…Or why I oppose congressional term limits.
The recent passing of former Kansas Senator Robert Dole is one more of those occasions on which I had an opportunity to reflect on past experiences. In February 1996, I was responsible for facilitating Senator Dole’s appearance at the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C. Responsibility for invited guests at NGA meetings is assigned to staff who do not have a major content role at that particular event.
This assignment had an added burden as it was generally believed Dole would be the Republican nominee for president and the only plenary session in which Dole could participate would also include a presence by sitting President Bill Clinton. A senior member of Dole’s staff called to tell me he would be doing the advance work for the Senator. As you will soon learn, I have since erased this individual’s name from my memory banks.
Two days before the scheduled appearance, I met this staff person at the J. W. Marriott hotel to do a walkthrough. Knowing Clinton would also be in the building, I explained the President would be going first. I had reserved a “green room” for Dole where he could wait until the Clinton entourage cleared the meeting room. He asked, “Do you know where Clinton would be exiting the building?” I did not at the time, but asked, “Why?” “Because we think it would be awkward if they ran into each other.” [HISTORICAL NOTE: Dole, then Senate majority leader, and Clinton had just spent weeks together in meetings to address the growing budget deficit. Those meetings resulted in an agreement to raise taxes which resulted in three fiscal years of budget surpluses.]
There are only two public entrances at the Marriott Hotel, the main entrance on 14th Street and one on Pennsylvania Avenue. I suggested we look at both and I would get back to him with the plans for the presidential motorcade. When we got to the 14th Street entrance, the staff person informed me, “The Senator does not like revolving doors; so, please have the doorman ready to open one of the other doors for him.” Strange, but no argument from me as I assumed it had something to do with his disabled right arm. There were no revolving doors at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance.
The next day, I called my Dole contact and informed him the White House let us know Clinton would be leaving through the 14th Street entrance. I would meet the Dole party at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. However, as you might imagine, nothing is ever cast in stone when dealing with a commander-in-chief, especially true of the Clinton White House. On the morning of the session, I was informed Clinton would be making another stop before heading back to the White House, and therefore, would be picked up on Pennsylvania Avenue. I immediately called my contact and informed him of the change. Then I met with the hotel doorman to inform him to be prepared to hold the door for Dole.
Clinton speaks and leaves the meeting room. No Dole yet. I get a call from my contact. They are running late but have left the Capitol and will be there in a few minutes. When the limo arrives, Dole jumps out of the back seat and whizzes through (drum roll) the revolving door. He apologizes for being late as I escort him to the plenary session.
What does this have to do with term limits? For every member of Congress there are numerous staff who often float between offices as one member leaves and another takes his place. Like my Dole contact many believe, not only do they know what their bosses want, but also what the nation wants. Far too often neither of these are true. More importantly, they are not elected and voters do not hold them accountable. If term limits are enacted, institutional knowledge and long-term working relationships, will reside with staff, not elected officials. It amazes me conservatives, who raise concerns about an unelected, bureaucratic deep state, do not see the same danger if congressional staff become more influential following the more rapid turnover of elected senators and representatives.
Let me close by explaining the title of this post. After his meeting with the governors, I escorted Dole to the Pennsylvania Street entrance where we were told the limo would meet him. It was not there. I assumed I might get to see the reported Dole temper in full display. To the contrary, as we waited for his ride, Dole asked me about my work at NGA and then shared how he was looking forward to a campaign trip to New England. As I read and listened to so many of the tributes by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, I know they were sincere. And do they to this day, like I, wonder why it seemed so difficult for the “private Dole” to come through in public.
For what it’s worth.