Bob Dole Takes Me to School
This column was published December 11, 2021 in the Manhattan Mercury.
The 1992 elections were approaching and Bob Dole’s re-election to the U.S Senate was in the bag. Dole was the most important Republican in the nation. He’d already run for vice president, president twice, chaired the Senate Finance Committee, served as Majority Leader. His Democratic opponent that year was a sacrificial lamb.
As the political reporter for WIBW-TV in Topeka, the job description was unambiguous. Cover campaigns, interview politicians, provide the information that allowed for informed voter choices. Bob Dole didn’t need me and my piddly little Designated Market Area, stretching to reach a mere 400-thousand people, served through an analog broadcast platform, delivered terrestrially.
Even if the candidate was out of my reach, I had a job to do.
That spring, I started paying attention to the news releases that would curl off the fax machine from Dole’s office in DC.
A new senior center in Mahaska. Highway interchange upgrade in Johnson County. A pattern emerged. The closer we got to the election, the more projects funded by federal money Dole announced.
Airport runway extension in Salina. Sewer and water infrastructure in Stafford.
Bringing home the bacon wasn’t new. You could make a case it wasn’t even news. The timing became the hook for the story. Need something visual. Close to home.
Another curly fax lands on my desk. New helicopters for the National Guard at Forbes Field in Topeka.
Stuck a camera in the face of the Guard spokesperson and got back duty and readiness. For fairness and balance I needed a Dole soundbite. Back then, that would have meant hiring a freelance DC-based TV news crew and satelliting the sound bite back to Kansas. Logistically possible, but it all assumed Dole wanted to play.
Best I could do was an audio soundbite from his DC press secretary spinning a crown pork roast and dismissing the election-related timing.
It was to be the story coming out of the first commercial break, teased by the anchorperson over a visual closeup of the new helicopter rotor blades spinning with “natural sound.”
Wocka, wocka, wocka.
Accompanied by these on-screen graphics: PORK CHOPPERS?
Later that week, another fax. Dole was returning to Topeka for a day for something terribly important and scheduled a news conference at the place historian Richard Ben Cramer described in “What It Takes,” a nonfiction epic about the 1988 presidential campaign, as “the ratty Ramada by the highway.” Home base for the Kansas GOP in those days.
Here’s my chance, thought the intrepid reporter. Get the man on tape, defending the timing of the ham haul.
Dole steps to the bank of microphones. We’re expecting a formal statement before the Q and A about the terribly important business that brought him to Topeka. He spots me in the media horde. We make eye contact. First thing out of Dole’s mouth is his signature growl.
Now I want to rip up the ratty carpet, dig a hole and crawl in.
“Pork choppers… ughhyeagghh… pretty good.”
Big smile as Dole wraps his World War 2-wounded right hand around a pen and proceeds to offer pithy quotes on national issues du jour sufficient to meet the horde’s needs to fill the daily news hole.
It was at that exact moment I realized the folly of my effort. That a player of Bob Dole’s caliber would even put himself in a position to have the story be anything but his version. More importantly, he knew his Kansas constituents wouldn’t place much stock in pork announcement timing.
No one cares about the labor pains. They just want to see the baby.
A valuable lesson for a young Kansas journalist.
By 1992, Dole had reached a point in his effectiveness that the media, especially local media, was simply a vehicle to carry his message, undergirded with action that took the form of collaboration, compromise and civility.
Values and ways of being so deeply imbued that we took them for granted.
Bob Dole seemed indestructible. There were times in recent years I thought he might outlive us all.
Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.