Senator Bob Dole: Remembering his lasting legacy

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Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., had been out of office for five years when I took my group of Inside Washington students from Miami University (OH) to visit with him in 2001. A similar group huddled with Dole in 2000 as I taught here in Washington for my alma mater.

Dole ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996. But to a college student in 2000 or 2001, that’s an eternity ago. A college student in 2000 or 2001 may only have been 14 or 15 when Dole sought the White House in 1996. That’s ancient history to them. I may as well have been introducing the class to Adlai Stevenson or Hubert Humphrey.

But then I realized why the entire class knew Bob Dole and knew Bob Dole well. Dole was on TV all the time. Not as majority leader or Republican presidential nominee. Dole was an ad man.

Pres. Ronald W. Reagan (R) standing with Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas in the White House press briefing room. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)

He was as ubiquitous on their TV screens as Dean Winters as “Mayhem” for Allstate or Stephanie Courtney hawking insurance for Progressive as “Flo.”

Dole easily transferred his skillset from politician to salesman. After all, lawmakers are in the business of “sales,” selling themselves as a candidate to voters, marketing a legislative idea to the public or other lawmakers. As senate majority and minority leader, Dole was a legislative grandmaster. He could always forge an agreement with presidents and fellow senators – even the reluctant ones. So Dole never really switched careers after he left politics.

LONGTIME GOP SENATOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE BOB DOLE DEAD AT 98 

A 1997 ad for Visa shows Dole walking in a parade in his honor back in the senator’s fabled hometown of Russell, Kan. Afterwards, Dole heads to a local diner. “Bob!” exclaims an elderly woman working the counter. Dole takes a seat at the counter, sips a cup of coffee and glad-hands with World War II veterans. When it comes time to settle the bill, Dole asks the counter woman if she will take a check. “Of course, Bob!” smiles the woman. But as though throwing a light switch, her demeanor turns icy cold. 

“Can I see some ID,” she demands. “Driver’s license!”

Dole then fumbles in his pockets for something to demonstrate – even in his hometown – that the senator is in fact who he says he is.

“I just can’t win,” Dole says at the end of the commercial, referencing his 1996 loss to President Bill Clinton.

Senator Bob Dole gives the "thumbs up" sign during a presidential rally. Senator Dole won the Republican nomination for president in 1996, but lost the election to Bill Clinton. 
(Photo by Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

But Dole was just getting started with his newfound career. In 1998, Dole moved his sales pitch to Viagra. In one commercial, Dole stares into the camera. He says that after suffering from prostate cancer, Dole worried about “post-operative side effects like erectile dysfunction, E.D.” Just hearing those words on TV shocked many viewers – especially coming from the avuncular Dole.

Pfizer enlisted Dole – 74 years old at the time – to diminish a stigma around E.D. so it could sell Viagra. But that was nothing. There was a legendary Dole commercial which aired during Super Bowl 37 between the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants in 2001. The spot begins with Dole strolling along a beach with his dog.

“I’ve always spoken to you frankly, no matter what the subject,” Dole intones. “That’s why I’m eager to tell you about a product which put real joy back in my life.”

Piano music plays quietly in the background. With a delivery, Dole says that this special elixir “helps me feel youthful. Vigorous. And most importantly, vital again.” Dole then says that his product is his “faithful, little blue friend.”

Don’t forget that Viagra was known as “the little blue bill.” And the Kansas Republican delivers the punchline. He brings a blue can of Pepsi-Cola to his lips. The ad then cuts to a “testimonial” of a portly man working in a grocery store, wearing a meat cutters smock.

“Are the revitalizing effects of Pepsi-Cola right for you?” asks the grocer, holding up a plastic, two liter bottle of Pepsi.

As two women jog down the beach, the commercial is cut to show Dole appearing to do a backflip after swigging his soda.

Everyone was in on the joke. They had all seen Dole’s Viagra spots. The Pepsi commercials even served as homages to the work he did for Pfizer.

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 4: Former Senator Bob Dole stands up and salutes the casket of the late former President George H.W. Bush as he lies in state at the U.S. Capitol, December 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Pepsi was on a roll in the early 2000s as it challenged Coca-Cola on the airwaves. Pepsi then signed up Britney Spears – at the peak of her stardom – to pitch pop in a racy ad which aired on the broadcast of the Oscars. Fireworks explode as a smoldering Spears ditches a Pepsi delivery work suit. Spears strips down to shorts and a halter top. She convulses suggestively in front of the camera. The video abruptly cuts to a series of harmonic power chords as Spears struts and prances. Interspersed in the commercial are various shots of people watching the commercial at home. Most are men – transfixed by Spears.

And then there is a shot of Dole. He sits in a dark living room on an easy chair. A dog at Dole’s side. The senator holds a Pepsi. The pooch barks at Spears.

“Easy boy,” says Dole in a monotone as flat as the Kansas prairie during the Dust Bowl. But Dole’s eyes never leave the screen, focused on Spears in front of him.

Pepsi seamlessly threaded the needle between the Viagra and cola commercials with the public. Everyone connected both. And you probably couldn’t do either of those ads without a straight-laced pitchman like Dole.

Everyone chattered about Dole and those ads back then. So, my students knew Dole. But not for the reasons others knew Dole. This had nothing to do with Dole serving in the Senate. Or running for vice president alongside President Gerald Ford in 1976. Or his own failed bid to secure the nomination in 1988. Even his loss to President Clinton in 1996.

The students knew little of Dole’s reputation as a “hatchet man.” That was the sobriquet bestowed on Dole in 1971 by late Sen. William Saxbe, R-Ohio.

The class had not seen Dole show flashes of temper after he lost the New Hampshire primary to future President George H. W. Bush in 1988.

“Stop lying about my record,” shot Dole during an interview with Bush on NBC.

The class knew a different Bob Dole, far from the trenches of politics – or the trenches of the Apennine Mountains of Italy in 1945.

But on that day back in 2001, my students, crowded into an office building in downtown Washington, D.C., to meet Dole. All dressed professionally. Each clutched pens and notebooks, ready to pepper the former senator with questions.

Always courtly, Dole entered the room and went around the table. He shook the hand of every student. He came upon Brittany Bucklin from Williamsburg, Va.

“I’m Brittany,” Bucklin smiled, extending her hand. “Brittany!” exclaimed Dole. “I know a Britney!” The room roared.

“But I spell it differently,” noted Bucklin, compared to Dole’s Pepsi co-star. “The nice way.” The room roared again.

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In Mad Men, Don Draper proclaimed that “advertising is based on one thing. Happiness.” Dole knew that. Whether he was marketing credit cards, Viagra, or Pepsi; cutting a deal on Capitol Hill; or meeting with a class of college students. Dole always knew his audience.

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