He knew evil.

My Post-Watergate Flight to Kansas With Bob Dole

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Forty years ago, I was the only reporter on a commercial flight to Kansas, traveling with Bob Dole.

A first-term senator, Dole faced a tough re-election. It was the Watergate year, a terrible one for Republicans, who went on to lose 48 seats in the House and four in the Senate. Facing impeachment, President Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace in August. On Sept. 8, Nixon's successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon.

On Dole's flight home, I was entertained by his unsurpassed wit, much of it black that day. A recent poll had him running six points behind the Democratic challenger, Representative William Roy, an obstetrician and lawyer. The deficit was difficult, but not insurmountable.

"I was sitting around my office," he recalled, "whistling and thinking everything was looking up." Then came the controversial pardon. Dole, whom Nixon had appointed National Republican Committee chairman, felt like a dead man walking.

The Kansan went on to squeeze out a narrow victory in November after a less-than-inspiring campaign. In the first election after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, Dole charged Roy with favoring abortion on demand, which wasn't the case, and accused him of being an abortionist himself.

Ford's pardon, which didn't require Nixon to admit guilt, probably cost Ford the presidency in 1976, when he was defeated by Jimmy Carter. Polls showed strong public disapproval; even Ford's press secretary resigned in protest.

There is a reason that the moments aboard that flight to Kansas four decades ago are so memorable. If, as expected, Dole had been defeated, the U.S. would have lost one of its most significant congressional leaders of the 20th century. But Dole prevailed, and Ford's unpopular pardon was subsequently reinterpreted as more people came to recognize that an indictment and subsequent trial of an ex-president would have lasted years, deepening schisms in the country. In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library, led by the late president's daughter, Caroline, and his brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, presented Ford with its Profile in Courage award.

Dole's relationship with Nixon remained complicated over the next two decades. The Kansas Republican gave a eulogy in 1994 at the ex-President's funeral in which he declared the second half of the 20th century "the Age of Nixon" and lauded him as the quintessential American. Some years earlier, however, speaking at the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington, Dole noted that after Egypt's Anwar Sadat was assassinated, President Ronald Reagan dispatched three former presidents, Carter, Ford and Nixon to the funeral. They were, Dole cracked, "see no evil, hear no evil and . . . evil."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net