RUSSELL, KS—After completing a distinguished career in politics spanning nearly 50 years, former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole was re-released into his native prairie habitat Sunday.
Walking westward into a glorious Midwestern dusk, the long-time Kansas senator, escorted by Martin Hunt, a wildlife conservationist with the U.S. Parks Department, flapped his way to the edge of Murray State Forest three miles outside Russell. Hunt then let go of Dole's hand, and the former Senate Majority Leader squawked jubilantly for several minutes before waving goodbye to his woman, Elizabeth, and a throng of teary-eyed well-wishers, disappearing into the thick spruce woods.
"This is a bittersweet occasion," fellow senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) told the crowd at a pre-release ceremony. "We are all going to miss Bob Dole. In many ways, he's become part of our national family. But this is the right thing to do, and we are happy that, after a lifetime of public service, he will finally have the chance to roam the open fields and graze the sunlit plains of our beautiful state, and retake his rightful place in the circle of life."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a long-time friend of Dole's, was also at the ceremony. McCain explained that this past October, when it became clear that Dole was not going to win the White House, several members of the campaign team were asked by friends of Dole to focus less on winning the presidency, and more on lovingly re-familiarizing him with his instinctive feeding, rutting and migratory habits—habits Dole had to abandon when he was first captured and cruelly forced to run for Alderman of Russell in 1949.
"It wasn't easy for us," said McCain. "And it wasn't fair to him. In captivity, he had become exactly what society had trained him to be—an efficient, well-respected legislator with keen negotiating instincts. And all along, we conditioned him to pursue the presidency as aggressively as his counterparts in the grasslands would pursue the boll weevil or prairie dog. And then to be betrayed, to have that long-hunted goal taken from him so cruelly by society, particularly by the soccer-mom demographic… is that fair?" McCain trailed off, visibly shaken.
McCain, Hunt and other Republican naturalists were able to provide a successful two-month transition period for Dole, featuring leashed jaunts, an increasingly wheat-based diet and the non-stop "96 Hours To Victory" tour that concluded his campaign—a tour that McCain now admits was designed primarily to "re-adjust the internal biorhythms of Dole, who is by nature a largely noctural creature."
Though popular with the media for his frolicsome disposition, Dole was widely—and mistakenly—viewed by the public as an indigenous creature of Washington. Many also expressed distaste for his frequently vicious attacks, both on President Clinton's character and assorted large chunks of meat. McCain attributed this perception to "incompetence" on the part of Dole's advisors, whom he believes "utterly failed to educate America that Dole was only playing when he was being feisty… Bob Dole is a very, very friendly type."
Regardless, no trace of viciousness was visible during Sunday's release. Dole, 73 (the equivalent of 52), appeared thoughtful and proud as he sat obediently on the platform during the ceremony, at one point amiably lapping the hand of Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour. Asked about his feelings, a wide-eyed Dole jumped up and down, then indicated his readiness by adopting a noble, eagle-like pose and looking stoically out at the dense evergreens.
Dole vanished into the woods wearing his favorite charcoal-gray suit and black loafers. Elizabeth said that he would in all likelihood keep the suit on until he feels sufficiently acclimated to the cold and his thick outer fur comes in.