Not With Rhetoric, but With Deeds

The morning after he was named the Republican nominee for president in 1996, Bob Dole sat upstairs in his suite at a San Diego hotel doing the math. He was running behind Bill Clinton in the polls, had just named Jack Kemp to be his running mate, and—as usual—he didn’t love what he saw. What had Kemp bought him, he wondered aloud: “I’d say about two weeks, tops.” 

He wasn’t wrong. Dole was a pragmatist and a realist, someone who had grown up in a hardscrabble Kansas town, suffered grievous wounds as an infantryman in World War II, and then dove head first into the toughest businesses of all: American politics. But because it was a business that was both deeply personal to him and a source of great joy, he would work with anyone to get the job done. 

Dole became a great national leader not because he inspired people with rhetoric, but because he earned people’s trust with deeds. He measured his own success by the bills he helped pass, not the number of speeches he gave. Dole measured himself as Senate party leaders Everett Dirksen and Mike Mansfield had done before the C-SPAN age: deals done, bills passed, lives improved. 

These were men who believed in Congress, who possessed virtues like moderation and recognition that not every concession is a defeat of principle; trust that is earned by negotiating in good faith; and the faith in compromise over ambition or ideology. These qualities are missing—if not extinct—in today’s polarized politics. 

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