Late in his much-too-short life, my old man developed a highly unlikely and completely accidental friendship with Bob Dole.
When I was a kid. in 1977, my peeps and I went to Norfolk to see my old man’s brother, who was in port as chief engineer on an oil tanker.
On the way back, we stopped for a few days in DC to see the sites.
Back then, security was nil. You pretty much had the run of the place. We went to Rep. Simon’s office on the Hill and the very nice people there loaded us up with same-day passes for the White House, the Pentagon, and some special exhibitions at the Smithsonian.
Just imagine; on the same day, we got a pass for a special White House Rose Garden tour, and got to shake hands with Pres. Carter, Rosalyn and Jackie O., who was there for some reason (my mom thought that was way cool).
Long story short, over the course of a couple of days, we kept bumping into Sen. Dole, all over town.
You have to remember, Dole had been Jerry Ford’s hatchet man in the 1976 race, and was considered to be in the GOP right wing (can you believe it?).
My folks were Norwegians and red-hot, anti-fascist, anti-commie, civil rights liberals.
Finally, after bumping into him one more time, Dole approached us and said “we have to stop meeting like this” and started chatting up the old man.
My parents were immigrants and could be very self-conscious about their accents. So when Dole asked if there was something he could do for us, they kept mum.
I knew what my folks wanted, though, so I piped up “we’d like to meet Sen. Humphrey.”
“Let’s go,” Dole said.
“Senator, we need to be…” a Dole aide started to protest.
“Shut up,” Dole explained.
As we made our way down to the Capitol Hill subway system, Dole and my old man got lost in conversation. Dole had had a tough time in WWII, and I know the old man had, too, though he never talked about it.
As my aunts recounted over the years, when he was about 21, the old man and his crew had been arrested by the Gestapo for stealing food from a Nazi storehouse. They were in a slave labor camp until VE Day and some of them were worked and starved to death.
Meanwhile, the Dole aide who had been told to “shut up” was trying to find out why the Senator was taking such an interest in us.
My mom wouldn’t talk, so he was pressing me, the kid with corncobs coming out of his ears.
“So, where in Kansas are you folks from?” he asked.
“We’re from Illinois,” I said.
“Oh?. Huh. So how do you know Sen. Dole?”
“Um, from TV.”
Now he’s getting pissed. “No, I mean why is he taking you to see Sen. Humphrey right now?”
“I don’t know.”
We took the subway to some huge Senate hearing room. The old man and Dole sat together and continued talking. I sat with Mr. Shut Up. My mom sat with Sen. Kennedy (she considered herself an honorary Kennedy after meeting Jackie O and Teddy, and would talk about them like family whenever they popped up in the news).
I think it was the Foreign Relations Committee.
But we didn’t go in for a while. The old man and Dole stood to the side, continuing to talk.
I know they were talking about the war, when they were young men.
The old man had never said ten words to anyone in his family about the war, but here was this old Norsky liberal, thick accent and all, chewing the ear of the GOP vice presidential nominee. And Dole was listening.
Finally, Dole approaches the big doors, and they’re swung open for him.
He marches us down the center aisle of this huge, crowded hearing room, takes us right up to Humprhey and says “Hubert, your Illinois fan club is here.”
Humphrey was dying from the cancer and didn’t have any hair. But he lit up like a light bulb, took us to some back corridor and he, Dole and my folks chatted like old friends about this, that and nothing in particular.
My parents were thrilled and talked about their day with Dole and Humphrey for the rest of their lives.
Dole didn’t have to do any of that. We were nobodies. My parents weren’t from Kansas; they weren’t citizens, they couldn’t even vote.
But he did because he was just a decent man, and made my folks feel like big shots in Washington, like they’d really made it in America.
It’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Just a sweet, selfless act of kindness.
Dole and the old man would exchange Christmas cards til my Dad died. My old man didn’t change his politics, but nobody could say a word against his pal Bob.
Years later, when Dole was running for president in Iowa, I got to know Dole a little better. I liked him a lot then, I like him more now.
And I voted for him for president, for me, my mom and my old man.
Nobody writes like that guy. Nobody.