Sage Advice on Rising Above Petty Partisanship from Senator Robert Dole

“The legacy of Birch Bayh and Robert Dole goes well beyond [the Bayh-Dole Act]. A true leader knows how to build bridges. Any idiot can tear them down.”

Senators Birch Bayh (left) and Bob Dole

Former Senator Robert Dole turned 97 last week, but he’s still very much engaged in what’s going on right now. He just wrote a powerful op-ed, Innovation is key to defeating COVID-19. Subtitled “Enacted 40 years ago, the Bayh-Dole Act is helping facilitate the development of coronavirus therapies today,” Senator Dole reviews how the law he crafted with former Senator Birch Bayh revolutionized the commercialization of federally-funded inventions. Bayh-Dole paved the way for companies like Moderna to create critically needed therapies to combat our raging pandemic.

But there’s another message Senator Dole delivered that’s just as topical:

Sen. Bayh and I partnered in a bipartisan manner to enact this important legislation, and I give him the majority of the credit for his vision and leadership. I am confident that he would join me in urging our present-day leaders to rise above partisan political bickering and work together to defeat this virus.

Dream Team

Senators Bayh and Dole were not only in opposite parties, they were often poles apart politically. But like any good ball player, they respected the stars on the other team and were happy to work with them when they could.

For those who aren’t familiar with Senator Dole’s story, here’s what my old boss, Senator Birch Bayh said about him at the 30th anniversary celebration of Bayh-Dole:

I also want to say a word about my friend and colleague Senator Bob Dole, who unfortunately could not be with us today. Bob is a true representative of “The Greatest Generation” that literally saved the world, and then came home to build the most prosperous nation in history.

In 1942, Bob joined the army and was assigned to the Italian front. Today we don’t hear much about the vicious fighting in Italy. It was not glamorous. The campaign consisted of pushing the German’s off a seemingly endless series of fortified mountains at great personal cost. The farther we advanced, the tougher it became. As a 22 year old Second Lieutenant, Bob was doing what Second Lieutenant’s do– leading from the front. Just weeks before the surrender, Bob Dole was hit by fire from a German machine gun. He was hurt so badly that another GI gave him the largest dose of morphine possible, then wrote “M” on Bob’s forehead in his own blood, because if following squads gave Lt. Dole another shot he would die. Bob lay on the battlefield for nine hours before being evacuated. He remained hospitalized for more than three years. Upon recovery he studied law and dedicated his life to public service.

It was an honor to serve with Senator Dole for so many years. He and I were on different sides of the aisle, and fought hard for our beliefs. Yet, we developed a deep respect for each other. We shared a common goal: that ground breaking inventions would no longer waste away on the shelves of government, and teamed up to make our vision a reality. It was only because our political partnership effectively bridged the partisan divide that Bayh-Dole was passed. We were able to show our colleagues that our bill reflected fundamental concepts upon which both the right and left could agree. And even then, we barely made it across the finish line before time ran out.

Bayh and Dole were a dream team. As you may know, I served on Senator Bayh’s staff working on their bill. Their “Odd Couple” combination brought in a highly unusual cast of co-sponsors. One day I rushed down to the Senate floor to give Senator Bayh some good news. Senator Strom Thurmond, one of the most conservative Republicans, and Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the most liberal Democrats, were coming on board as co-sponsors. Senator Bayh looked up over his reading glasses, smiled and said: “Are you sure this bill is alright?”  We both laughed, but because of the hard work of our office along with Senator Dole’s, we built a broad, bi-partisan coalition, without which the bill would never have passed.

Saving Innovation, Together

Bayh-Dole was laid over in a lame duck session of Congress after the election of 1980, where Ronald Reagan swept Jimmy Carter out of office. Many Democrats like Birch Bayh were pulled down in the tide. Congress had to re-convene to pass a budget and only bills that could be unanimously agreed upon were being considered. After many adventures, we were able to overcome last minute resistance and the Senate Majority Leader’s office called to let me know that our bill would be called up in a few minutes but if we missed our window, we would be passed by. I called back to our office from the Senate floor and learned that Senator Bayh was holding his last press conference and couldn’t possibly get there in time. In panic, I looked around. Senator Dole was just coming out of the Senate cloak room, so I hurried up to him and explained the dilemma. He said: “Follow me” and went up to the Majority Leader saying that he was there to call up our bill. I scratched “Senator Bayh” off the floor statement and wrote in “Senator Dole” and the University and Small Business Patents Procedures Act, aka Bayh-Dole, was enacted.

With Senator Bayh out of office, those in the bureaucracy who opposed Bayh-Dole because it decentralized technology management from Washington, DC to those making federally funded inventions saw their chance to undermine the implementing regulations. Informed on what was occurring, Senator Dole called his friend, Vice President George H.W. Bush, explaining the importance of the new law. The Reagan Administration soon embraced Bayh-Dole, with President Reagan issuing a Presidential Memorandum followed by an Executive Order making it a centerpiece of Administration policy. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Senator Dole’s intervention, Bayh-Dole would have been smothered in its crib.

As they say, politics ain’t bean bag. It’s a rough game. Senators Bayh and Dole could play hard ball with the best of them, but they remained civil to their opponents so whenever possible they could collaborate on other issues. That’s a lesson worth remembering today.

Remember True Leaders?

Senator Dole said in closing his article: “Innovation will be the key, and I remain optimistic and proud that our legacy legislation may play a small role in a victory for millions and millions around the world.” That’s true but the legacy of Birch Bayh and Robert Dole goes well beyond that. A true leader knows how to build bridges. Any idiot can tear them down.

If you saw Senator Dole’s tribute to President George H.W. Bush as he lay in state at the Capitol, you probably had tears in your eyes. I sure did. Senator Dole insisted on being raised from his wheelchair so he could stand and salute his former friend. If you haven’t seen the clip, it’s well worth a minute and a half of your time.

Senator Robert Dole is a true member of the Greatest Generation, which is rapidly leaving us behind. So, when he offers his advice, it’s a good idea to listen closely.



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Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Pro Say]
    Pro Say
    July 29, 2020 02:13 pm

    Bob would have made an excellent president.

    A great man from the greatest generation.

    Someone to whom our current President Tweeter can’t hold a candle to.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    July 29, 2020 10:21 am

    Ignoring the current context of HEAVY infused neo-liberalism and identity politics will NOT bridge the chasm and bring the polarized sides together.

    No matter who makes such a call, today’s proponents simply are not capable of hearing that call.