He took a seat in front of a standing-room-only crowd that energized him, and he cracked joke after joke.
Former Sen. Bob Dole wasn’t scheduled to say much at Tuesday’s event at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, where he was the featured attraction. At 90, as he might say, he’s pacing himself.
But the wit, the charm, the pacing of a masterful humorist – and what Dole Institute director Bill Lacy calls the essential fairness of the former Kansas senator – are still all there.
“I guess there are no chairs, huh?” Dole told the crowd Tuesday.
People who had stood for an hour waiting for him laughed. They would laugh again and again.
“I did attend school here,” he said with a grin. “And that’s an overstatement.”
That was in the early 1940s, when many fellow classmates at the University of Kansas were quitting school, joining the Navy or the Army.
“We had a lot of farewell parties,” he said. “But we didn’t attend a lot of classes.”
Later, he said, after he came home severely wounded from the war, “I realized I’d have to study if I wanted to make something of myself. I couldn’t use my hands very well, so I had to use my head.”
“So I decided to become a lawyer.”
“I know people don’t like lawyers.”
Another pause – and laughter.
“There might be a few in the room. Well, if any of you have any legal matters, I’ll take ’em up later.”
He looked so happy up there, in front of a crowd, people waving little American flags, clapping, cheering his jokes. He told them he had decided a few weeks ago to come back to Kansas “and thank all the people who supported me for 30 years.”
Dole served the state for more than 30 years in the U.S. House and Senate. People, including Lacy, told him that he had inspired them.
Dole did answer one question seriously: What issues do we face?
He listed places and things that bring bad news: North Korea. Iran, which is suspected of trying to make nuclear weapons. The debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. And especially the debate over the national debt, mounting into the trillions of dollars.
But he looked so happy and energized by the affection of 200 or so people that he couldn’t resist joking again. A young person in the crowd asked what today’s Bob Dole would tell the freshman Congressman Bob Dole decades ago, when he first went to Washington.
“How to find the bathroom,” he said. “And where to find the Senate chamber.”
A few days ago, in an interview talking about his Kansas visit, Dole was asked what his recipe was for a good speech.
“Lead off with one joke to wake everybody up,” he said. “Then talk a little. Then give them another joke to keep them awake and thinking.”
But then he added a rare ingredient.
“In the jokes, you don’t make fun of other people,” he said. “You might think it’s funny, but people won’t like it that much. So make fun of yourself instead.”
Lacy, who has known Dole for 28 years, was once Dole’s chief campaign strategist during one of his attempts to get elected president. Lacy, under fire from other Dole campaign staff members, had to quit the campaign, a development that upset him at the time.
But there is a sequel to the story that many people don’t know about, Lacy said. Years later, some time after Dole lost the 1996 presidential election to Bill Clinton and then left the national stage, Dole’s office called Lacy and told him Dole wanted to visit and tour Lacy’s private business and talk to the workers.
“Why?” Lacy asked.
At the time, he was talking to Jo-Anne Coe, one of Dole’s key staff members. “She said, ‘You dummy, he wants to make sure you two are still OK. Why do you think he wants to do that?’
“He didn’t have to do that,” Lacy said this week. “He was out of the Senate, out of politics. But he always placed a big emphasis on fairness.”
Fairness is a primary legacy Dole will leave to Kansas at the Dole Institute, Lacy said. When Dole agreed to the establishment of the institute, he said he wanted it to be nonpartisan, and it is, Lacy said.
There’s a Democratic fellow doing Dole Institute programming about Democratic ideas every other semester. And the next semester, there’s a Republican fellow.
There are 40 to 50 students a year working at the institute as part of an advisory council, helping with programming. There are eight to 10 additional students working there every semester and thousands who come to the programming during a given year, Lacy said.
There are no rules about their party affiliation. They just need to care about doing good for the country, Lacy said. That’s what Dole wanted.
It has been 18 years since Dole left national politics, so the 18-year-old freshmen at KU are the first to come there who were born after Dole stepped away.
“One thing they maybe don’t know,” Lacy said, “is how fast some of them will have to make decisions for the country in the future.”
Dole agreed to the establishment of the institute in part to help them make those decisions but also to convey something that his visit also tried to emphasize. It’s an idea some people might think is out of fashion: that politics is a noble profession.