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Bob Dole lies in state in Capitol Rotunda as Congress remembers his wit

He ‘loved this Capitol,’ President Biden says

The casket of former Sen. Bob Dole arrives Thursday morning in the Capitol Rotunda, where he will lie in state.
The casket of former Sen. Bob Dole arrives Thursday morning in the Capitol Rotunda, where he will lie in state. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Pool)

Just before 10 a.m. Thursday, Bob Dole came home.

He was carried by a military honor guard up the Capitol’s steps as his wife, Elizabeth, looked on with tears in her eyes. The man from windswept Russell, Kan., spent 35 years in Congress, rising to the highest echelon of political power in Washington but never quite reaching the pinnacle of the presidency. 

It was as a senator that Dole left his indelible mark on the nation, as America’s current elected leaders noted in a ceremony Thursday before Dole spends a final day in the Capitol, lying in state. 

Dole died Sunday at the age of 98. 

He rose through Republican ranks as a famed “hatchet man,” but his legacy is one of bipartisan achievements, from the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act to saving social security. Hardly any legislation passed through Congress during his 11 years as the GOP leader without his imprimatur. 

Before the pandemic, an American lying in state under the Capitol Dome might mean throngs of mourners paying their last respects. Things were different Thursday. Congressional insiders could file by the casket after the invite-only ceremony, which seated guests around the catafalque in socially distanced rings. But there was no public viewing at the entrance to the House chamber, as there was for Rep. Elijah Cummings in October 2019, or even outside on the East Central Front Portico, as for Rep. John Lewis in July of last year.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Elizabeth Dole, herself a former senator and Cabinet secretary, approached her husband’s flag-draped coffin, placed her forehead against it and closed her eyes. The emotional moment echoed when Sen. Daniel K. Inouye laid in state in 2012: Dole, who recovered from grievous wounds suffered in World War II alongside Inouye, rose with assistance out of his wheelchair to salute his lifelong friend. “I wouldn’t want Danny to see me in a wheelchair,” Dole said.

In his remarks, President Joe Biden implored the nation to embrace unity on America’s founding principles, holding up Dole’s legacy as an example to follow. Biden quoted Dole’s final public statement, an op-ed column in USA Today, in which the statesmen reflected on the Jan. 6 riots.

“When we prioritize principles over party and humanity over personal legacy, we accomplish far more as a nation. By leading with a shared faith in each other, we become America at its best: a beacon of hope, a source of comfort in crisis, a shield against those who threaten freedom,” Dole wrote, urging the nation to set aside partisan divides. 

“Bob Dole loved this Capitol,” Biden said. “May we follow his wisdom and his timeless truth and reach consensus on the basic fundamental principles we all agree on.”

While Biden never mentioned him by name, his remarks appeared to be aimed at Donald Trump and his supporters who encouraged the crowds that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election. Some of Trump’s backers continue to assault democracy by perpetuating lies about the election and seeking to pass state laws that would allow Republican-controlled legislatures to toss out the voters’ pick with their own. 

While Dole could come off as dour in speeches or debate, he was famed for a dry, acerbic wit that he deployed on himself as much as his colleagues. 

Biden served in the Senate for 25 years with Dole — and both men had memorable but ill-fated 1988 presidential campaigns — and was sometimes the subject of Dole’s humor. “They once asked him, why in God’s name did he vote to continue to fund Amtrak? He said because if you didn’t, Biden would stay overnight and cause more trouble,” the president said in the Rotunda.

It was Dole who is credited with first having said that the most dangerous place in Washington is between the current Senate majority leader, Charles E. Schumer, and a television camera.

“Don’t worry, Bob, it’s safe to be between me and the cameras today,” Schumer said in the Rotunda, where the television pool was in fact set up on the other side of Dole’s casket.

Schumer didn’t serve in the Senate alongside Dole, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell certainly did.

And like Schumer and Biden, McConnell also gave a nod to Dole’s wit, speaking of a recurring joke the senator would tell about seeking longevity by following the diet of former Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. (who would live past 100).

“Bob was blessed with long life to watch this legacy take effect. That was no accident. Bob liked to joke that he planned for longevity by closely studying our most senior colleagues. Strom takes shrimp, I take a shrimp. If he eats a banana, I eat a banana,” McConnell said.

“But the real engine behind Bob’s 98 remarkable years was his love, his love for Elizabeth and for [his daughter] Robin, for public service, for Kansas and for America,” McConnell said.

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