WASHINGTON -- Bob Dole bid farewell to Congress yesterday with a loving, at times impassioned, tribute to the much-maligned institution that has been his home and family for 35 years.
At the climax of a day of pageantry to mark the resignation of the Senate majority leader so he can campaign full time for the White House, Dole said he wished to correct an impression that he was leaving to disassociate himself from the Senate.
"I would no more distance myself from the Senate than I would from the United States itself," he declared during his final moments in the marble chamber, packed with former colleagues, House members, and congressional staff members as well as his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Robin.
"This body is a reflection of America," he said. "It's what America is all about. We come from different states and different backgrounds, different opportunities, different challenges in our life. And, yes, the institution has its imperfections. We're like America. We're still a work in progress."
Dole made his grand entrance for the noontime farewell address accompanied by House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- a signal of defiance to those who argue that he should separate himself from the Republican-led Congress, which polls show is unpopular.
"We all know how the political process works," he said. "Some people are cynical, and some people think it's awful and some people don't trust us. But the people who watch us, I think, day in and day out, have a better understanding."
The performance was vintage Dole: intimate, funny, highly emotional. He often struggled to keep his composure. The day capped an event unique in modern American history: a sitting majority leader, resigning in midterm to become his party's nominee for the White House. For many of his colleagues, Dole's long career, as a member of both the House and Senate and as his party's longest-serving Senate leader, made the departure momentous.
Flowery tributes poured in all day long from senators of both parties. As Dole walked through the Capitol corridors, congressional employees reached out to say goodbye. James Whibley, a diminutive 33-year-old who owes his job as an elevator operator to Dole, grabbed his hand, said, "Good luck, get 'em," and pulled the 6-foot-2-inch senator down to his level for a hug.
When the newly minted Citizen Dole left the Capitol about 3: 30 p.m. and climbed into his Secret Service motorcade, hundreds of well-wishers -- including much of the Senate -- stood on the Capitol steps and waved.
"My season in the Senate is about to come to an end," Dole told his colleagues, shortly before the swearing-in of his replacement, Sheila Frahm, who had been Kansas' lieutenant governor. "It's been a great ride. But the new season before me makes this moment far less the closing of one chapter than the opening of another. We all take pride in the past, but we all live for the future."
Dole is scheduled to leave today on a three-day, seven-state campaign swing that will kick off the next phase of his bid to unseat President Clinton. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans will convene today to choose a new majority leader. Sen. Trent Lott is expected to win a contest against his fellow Mississippian, Thad Cochran.
Dole repeatedly fought off tears yesterday by unleashing his trademark wry wit. He was visibly moved when the Senate surprised him by voting to name the balcony off the majority leader's office -- already informally known as "Dole's Beach" -- the "Robert J. Dole Balcony."
He later quipped: "I thought I was going to get the whole building."
During his speech, as he was defending the Senate rules "where you can have unlimited debate, where any senator on either side on any issue can stand up and talk until they drop," Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 93-year-old South Carolina Republican who was presiding as president pro-tem, interjected that he holds the filibuster record of 24 hours, 18 minutes.
"And that's why you're seldom asked to be an after-dinner speaker, too, I might add," Dole shot back.
The day of fond wishes and good fellowship, during which many of Dole's colleagues seemed to lament the passing of an era in their own lives, came in the midst of an increasingly contentious presidential race that has often spilled over onto the Senate floor.
Dole even made a joke about that, although his speech pointedly avoided partisan statements.
"I always thought the differences were a healthy thing, and that's why we're all so healthy because we have a lot of differences in this chamber," he said. "I've never seen a healthier group in my life."
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said that while he could not wish Dole success in his next political venture, "his sense of fairness and decency is a standard to which all people in public life should be held."
Clinton, whose campaign recently ran TV ads that labeled Dole a quitter, took a timeout from their rivalry to offer a few kind words.
"Even though I am about to begin a rather vigorous campaign with Senator Dole, I would like to ask all of you, including those of you who are my supporters, to just take a moment and wish him well," Clinton said while campaigning in California.
Several of Dole's Republican colleagues who are informal advisers to his campaign expressed hope that the former Senate majority leader would now have time to make sure the rest of the country gets to know him as they do.
"The people of America will see what we have always seen in him: a deeply sensitive and caring man who has the boldness and courage to make a decision and stick to it," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming.
Dole's Senate resignation means that he will lose his $148,000 a year salary, but he is now eligible for a pension of about $107,000 annually. Dole is considering donating the pension money to charity, a spokesman said.
Pub Date: 6/12/96