Still got it

Sept. 28, 2006

When Bob Dole took the stage to a thunderous applause this past Tuesday morning in the San Diego Convention Center to keynote the ASIS International tradeshow, I began to get a little nervous for him because he didn't look as I had remembered. His head hung a little lower, his hands were a bit shakier, and he moved unsteadily across the stage.  It was a glaring reminder to me that it had been a whole decade since he had run for president; and while I was still confident that he would deliver an able speech, I was lowering my expectations as the welcoming applause gradually became fainter and fainter.     

But soon after Dole's speech began, he really got rolling and had the crowd in stitches with quips such as, "Some of you in this audience have benefited from a few of my commercials," and "No, I didn't bring any samples." 

Dole also poked fun at the Super Bowl Pepsi commercial he appeared in with Britney Spears, saying she got $10 million and he got a year's supply of free Pepsi; and he told of the letters he had received that accused him of being a "dirty old man" for appearing in that Pepsi commercial (which showed a risque Britney Spears dance video followed by Bob Dole watching from his couch and patting his barking dog on the head, saying "Down boy.")  With a smile, Dole defends himself by explaining, "The dog was barking, not me!"  

Dole mainly made light of himself, but he also kidded about Democrats (and Republicans).  For about the first 10 minutes of the speech, he was in comedian mode, and the crowd was overwheminly loving it.  On more than one occasion I was surprised by how loud the laughter got.  In the middle of an otherwise serious, businesslike day at a security tradeshow, people were really having a great time.

However, the wounded World War II hero and former senator finally settled down and the nature of his speech became more serious.  He explained how the very stage he was standing on had special significance for him because it was in that same San Diego convential hall ten years earlier that he had accepted the 1996 GOP Presidential nomination and how that had been a very exciting time in his life.  He then went on to talk about 9/11 and its aftermath, the security concerns of today, and the heroism of all our military veterans.

The recently-opened WWII memorial, for which Dole worked tirelessly to help raise money, is near to his heart.  And so he winded down his speech by using a story from WWII to make a general, yet powerful, point about leadership.

Dole recounted the decision facing General Dwight D. Eisenhower when the Allies were on the brink of the D-Day invasion.  The weather wasn't cooperating, and they kept putting it off day after day and the pressure was building.  If they waited much longer, the Nazis would catch on and the element of surprise would be lost.  Finally, the military meteorologists reported to Eisenhower that they thought the skies were going to clear up just long enough to launch this monumental land, air, and sea campaign.

As Eisenhower deliberated at to what to do, Dole said, he knew that even if ordering this attack was the right decision, it would still result in many of our young men and boys never returning home.  (And as it turned out, 400,000 didn't return home.)

Today, we know that the story of the D-Day invasion ends with the Allies victorious over the Nazis, but Dole reminded us that back then we didn't know how it would go.  Eisenhower had no guarantees.  The stakes were enormous.  Millions of lives were on the line and so, in a way, was the course of history.  

And the decision was General Eisenhower's to make.

After Eisenhower gave the official order to launch the D-Day invasion on June 5, 1944, he retreated to be alone in his tent and put his head in his hand, praying that he had made the right decision, said Dole as he built the drama, retelling this story on the San Diego stage for the ASIS attendees.  And then Eisenhower did something else, Dole continued.  He wrote a short, 4-sentence note that would be delivered to the media in the event that the invasion failed.

The note read: "Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

The last sentence echoed in the San Diego hall.  If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

"Leadership without responsibility isn't leadership at all," concluded Dole, which is a good reminder for all of us regardless of profession. 

And as I left the keynote to make my next ASIS appointment, I kept reflecting upon Dole's speech and the talent with which he had delivered it.  I couldn't help but admit, even after all these years, Bob Dole has still got it.