WASHINGTON—If the Senate is the world's most exclusive club, Bob Dole is now a member of the clubbiest club of all.
His portrait will hang in the Senate, an honor that's been awarded to barely more than three dozen of the nearly 2,000 men and women who've served there since the republic was founded in 1789.
The Senate unveiled it Tuesday at a ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber before an audience of family, friends and longtime colleagues. It will hang in the lobby outside the chamber where he represented Kansas for 28 years and was its longest-serving Republican leader.
"America is a better place because you have been fighting on our side," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
But Dole, whose legendary wit is drier than the bones of most of his predecessors, was quick to pop his own balloon.
"Some of my colleagues have been waiting for years to nail me to the wall," he deadpanned.
His wife, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, likely spoke his truer feelings before the ceremony, calling it "a very, very meaningful event. Very special for us all."
Indeed, Bob Dole, who turned 83 last weekend, paid tribute to his wife, daughter Robin, and former aides for their years of support. He also thanked the voters of Kansas, who jumpstarted his 35-year Capitol Hill career in 1961 when they elected him to the House of Representatives.
"You have honored me with your confidence and entrusted me with your ideals," Dole said.
But it was Dole's sometimes biting humor, which he regularly directed at himself, and his everyman demeanor that made him such a popular figure throughout the Senate's marble halls. He was a small-town boy from Kansas who became a hero during World War II and spent years recovering from his wounds.
It shaped his world. As a Washington power broker, he was as much at home with the town's political operators as he was with the Capitol's elevator operators.
Although he called both world wars, Korea and Vietnam "Democrat wars," Senate watchers called him a Republican centrist during his career and a pragmatist who might not feel quite as much at home in today's politically polarized climate.
"Apparently the leadership thinks they ought to be on the parapet firing the first shot, waving the flag," said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who's known Dole for several decades. "When Bob was leader, he led, but I don't think like that."
Dole has been gone from the Senate only 10 years, not the required 21 for a senator to have his portrait adorn its walls. But his will be part of a special collection of paintings of every floor leader.
The artist, Everett Raymond Kinstler of New York, has painted several presidents and other government officials.
Dole will be in some pretty august company, alongside giants such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, who never served in the Senate but did save the republic.
"I think it's nice to be able to recognize them while they're still with us," said Senate curator Diane Skvarla.
Dole retired from the Senate in 1996 to run for president against former President Clinton and lost. (They've since become friends.) He went on to lead efforts to build the World War II Memorial and other projects and became a pitchman for Viagra.
Tuesday's ceremony was like old home week, reuniting old allies and adversaries. Former Sen. George Mitchell, a Maine Democrat who was majority leader in the early 1990s when Dole led the Republican minority, spoke of Dole's "essential integrity."
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was elected to the Senate in 1962, six years before Dole, said afterward, "He wanted to get things done for the people of Kansas and also for the country. That took an extra dimension which I think important leaders here have, but not all."
Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who won Dole's seat after he stepped down, called him "the Michael Jordan of legislation. He did it all gracefully."
And with humor.
Discussing all the fuss over him, Dole suggested in an interview earlier this week that the most appropriate spot for his portrait might be the balcony outside the majority leader's office, where he used to steal away to work on his famous perpetual suntan. Wags at the time dubbed it "Dole's Beach."
"Maybe I should hang outdoors," Dole deadpanned. "That's where they hang most people."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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