She is quiet, thoughtful, and imperturbably patriotic, qualities uncommon and undervalued these days. This lovely evening, at a wedding reception – for her former Chief of Staff – she seems particularly cerebral, reflective. Weddings can do that.
Her husband of 26 years, former US Senate Majority Leader, Vice Presidential nominee (1976), presidential nominee (1996), US Senator from Kansas for 27 years, Army’s 10th Mountain Division in 1942, paralyzed in combat 1945, miraculously recovered by faith – died in December 2021, less than a year ago.
These days, she says little of herself, yet there is much to say. Hers is a life of firsts. She has done more, seen more, and achieved more than most could in ten lives. She is intrepid but graceful, firm but warms to consensus, resolute but other-regarding. She cares about people.
She would prefer to give credit than get it, and speaks when needed and with purpose, not to hear herself speak. That may be why, when she ran for President in 2000, polling second only to George W. Bush, she was underestimated. There are worse sins in politics and life.
But how many recall her extraordinary past, this unsung leader, the dignity of Margaret Thatcher, manners, mission, patience, and poise few exercise? She aspired and studied, learned and lived, dared and did, in a time when few – and fewer women – imagined the prospect.
Think about the persistence required to do what she has done. She dared apply to Duke, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, nationally recognized for service…Studied at Oxford, became a teacher, master’s from Harvard, graduated Harvard Law School, one of 24 women from 550. All this by 1965 – the girl from North Carolina.
Her life was just taking off, and it soared. Open to the possible, inspired by energy, and optimistic about America, she campaigned for JFK and by 1967 was working in government. But the truth turns the curious mind, as light attracts the eye. She became a Republican for what she believed.
In Nixon’s White House, concerned about people, she worked as Deputy Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs. Nixon saw her talent and put her on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Her future husband saw her elegance, and she his courage in 1972. They married in 1975.
When her husband was nominated to the vice presidency in 1976, she dropped all and gave up her FTC post. When he ran for president in 1980, she again gave her all. She and he recognized destiny in Reagan’s election and worked with him on many projects.
Reagan named her to his White House, then Secretary of Transportation. He knew her heart and put her on task forces dedicated to women. No woman had ever led Transportation. She took that post shortly after Reagan appointed the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.
Her run had begun. Under George H.W. Bush, served as Secretary of Labor, again concerned about people – first woman ever to hold two cabinet posts, different presidents. Her record speaks to public safety.
For nearly a decade, she served as President of the American Red Cross, rife with bureaucracy, compensated by helping others live. Interestingly, while Clara Barton founded it, she was the first woman since Barton to lead it.
That role was not a barnburner, not political. It was at times thankless yet compensated by a return more than money or politics provides. She took the job refusing a salary and held it longer than George C. Marshall, architect of the Marshall Plan who called it “tonic for my soul.”
She was not done. Midstride, her husband became the Republican Nominee for President in 1996. She supported him, he lost, and she supported him more. By 2000, destiny knocked on her door. She ran for President, running number two to George W. Bush.
Honor is a curious thing. It shines – and its absence glares. She was a serious contender to be George W. Bush’s Vice President, was vetted, and promising. Dick Cheney oversaw VP selection. He selected himself.
She pivoted, ran for the US Senate from North Carolina, where she grew up, and won. She served again with dignity, distinction, purpose, and impact, headed the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the first woman to do so.
By 2012, she had founded – still runs – a foundation dedicated to wounded warriors, helping 5.5 million caregivers. She cares about vets and always has. She has written books and still serves.
On this evening, she was not the center of attention, not up front, just happy to the nines her former Chief of Staff was getting married to a good man, dedicated to service. By chance in my navy whites, we spoke – this good and quiet lady, much like and also unlike her husband.
Reflecting on all she had done I noted the poignancy of her presence. She accepted and parried. I offered how friends in Maine regarded her service highly. She accepted and parried.
Finally, I expressed respect for an open secret. Her husband – a war hero whose wounds carried a lifetime, former Senator and Presidential Nominee, Bob Dole. He went to the WWII Memorial Sundays to meet “Honor Flights,” WWII veterans coming to the Memorial.
Now, she came alive. With undying love, she said: “He came every Sunday, for 14 years … never missed ….” Her love for another patriot, her husband for a quarter century, poured out. It was a joy to hear, but more.
That moment reminded me she is a steel magnolia in her own right, determined and kind, patriotic and firm, ready to give as she lives to America, concerned for others. She is what selfless service is, not bitter or roiled, but quiet and quick to console. That is … Elizabeth Dole.
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