TOPEKA, Kansas – Bob Dole, who overcame the war wounds to become a sharp-tongued Senate leader from Kansas, a Republican presidential candidate, and then an icon and celebrant of his dwindling generation of World War II veterans, died Sunday. He was 98.
His wife, Elizabeth Dole, said in an announcement on social media that he died in his sleep.
Dole announced in February that he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. During his 36-year career on Capitol Hill, Dole became one of the most influential MPs and party leaders in the Senate, combining a knack for compromise with a sharp joke that he often turned on himself but did not hesitate to turn on others as well .
He shaped tax policy, foreign policy, agricultural and food programs, and rights for the disabled, and enshrined protection against discrimination in employment, education, and public services in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The government offices and national parks accessible today, sidewalk ramps, and sign language interpreters at official local events are just some of the more visible hallmarks of his legacy and that of his colleagues brought together 30 years ago for this comprehensive civil rights law.
Dole dedicated his later years to the wounded veterans, their fallen comrades at Arlington National Cemetery, and the memory of the dwindling generation of World War II veterans.
Thousands of old soldiers gathered on the National Mall in 2004 for what Dole called “our last reunion” when the World War II Memorial was inaugurated there. He had been a driving force behind its creation.
“Our ranks have shrunk,” he said then. “But when we gather at dusk, it is illuminated by the knowledge that we have remained loyal to our comrades.”
Dole, who has long since left Kansas, has lived his life in the capital, at the center of power and then, after his retirement, in its shadow, all the while living in the famous Watergate complex. When he left politics and joined a law firm with prominent Democrats, he joked that he brought his dog to work so he could speak to another Republican.
He tried three times to become president. The last was in 1996 when he won the Republican nomination, only to see former President Bill Clinton re-elected. He campaigned for his party’s presidential nomination in 1980 and 1988 and in 1976 was the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate on the losing list with former President Gerald Ford.
Through all of this he bore the mark of war. When Dole attacked a German position in northern Italy in 1945, he was hit by shrapnel, shattering two vertebrae and paralyzing his arms and legs. The young train driver spent three years in a hospital to recover and was never able to use his right hand again.
In order not to embarrass those who tried to shake his right hand, Dole always held a pen in it and held out his left hand.
Dole could be merciless with his rivals, Democrat or Republican. When George HW Bush defeated him in the New Hampshire Republican primary in 1988, Dole snapped, “Stop lying about my record.” If that pales alongside the searing insults in today’s political arena, it was shocking then.
But when Bush died in December 2018, old rivalries were forgotten when Dole appeared in front of Bush’s coffin in the Capitol rotunda. When a helper lifted him out of his wheelchair, Dole slowly straightened up and greeted his former archenemy with a trembling chin with his left hand.
In a vice-presidential debate with Walter Mondale two decades earlier, Dole had known and boldly described all wars in America in this century as “Democratic wars”. Mondale shot back, Dole had just “well earned his reputation as a Beilmann”.
Dole initially denied saying what he had just said on this public stage, but then relented, eventually admitting that he had gone too far. “I should take the carotid artery,” he said, “and I did – my own.”
Despite his sober demeanor, he firmly believed in the Senate as an institution and enjoyed the respect and even affection of many Democrats. Just days after Dole announced his dire diagnosis of cancer, President Joe Biden visited him at his home to wish him well. The White House said the two were close friends from their Senate days.
In a statement on Sunday, Biden recalled that one of his first meetings outside the White House after being sworn in as President with the Doles was at their Washington home.
“As with all real friendships, no matter how much time has passed, we picked up exactly where we left off, as if we had only laughed yesterday in the Senate Chamber or had often discussed the big issues of the day.” said Biden. “I saw the same light, courage, and determination in his eyes that I’ve seen so many times.”
Biden ordered that US flags be hoisted in the White House and on all public buildings and facilities by sundown Thursday.
Dole won a seat in Congress in 1960 and represented a western district of Kansas House. He was promoted to the Senate eight years later when Republican incumbent Frank Carlson retired.
There he angered his Senate colleagues with violently partisan and sarcastic rhetoric delivered at the behest of President Richard Nixon. The Kansan was rewarded for his loyalty by chairing the Republican National Committee in 1971 before Nixon’s presidency collapsed in the Watergate scandal.
In the 1980s and 1990s he was committee chairman, majority leader and minority leader in the Senate. In total, he was the Senate Republican leader for nearly 11½ years, a record until Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell broke him in 2018. During this time he earned a reputation as a shrewd, pragmatic legislature who tirelessly compromises.
After the Republicans gained control of the Senate, Dole became chairman of the finance committee on tax information and received applause from Deficit Hawks and others for his handling of a 1982 tax bill persuading Ronald Reagan’s White House to add $ 100 billion in revenue increase to reduce the federal budget deficit.
“When Bob asked you to do something, it was it. There are so many things I can tell you that we could solve by mentioning Bob’s name,” said former GOP Senator Pat Roberts, who is with Dole in the Congress delegation from Kansas served.
But some more conservative Republicans were appalled that Dole had pushed for higher taxes. Georgia MP Newt Gingrich called him “the tax collector of the welfare state.”
Dole became Senate Chairman in 1985 and was either majority or minority leader depending on the party until he resigned in 1996 to take up the presidency.
This campaign, Dole’s last, was troubled from the start. He ran out of money that spring, and the Democrats’ ads drew the same brush of GOP candidate and divisive MP in the Party’s House of Representatives, Gingrich, as Republicans trying to eliminate Medicare. Clinton won by a large margin.
He also wondered about his age because he ran for president at the age of 73 – long before Biden was elected weeks before his 78th birthday in 2020.
Exiled into private life, Dole became an elderly statesman who helped Clinton pass a chemical weapons treaty. He also cultivated his wife’s political ambitions. Elizabeth Dole ran unsuccessfully for Republican presidential candidacy in 2000 and then served as Senator from North Carolina.
Dole made himself popular with the public as a self-deprecating promoter of the drug against impotence Viagra and other products.
He continued to speak out on issues and support political candidates.
In 2016, Dole initially assisted former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in nominating GOP President. He later got warm to former President Donald Trump and eventually endorsed him.
But six weeks after the 2020 election, when Trump refused to admit and promote unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, Dole told the Kansas City star, “It’s a pretty bitter pill for Trump, but it’s a fact that he lost Has.”
Trump issued a statement on Sunday praising Dole as “an American war hero and true patriot to our nation,” who “represented Kansas with honor, and his service has strengthened the Republican Party.”
In September 2017, Congress awarded Dole its highest recognition for outstanding service to the nation, a gold medal from Congress. That happened a decade after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Congress again honored Dole in 2019 by promoting him from Army Captain to Colonel in recognition of the military service that earned him two Purple Hearts.
Robert Joseph Dole was born on July 22, 1923 in Russell, an agricultural and oil community in western Kansas. He was the oldest of four children. His father ran a cream and egg business and ran a grain elevator, and his mother sold sewing machines and vacuum cleaners to support the family during the economic downturn. Dole attended the University of Kansas for two years before joining the Army in 1943.
Dole met Phyllis Holden, a therapist at a military hospital, while he was recovering from his war injuries in 1948. They were married and had a daughter, Robin. In 1972 the couple divorced.
Dole began his political career as a student at Washburn University and won a seat at the Kansas House.
He met his second wife, Elizabeth Dole, while she was working for the Nixon White House. She also served on the Federal Trade Commission and Secretary of Transportation and Labor while Dole was in the Senate. They married in 1975.
Dole published a memoir of his wartime experiences and recovery, One Soldier’s Story, in 2005. The Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas maintains an archive of Kansas World War II veterans.
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