With the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck, Bob Dole stood Friday in the White House he had failed to claim and indulged a decades-long wish: "I, Robert J. Dole . . ."
As the East Room ceremony where President Clinton honored his former Republican rival erupted in laughter, Dole continued dryly: ". . . do solemnly swear. Uh, wrong speech."
Three days before Clinton is to utter that same oath in swearing to a second term, he extended Republicans a symbolic hand of reconciliation by awarding their party's longtime standard-bearer _ and the man he beat last November _ the nation's highest civilian honor.
"I had a dream that I would be, this historical week, receiving something from the president," Dole joked. "But I thought it would be the front door key."
Clinton saluted the 35-year member of Congress and World War II hero: "Son of the soil, citizen, soldier and legislator, Bob Dole understands the American people, their struggles, their triumphs and their dreams.
"Our country is better for his courage, his determination and his willingness to go the long course to lead America," the president added.
"I have found honor in the profession of politics," he said. "Our challenge is not to question American ideals or replace them, but to act worthy of them."