The John D. Lees Award has contributed to my research on the political life of Senator Bob Dole whose career I use as a lens to view changes in the GOP during the last quarter of the twentieth century, writes Jonathan Bartho. The award funded a month stay at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence, Kansas where I was also able to interview the Institute’s director, Bill Lacy which gave me a better understanding of the political character of a man who has often been viewed as enigmatic.
The generosity of BAAS in awarding me the 2016 John D. Lees Award was very important in enabling me to undertake a four week research trip to the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence, Kansas between March and April of 2016. My thesis examined the political life of Senator Bob Dole as a way to understand his impact on the Republican Party, as well as using his career in Congress as a lens on to the changing GOP during the last quarter of the twentieth century. The Dole Institute holds one of the biggest US political archives outside the presidential library system and receiving the John D. Lees Award enabled me to extend my trip from my original plan of three weeks to four, allowing more time to explore the vast collections.
The scale of the collected material at the Dole Institute reflects Senator Dole’s long political career as well as his life and work outside the political sphere, including his service in World War Two and his life in Kansas before entering politics. It was notable how the archives also offer opportunities for research across a number of topics not directly connected to Senator Dole – other researchers visit the archives to conduct research into the World War Two era, the Vietnam War and the state politics of Kansas. The impressive building which houses the Dole Institute also has many exhibits on display which place Senator Dole’s life and career in the context of American political history throughout the 20th century.
In addition to receiving very friendly, knowledgeable and patient assistance (considering my countless requests for boxes of material) from the archivists and other staff at the Dole Institute, I also had the opportunity to interview the Institute’s director, Bill Lacy. As a former campaign strategist for Bob Dole and advisor in the Reagan White House, Mr Lacy provided me with insights into Bob Dole’s personality, his political outlook and impact, and the reasons why his campaigns for president in 1988 and 1996 were ultimately unsuccessful. Bill Lacy’s thoughts on his personal relationship with Senator Dole – and the Senator’s relationships with figures such as Ronald Reagan – were fascinating and allowed me some understanding of the political character of a man who has often been viewed as enigmatic.
In addition to the lengthy interview I conducted with Mr Lacy, I returned from Kansas with thousands of photographed documents relating to Senator Dole’s Congressional career. Unfortunately, after spending time reviewing the material I had gathered, I came to the decision that it did not contain enough of the insight I required to enable me to continue with my political biography of Senator Dole. While the material was valuable in tracing Senator Dole’s Congressional career in areas such as media interviews and his voting record, I did encounter a lack of personal opinions and thoughts. This was reflected in the brevity of personal correspondence with other political figures and relative absence of internal memos discussing policy and decision making. This is perhaps a consequence of Senator Dole’s political and personal way of working. In Congress he was a man who much preferred holding meetings in person – sometimes moving between multiple meetings at a time – and in his personal life he did not keep a diary. As I learned from Bill Lacy, Senator Dole always prioritised action and hard work over theorising and ideology. Sadly, the lack of personal insight and comment in the documents I photographed has meant that I have had to change the focus of my thesis. However, I remain committed to studying the evolution of the Republican Party during the latter half of the 20th century, as I believe it is a fascinating subject which can reveal much about the current political landscape in the United States. Although my research trip was not as successful as I originally hoped it would be, I am extremely grateful to have received the John D. Lees Award from BAAS and for the opportunity it provided to spend four weeks conducting archival research at the Dole Institute.
Jonathan Bartho is a PhD student at the University College London.