Bob Dole was a champion of people with disabilities: Former Sen. Harkin

December 11, 2021
The former presidential candidate and Republican congressman from Kansas will undergo treatment to battle the lung cancer.
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On Jan. 3, 1985, I was scheduled to be sworn in as a new United States senator. I had gathered my family in the Senate gallery to witness my swearing in, and that included my deaf brother, Frank.

I had arranged with Gallaudet University for a sign language interpreter to sit in the gallery with Frank so he would understand what was happening on the Senate floor. Shortly before noon, the designated time to begin swearing-in ceremonies, I was informed that the gallery doorkeeper would not allow the interpreter to interpret for Frank.

I went to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole – whom I had never met – and explained the situation. He looked up to the gallery, saw where my family was seated, and sent his floor manager up to tell the doorkeeper to permit the sign language interpreter into the gallery to interpret. I thanked Dole, and shortly thereafter looked up to see the interpreter signing for my brother. Later in the day, I saw Dole and thanked him again.

He replied, “Glad it worked out. Read my maiden speech in the Senate.”

I did.

It was all about discrimination against persons with disabilities. I knew then I had a friend and ally in the ensuing struggle to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Dole’s sense of humor

An anecdote: I was immediately put on the Senate Agriculture Committee in 1985. The chairman was Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. 

We were in the middle of a farm crisis, and the committee was considering legislation to address this crisis. Now the Washington press had on more than one occasion referred to Dole as the “de facto” chair of the Agriculture Committee.

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During one meeting of the committee, Helms was called away for some reason, and Dole assumed the chair. I was a freshman senator, sitting at the far end of a long table in a room packed with staff and the press. I tried to get recognized. “Mr. Chairman,” I said, a couple of times, but Dole recognized someone else more senior to me. Finally, I said in a loud voice, “Mr. Real Chairman!”

The crowd erupted in laughter.

Dole, in deadpan humor, tilted his head back, rolled his eyes to the ceiling and slowly moved his head from side to side. This brought on more laughter. Finally, he recognized me. Well, word got back to Helms, and at the next meeting of the Agriculture Committee, Helms really lit into me about my comment, letting me and everyone know he was the “real” chairman of the Agriculture Committee. He was furious. Later I encountered Dole as he was coming out of his Capitol office and he smiled, raised his eyebrows, and said, “I understand Jesse straightened you out.” He chuckled and moved on.

A champion for people with disabilities

During negotiations on passing the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), although President George H.W. Bush was unequivocal in his support, there was a meeting in the U.S. Capitol with White House chief of staff, John Sununu, a couple of other Cabinet members, Sen. Ted Kennedy, my disability staff person and me – as lead sponsor of the bill.

It was at this meeting that Kennedy exploded at Sununu, raised his voice, slammed his hand down on the table, and in no uncertain terms told Sununu he was out of line in attacking our staff member. 

The next day, I ran into Dole in the corridor, and he stopped me and said, “I heard that Kennedy really went after Sununu yesterday.” He kind of had a smile on his face, and I replied, “Whew, I never saw anything like that in all my years in the Congress. I’m afraid Sununu is going to screw us up now.”

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 “He won’t,” Dole said. “Boyden Gray is in charge of this for Bush. Sununu is on the backbench where he should be.”

The ADA passed and was signed into law by Bush on July 26, 1990. I didn’t realize at the time that as governor, Sununu had supported Bush over Dole in the 1988 New Hampshire Republican primary. 

From time to time I would go visit with Bob at his place in the Watergate, the last being on Oct.13 of this year. We spent over an hour just chatting about various things, including the close working relationship between the Dole Institute in Kansas and the Harkin Institute in Iowa.

He was sharp as a tack and up to speed on present issues. Every year in December, the U.S. International Council on Disabilities awards the “Dole-Harkin Award” to a couple of individuals and an organization that have been leaders on disability rights. 

During our meeting we both spoke of this – and lamented the fact that neither one of us would be present for the awards dinner this year. We spoke of the dysfunction of the present Senate. Bob said, “It shouldn’t be this way. We trusted one another during our time. We had an honor code. We weren’t enemies.” I responded, “Yes, we could work together. We didn’t consider those who disagreed with our position as less than honorable.”

So I said goodbye, told Bob I enjoyed the visit, would be back next summer to begin planning for his 100th birthday. His last words to me: “Thanks Tom, I intend to make it.”

Rest in peace, old friend and fellow warrior for a good America. You will make it well beyond the 100 years in your legacy of goodness and devotion to our country. 

Tom Harkin is a former U.S. senator from Iowa. 

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