The recent death of Walter Mondale, vice president to President Jimmy Carter, and a presidential candidate himself in 1984, has reminded me of some old history which may help explain Senator Roger Marshall. The key to that history is one of Kansas’s great political figures, Bob Dole.
In 1976, Mondale debated Dole as President Gerald Ford’s newly picked vice-presidential running mate. Like so many Kansas Republicans of that bygone era (and only a few today; Senator Jerry Moran being one of the few), Dole’s politics were of a practical bent, very much in line with the Eisenhower Republican tradition. While Dole was a product of what became the Big First congressional district and never abandoned the strong conservatism of western Kansas — his early embrace of anti-abortion politics proves that — he also knew how to work across the political aisle, compromising to pass laws defending the rights of minorities and the disabled.
But when Dole was thrust into the spotlight of American politics at the highest level, during that debate with Mondale 45 years ago, what came out was the defiant conservative isolationism of mid-century Russell, Kansas, where Dole was born. In an embarrassing exchange, Dole attacked his opponent by labeling every war of the 20th-century as the conspiratorial work of evil Democrats–including WWII’s struggle against fascism, where Dole himself had been gravely wounded. Dole’s strange rant may not have caused Ford’s loss to Carter, but it didn’t help.