Former Sen. Bob Dole on Wednesday did something that once would have been unimaginable: He endorsed a Bush. Dole, now 92 and nearly two decades removed from the political stage, formally threw his backing behind Jeb Bush, calling the former Florida governor “the most qualified” candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush responded by calling himself “a huge Bob Dole fan.”
Those are pretty formulaic words when it comes to an endorsement, but not when you consider the tortured history between Dole and Jeb Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush. For a generation, there was no more bitter, colorful and consequential rivalry within the Republican Party than that between those two men.
It was a clash defined by their joint ambition and radically divergent roots. In the early 1970s, Dole was a first-term senator with dreams of climbing much higher. When at the height of his power, President Richard Nixon tapped him to head the Republican National Committee in 1971. The move marked Dole as a comer in national politics.
But Dole soon lost favor with Nixon, who found his image too conservative and hard-edged and who wanted a full-time party chairman. After winning re-election in 1972, Nixon pushed Dole out and replaced him with another eager-to-climb politician: George H.W. Bush, who was serving as Nixon’s ambassador to the United Nations, a post he’d been handed after giving up his Texas House seat to wage a losing Senate campaign in 1970. For Bush, this was a big step up the party ladder. For Dole, it was a devastating blow. For both men, it was the birth of a rivalry.
Their paths would cross again in 1980, when each vied for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush, who had gone on to serve as ambassador to China and CIA director, began that campaign as a largely unknown long shot. Dole, by contrast, had served as Gerald Ford’s running-mate in 1976. But it was Bush who gained surprising traction against the front-runner, Ronald Reagan, engineering an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses. That set the stage for a Bush-Reagan battle in New Hampshire – and another defining moment in the Bush-Dole war.
The scene was the gymnasium at Nashua High School. It was billed as a debate between Reagan and Bush, but Dole and three other second-tier candidates wanted to participate as well. Reagan, eager to prevent Bush from making New Hampshire a true one-on-one fight, wanted them on stage too. But Bush didn’t. This was the set-up for a famous Reagan moment. When Dole and the other uninvited candidates crashed the stage, Reagan began arguing for their inclusion, at which point the moderator demanded that his microphone be cut. “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” Reagan thundered. The crowd exploded in cheers, Bush sat in his chair, and the primary was essentially settled on the spot.
It was also a moment of satisfaction for Dole, who can be seen in the famous clip standing near Bush and applauding as Reagan delivered his line. Dole wasn’t going to get anywhere near the Republican nomination that year, but there he was playing a role in the demise of Bush’s campaign. According to Richard Ben Cramer’s book “What it Takes,” Dole said to Bush as he exited the stage: “There’ll be another day, George.” It was in this period that Bush, in a diary entry revealed in Jon Meacham’s forthcoming book, called Dole “a no good son of a bitch.”
The next flare-up came in 1988, when the GOP nomination once again came open. This time, Bush, who had landed on Reagan’s 1980 ticket and served two terms as vice president, and Dole, who had won the top GOP leadership slot in the Senate in 1984, were the top two contenders. Dole made little effort to hide his resentment of Bush, providing grist for a memorable “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Campaigning in Iowa, he spoke of growing up in poverty in rural Kansas and adopted the slogan “He’s one of us.” It was a clear attempt to draw a contrast with Bush, who was born into the Yankee aristocracy. Dole ended up winning Iowa in a rout, while Bush suffered the indignity of finishing third, behind televangelist Pat Robertson.
For a moment, it appeared that Dole would get the last laugh. His poll numbers in New Hampshire and nationally zoomed up. If he could beat the vice president again in the Granite State, he just might finish Bush off once and for all. But that’s when Bush made a critical decision to blanket the New Hampshire airwaves with a brutal last-minute negative ad that accused Dole of being soft on taxes. Dole’s momentum stalled and Bush pulled out a nine-point victory in the primary. Appearing on NBC that night, Dole was asked if he had a message for Bush, who was also on the program. “You can tell him to stop lying about my record,” a scowling Dole said.
From there, Bush cruised to the GOP nomination, then won a 40-state landslide over Democrat Michael Dukakis in the fall. Dole, meanwhile, returned to the Senate. But now the relationship was different. For two decades, they had thrown elbows at each other but now Bush had claimed the top prize. Dole became his unwavering ally on Capitol Hill, standing with Bush when he called for war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and when he broke his “no new taxes pledge.”
When Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, it left Dole as the top Republican in Washington. Days after that election, he and Bush shared the stage at a GOP dinner. Gone, suddenly, was all of the enmity of the 20 preceding years. Bush was heading into political retirement and Dole knew that he might now get one more crack at that elusive top prize. He stood at the microphone and grew emotional as he spoke of Bush. “Just as I know that you’ve changed the world,” Dole said, “I also know the best man didn’t win on Election Day.” At long last, the hatchet was buried.