by a negative, narrowly won campaign when he was a freshman senator up for reelection in 1974. Dole famously won a nasty race against Congressman Bill Roy after airing what's still remembered as the "mudslinger ad," a TV commercial showing mud being thrown at his own campaign poster as his opponent's accusations against him were listed. When a narrator then corrected the record, the mud was cleared from the poster.
But, of course, Dole was never elected president. I told the man who lost to Bill Clinton by nine points that conservatives hearing his views on Cruz would remind him that we never elected a President Dole, President Mitt Romney, or President John McCain, and that their failures were the result of the party not nominating pure conservatives.
"We were traditional, conservative Republicans . . . and some of the far-right voters did not support us because we didn't agree with their extremist views," Dole said. "I don't know what they expected of us. But, you know, if you are elected you've got to deal with Congress, and you can't be so high-bound and so extreme that if you were elected you wouldn't be able to work with anybody in the Congress, and you don't call your Republican leader a liar on the Senate floor [as Cruz did], which never happened during my 28-plus years."
Dole has endorsed Jeb Bush but told me if it comes down to Cruz or Donald Trump, then: "I'm a big Trump supporter."
"Donald probably knows 20 senators," Dole said. "I don't know how many House members. And he probably contributed to many of them on both sides of the aisle. In my view, he has the right personality to work with members and make a deal. I don't mean to give away the store, but sometimes you have to compromise."
When I replied that compromise was now a dirty word, perhaps matched only in its condescension by establishment, the nonagenarian was ready.
"I never had anybody come into my office and say, 'I'm Joe from the establishment,' " he replied. "I don't know what the establishment is, except it means you've had experience."
I told Dole he was my second-favorite native of Russell, Kan. Arlen Specter was first. The Doles and the Specters went back a long way. Specter's father would weigh his scrap metal on Bob Dole's father's grain scale in the 1940s.
"My buddy," Dole said. "He was brilliant."
The two had something else in common. Each was a member of the Wednesday lunch club, a Senate gathering of Republican moderates who gathered on Ronald Reagan's watch. Other members included John Heinz, Bob Packwood, Mark Hatfield, Nancy Kassebaum, John Danforth, Charles Percy, Lowell Weicker, John Chafee, Bob Stafford, Alan Simpson, Slade Gordon, Ted Stevens, and John Warner. Not only are they all gone from the Senate, but, more important, they haven't been replaced by kindred spirits. Some have rewritten the history of the 1980s as the halcyon days of conservatism, overlooking that, according to annual voting analysis by the National Journal, a full 60 percent of the Senate during the Reagan years were moderates.
"You just cannot say we don't need the moderates," Dole said. "We have a lot of moderate voters in Iowa, and they want their vote to count, too, and they know that the state leans conservative, but not way conservative."
Amid his pessimism over his party, Dole expressed optimism about the new speaker of the House, Paul Ryan: "I think he has many opportunities, and maybe he can get those 43 knuckleheads, who vote against everything, maybe he can bring some of those onboard."
Bob Dole was on a roll, but finally, it was time to hang up. I told him I sensed a spring in his step, despite being 92.
"Yeah, I thought if I got a little older, I'd run again," he quipped.
For anyone wanting to hear more from Dole, he is easy to find. Every weekend, the man who came home from World War II with a disabled right arm, two Purple Hearts, and a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster holds court with the remaining of his brethren in the nation's capital at the World War II Memorial that he labored for years to see built.
Dole served in the Army's 10th Mountain Division. On April 14, 1945, at the age of 21, he was leading a platoon in the Italian mountains. Trying to pull his radioman to safety while fighting a fortified Nazi position, Dole was hit in his right shoulder and back. He was not expected to survive. He lost a kidney, the use of his right arm, and most of the feeling in his left arm. His recovery would take more than three years.
"We can tell lies to each other," he says of his gatherings at the memorial, "because nobody's around to prove anything."