The Corner

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Customs

Former Senator Bob Dole pays his respects at the casket of former President George H.W. Bush as it lies in state inside the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., December 4, 2018. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters )

Everyone saw and was moved by the clip of Bob Dole saluting the casket of George H. W. Bush. I thought of the cross-currents behind that moment.

One came in 1988. Senator Dole won an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses over the favorite, Vice President Bush, who came back to win the New Hampshire primary. The two men then did a split-screen interview on some network, and the anchor asked Dole at the end of the segment if he had any words for the man who beat him. “Yeah,” said Dole, “quit lying about my record.” I don’t now remember what he was referring to; the campaign had been rough with I imagine the usual mixture of truths and exaggerations. Dole knew his loss was decisive, and said what he was really thinking.

The other cross-current came in 1976. Dole addressed the Kansas City Convention as Gerald Ford’s running mate. In a recital of the Democrats’ woes and errors, he listed the 20th century’s wars, including his own, and called them “Democrat wars.” Note the mark of the hard-core GOP partisan: the ungrammatical adjective Democrat, lest the other party steal a march by calling itself Democratic. But note, far more, the complaint of the heartland. Wars declared on the coast pull a young man from Kansas and fling him before a machine gun nest in northern Italy; confine him to two years in hospital beds; put a dummy pen in his unusable right hand to discourage strangers from trying to shake it; and reserve ground-floor hotel rooms so that escape will be possible if there is a fire. Dole was wrong to say what he said, but he had a right to say it.

Dole was one of the funniest men in politics. Shown a picture of former presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon, he said, “Hear no evil, see no evil, and Evil.” (NB: He admired Nixon.) Describing the strategy of his post-New Hampshire 1988 campaign, hopeless and out of money, he said he looked out the campaign plane window and landed wherever he could spot a crowd. “Yeah, quit lying about my record” and “Democrat wars” were Dolean laugh lines with all the laughter drained out: 200 proof cocktails.

But we have customs that train us in how to behave, curbing our emotions and memories. Every conservative writes about them: Don’t tear down the great English oak unless you know why it was built, etc. etc.

Sometimes the customs go wrong, sometimes very wrong. Then people stir, wise men think, demagogues shout “Drain the swamp!” But often customs help us do and think the right thing.

So the 95 year old man was hoisted out of his wheelchair, flicked away the hand supporting his usable left arm, and raised its fingers in a salute to the casket of the 94 year old man.

At ease. 

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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