They brought books to be signed.
They came to see a political icon.
They came to see a war hero.
Scores came simply to tell former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole “thank you.”
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Earl Boutell canceled a doctor’s appointment so he could see Dole on Monday afternoon at Olathe City Hall. It was the least he could do for a man who cleared the way for him to be bedside when his daughter was born 40 years ago.
Boutell, of Leawood, was ready to ship out to Vietnam in August 1971. His daughter was due in September. Boutell sent a letter to Dole, asking the senator to delay his deployment. He got a 28-day reprieve.
“Had it not been for Senator Dole, I wouldn’t have been there,” Boutell said of the birth of his only child, Jennifer. “It changed my life, it changed my wife’s life, and he probably doesn’t even remember it. And that’s OK.”
Hundreds turned out to see Dole on Monday as he returned to Kansas to renew old friendships and political bonds. He offered a word of thanks to the voters who made him the longest-serving Republican U.S. Senate leader in history.
“I love this state,” Dole said.
The former senator started a three-day tour Monday afternoon in Overland Park and Olathe. He plans to be in Kansas through Wednesday, including a visit Tuesday to the political institute named after him at the University of Kansas.
Dole wants to visit each of the state’s 105 counties. Whether he makes it to every county is an open question that he acknowledges with a dose of trademark dry humor.
“When you’re 90, you don’t order room service or green bananas,” he said.
Dole struggles to get around, due to age and illness as well as the injuries he suffered in northern Italy in World War II that left his right arm immobilized and limited the use of his left arm.
With their arms around Dole, aides helped him from a car to a seat inside the Republican Party headquarters and Olathe City Hall. On one occasion, a party official held a microphone for Dole. On another, an aide helped him with a glass of water.
“He’s hurting. It’s an aging process. We’re all getting there,” said Eldon Erickson, who worked for Dole as a congressional fellow 40 years ago. “He wants to thank people for what they have done for him.”
And many wanted to thank him, as well. Take 10-year-old Henry Walston, a fourth-grader who is developing a keen interest in World War II history.
Henry’s parents took him out of school for a few hours Monday so he could meet the former senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee. Walston was the first to ask Dole a question Monday. Dole gave Henry a rundown of what led to his war injuries. “Thank you for your service,” Henry replied.
During his tour Monday, Dole talked about politics. He speculated that Republicans might take control of the Senate this year, questioned President Barack Obama’s leadership acumen and criticized congressional gridlock.
Dole singled out Obama for not doing more to help Ukraine protect itself from Russian influence as it edges closer to civil war.
“The president keeps saying there are going to be consequences, but there are never any consequences,” Dole said. “There are a lot of things we could do. We could give the poor Ukrainians some weapons.”
Dole characterized Obama as a “nice man” but added that that the president “lacks strong leadership skills.”
“He hasn’t gotten acquainted with enough of Congress — both parties,” Dole said. “It has always been my experience that you ought to know the players and know who to work with to get it done.”
Dole’s tour will end Wednesday at Jerry’s Again restaurant in Atchison and the Heritage Center in Leavenworth.
The last time Dole returned to Kansas was in the fall of 2012, when conservatives and moderates battled for control of the state Republican Party.
Dole is well aware of how the conservative wing knocked moderates from power in his home-state Legislature. Yet Dole insists there should be room for leaders from both factions in the Republican Party. He recently was stung by criticism by rising conservative U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who said Dole moderated his positions too much.
“We have to be a party of inclusion. We can’t just be of one persuasion,” Dole said in an interview with The Star before coming to Kansas this week.
“I’m a conservative, but I don’t believe that everybody has to agree with me, and I don’t have to agree with anybody else,” Dole said. “We need people in the party who may have less conservative views but are still good Republicans.”
Last month, Cruz took a swipe at Dole and other moderate Republican presidential candidates when he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“All of us remember President Dole, President McCain and President Romney,” Cruz said, alluding to the failed GOP presidential nominees. “Those are good men. They’re decent men,” Cruz said. “But when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”
Cruz’s comments drew a rebuke on national TV from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who helped defeat moderate Republicans in 2012. Brownback admits being protective of Dole.
“He’s a key Kansan in history, but he’s also the iconic figure of the World War II generation,” Brownback said in an interview. “This is the guy who represents the Greatest Generation. You can be critical of people on any number of things, but these guys did a lot.”