In Bob Dole’s hometown, Kansans mourns for the man and his political style

RUSSELL, Kan. – A quarter of a century has passed since Bob Dole left the Senate and lost his candidacy for President. But in his hometown of the Kansas Plains, a place where Mr. Dole has given near-mythical status in his original political history, he’s still everywhere: on the grain elevator side. On a fresco in the city center. On street signs and plaques and, at the local historical society, in black and white photos where he hunts jack rabbits and wears a Russell High Broncos basketball jersey.

As Russell’s 4,400 residents mourned Mr. Dole, who died on Sunday at the age of 98, many also mourned their hometown senator’s approach to governance, an approach in which compromises were celebrated and opponents were not enemies. They said a little more of Bob, as the people at Russell called him, might just help detoxify the national discourse.

“The fights that we’re having right now, I know he was so against it,” said Lance Waymaster, who grows outside of Russell and who got to know Mr. Dole through the local desks. Veterans of Foreign Wars which is located just off Bob Dole Drive.

Mr. Dole spent much of his adult life in Washington, but his affection for Russell extended beyond the standard politician-hometown romance. He provided advice to Kansas Republicans, made sure his childhood home near the railroad tracks stayed with his family, and read the newsletter of the VFW Post, of which he was a founding member. Most importantly, he spoke with lasting gratitude and emotion about how the residents of Russell pooled money in a cigar box to help cover his expenses upon his return from WWII. with serious injuries to his shoulder, arm and spine.

“There should be at least one place for every person where he or she is accepted with non-judgmental love and strengthened and reassured by it, and for me that place is here,” Mr. Dole told Russell in 1979. , when he announced his first of three presidential campaigns.

Russell loved him back. Daron Woelk, who owns a jewelry store on the brick-paved main street, described a valuable photo of himself as a toddler with Mr Dole, in which the senator signed his name and joked that young Daron looked like a good Republican. The message stuck. Mr Woelk was elected to the county committee last year on the Republican ticket.

“Bob was one of a kind – unfortunately,” said Woelk, whose store is just up the street from the limestone courthouse with a statue of the former senator. “I think we would all be better off if there were more men like him.”

Mr. Dole was a proud Republican who served as party leadership and fought fiercely for Conservative policies. He called the wars “Democratic wars” and was called by some “Nixon’s ax man,” but he also made famous compromises with the Democrats. He helped expand the food stamp program, save Social Security, and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, teaming up with liberals he disagreed with on others. Questions. Most recently, he supported Donald J. Trump as president, but met with President Biden, a former colleague in the Senate, after taking office.

Larry Nelson, Mr. Dole’s nephew, who lives and maintains the senator’s childhood home up north, wondered if his uncle’s philosophy would resonate in Washington today.

“Bob has never been your ordinary politician; Bob was a statesman, ”said Nelson. “He wouldn’t fit into that group of people on the Hill now. “

But Mr. Dole’s approach worked in Kansas, a conservative state that often favors pragmatism over party purity. Current governor Laura Kelly won the Democratic ticket in 2018 amid a backlash to a broad package of Republicans-designed tax cuts that left the state in a budget crisis. Russell was also the childhood home of Arlen Specter, who represented Pennsylvania in the Senate for decades, first as a Republican and then as a Democrat.

“I think they’re going to have to not be on such a rigid ‘I’m a Democrat, I’m a Republican, and we’re not going to do anything together,'” said Aldean Banker, a Russell resident who once served in the ‘Republican State. committees, says. She served as Mr. Dole’s alternate delegate at a national convention, but voted Ms. Kelly in 2018. “I think we’re going to have to learn to give and take a bit and get back to a meeting of the mind.”

Russell was and remains a deeply Republican. Last year, Mr. Trump received 81% of the vote in Russell County, which includes the city and the surrounding countryside. About 90 percent of Russell’s residents are white, and about 24 percent of people are 65 or older, compared to 16 percent statewide. The economy is driven by a wide range of industries: agriculture, petroleum, health care, manufacturing, and retail, both along Interstate 70 and into the bustling downtown area, where a radio station local broadcasts throughout the day on outdoor speakers.

Almost everyone in Russell seems to have a Bob Dole story, or more. Some have shared steak dinners with him at Meridy’s Restaurant and Lounge. Others recalled that he stopped at the VFW station, where Dole pineapple juice was being served to support his campaign. Others remembered that the senator cheerfully extended his left hand as they extended his right arm; Mr. Dole’s war injuries made him unable to shake with his right hand.

“It would prevent you from thinking that you were embarrassing yourself and doing a goofy move,” said Mayor Jim Cross, a rare Democrat in Russell but a proud Dole voter whose daughter was part of a large local contingent which saw Mr. Dole accept the nomination. at the 1996 Republican National Convention.

Although he lived in Washington, Mr. Dole remained a frequent visitor to Russell until recently, when his declining health made travel impossible. He remained engaged, however, Twitter post on Kosovo last week and the Kansas policy follow-up.

In a column Mr. Dole wrote shortly before his death and published in the Washington Post this week, he reflected on his trip from west-central Kansas to some of the top positions in the U.S. government. He also lamented the political divisions and said: “Bipartism is the minimum we should expect of ourselves.”

“My home at birth was a three-room house,” Mr. Dole wrote. “I grew up during the Dust Bowl, when so many of us watched helplessly as our livelihoods blow in the wind. I have always felt humbled to live in a nation that would allow my unlikely story to unfold. “

As this story unfolded and Mr Dole kept coming back to Russell, residents said he instilled in them a sense of possibility as well.

Troy Waymaster, who at the age of 10 was watching from Main Street when Mr Dole announced his second run for president in 1987, said the speech sparked his interest in politics. He now chairs the Appropriations Committee in the Kansas House of Representatives.

Mr Waymaster, a Republican who lives just outside of Russell and farms with his father, Lance, said Mr Dole called a few months ago as he prepared to work on the wheat crop. They spoke of the governor’s election next year, when Republicans hope to reclaim the seat.

Mr Waymaster said Mr Dole has often insisted on more bipartisanship and more compromise. This art may not be completely dead. Last month, Mr. Waymaster joined other Republicans in the legislature to pass a bill creating exemptions from employer mandates on the Covid-19 vaccine. Ms Kelly disappointed some of her fellow Democrats by enacting it.

“I know there are Kansans who think this legislation goes too far, and there are others who think this legislation does not go far enough,” the governor said in a statement. “But I was elected to lead, and leadership means seeking compromise.”

Susan C. beachy contributed research.

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