Dole Reflects On A Long Career As He Cruises His Home State

Former Sen. Bob Dole has returned home to Kansas for a "thank you" tour. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with the 90-year-old senator about his career.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senator Bob Dole is doing a lot of appreciating these days. He just wrapped up the first leg of a thank you tour around his home state of Kansas, meeting with longtime friends and supporters who've helped him with throughout his career. And they did turn out to see the native Kansas son, who served as the Republican Majority Leader in the Senate and ran for president in 1996. It is clear Dole still loves working a room. He loves weighing in on the big issues, and he cannot resist a good one-liner.

BOB DOLE: Well, you know, at age 90, you don't know how long you're going to - whether it's even safe to order room service. You don't know how long you're going to be around.

MARTIN: We're sitting in his Washington, D.C. office, and one of his aides in the corner smiles with familiarity when he delivers this joke. Dole used it on his Kansas trip a lot and gives a big grin when he repeats it this time, clearly relishing the wit he was famous for. Dole has wanted to make this trip to Kansas for a long time, but his health hasn't been good. He has trouble walking due to complications from knee surgery, on top of the disabilities caused by his World War II injuries. But he was undeterred.

DOLE: Some of these people supported me in five Senate races. It's important to see people and to shake hands with them and personally thank them.

MARTIN: The elder statesman got a little political on his thank you tour. And I asked him about what he called President Obama's inability to forge working relationships on Capitol Hill.

DOLE: Well, I try not to be critical of the president. I always found, when I was Republican leader in the Senate, that you really got to wrap your arms around your colleagues. Now he has his own style of leadership.

MARTIN: Is it working?

DOLE: It just hasn't worked. I mean, I think he's tried, and I think some of the Republicans have tried. There are some Republicans who are out in right field.

MARTIN: And just like that, Senator Dole shifts the focus to his own party.

DOLE: I notice in Kansas, that the party has moved to the right. Now, if the people are to the right, it's OK, but otherwise, you lose elections. My hope is that Republicans can come together and have a, say, a health care plan, so they can talk about something they're for instead of everything they're against. I don't think people will vote for you if you just say, well, I'm against everything.

MARTIN: And that's what you see happening?

DOLE: In some areas, if you're not real conservative, moderates aren't welcome. My view is if anybody wants to be a Republican, I want them in the party.

MARTIN: You have an image as a bipartisan compromiser, someone who did reach across the aisle, have relationships, deep relationships, in some cases with Democrats. Do you think you would be able to do that today if you were in Congress, or are just the times, the climate, the politics are too different?

DOLE: No, I think it'd be hard today. I had a good group to work with. I consider myself a traditional conservative. When I first started to run, the question was taxes and spending. Now there're so many other issues that it would be hard to be a leader these days. I think I could probably do it, but it'd would give me a headache now and then.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Who do you like in the field as we ramp up for the 2016 elections? Is there a standout in the Republican field as it stands?

DOLE: I don't think we've seen the right candidates yet. I mean, there are a lot of the younger, able members of Congress who'd like to be president. But I think they need a little more experience, after they've served a term or two. More than that in the House, but a couple terms in the Senate. But so far, that's all we've had, are the younger ones. I think there may be people out there, maybe the governor of New Jersey, if he's able to deal with the bridge problem, and Jeb Bush.

MARTIN: You like those two possible candidate options?

DOLE: I think they are possibles. And we need leadership. It's got to come from the top, and that's the president. So there's nobody in the field yet that I think will be president.

MARTIN: After landing that critique, the former senator takes a little break from our conversation.

DOLE: I wonder if I can have my milk?

MARTIN: You bet.

DOLE: Organic milk.

MARTIN: It's part of a diet he says keeps him young. Organic milk and...

DOLE: Dark chocolate peanut clusters.

MARTIN: Oh, and cookies baked by Dole's Kansas supporters who came out to shake his hand in Kansas. And at every event, Bob Dole asked if there were any veterans in the audience. And often there were. It's an extension of what he does back in Washington, where every weekend he tries to make it down to the World War II Memorial to talk with fellow veterans.

DOLE: I get pictures and shake hands and tell war stories. We can tell anything we want because there's nobody around to correct us.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DOLE: Where we can all be heroes, you know, but...

MARTIN: Sometimes those stories are true.

DOLE: I know, sometimes they're truth. But they have a good time. It's very emotional. And when they start thinking about when they were younger and what they did in the service and, you know, what they've done with their life, it's pretty touching.

MARTIN: After a long, successful career tackling some of the biggest issues of the day, Bob Dole is busy saying thank you and appreciating the small things - a good war story, a well-placed one-liner, and yes, a cold glass of milk - organic.

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