Bob Dole, a decorated World War II veteran and long-serving Republican Party majority leader, died Sunday in his sleep, his family said.
Beth Dalbey , Patch Staff
TOPEKA, KS — Bob Dole, a decorated World War II veteran and sharp-witted, long-serving U.S. senator from Kansas who was denied the presidency in several attempts, died early Sunday morning in his sleep, his family said. He was 98.
Dole’s wife, Elizabeth, announced his death on Twitter. In February, Dole said he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. During his 36-year career on Capitol Hill, Dole became one of the most influential legislators and party leaders in the Senate, combining a talent for compromise and an often caustic and sometimes self-deprecating wit.
Grievous injuries sustained at the tail end of World War II left him unable to fully use his right arm, giving him a perspective he leveraged in what he considered to be a crowning legislative achievement, the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was the centerpiece of his first speech from the Senate floor in 1969, and he worked tirelessly over two decades with the bill’s chief sponsor, former Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, to see it become law in 1990.
“Experiencing a disability yourself, you could almost walk around with a blindfold and pick out the other people with disabilities,” Dole said the day the law was signed. “Having a disability changes your whole life, not just your attitude.”
Dole ran for president four times, capturing his party’s nomination once, in 1996. He was defeated by incumbent President Bill Clinton, who awarded his former rival the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1997, citing his unwavering support for the executive branch, regardless of which party controlled it.
President Gerald Ford named Dole his running mate in an unsuccessful 1976 White House bid against Jimmy Carter. He ran for president again in 1980 but dropped out early in the nomination process, and again in 1988, when he was defeated in the primaries by George H.W. Bush, who had been President Ronald Reagan’s vice president.
At one of his final public appearances, at President George H.W. Bush’s funeral in December 2018, Dole rose from his wheelchair to give a final salute to “41,” as Bush was known to distinguish him from his son, President George W. Bush.
The two men were once bitter political enemies — Dole once famously called Bush a “(expletive) Nazi” and whispered in his ear in a promise for the ages, ” I’ll get you some day .”
Yet, they forged a strong friendship and set their rivalries aside to work for common interests in a fashion rare in today’s acrimonious political climate.
“I wanted to pay my respects, so I wanted to stand up and maybe bow my head,” Dole told NBC’s “Today” show of the tribute. “But I got on my feet — it’s almost like my subconscious was moving my left arm. I didn’t go there with the intent to salute , but I did.”
The salute was poignant, from one member of America’s Greatest Generation to another. The two men were members of an exclusive club. Bush, who died at 94, was the last U.S. president to have served in World War II. Dole was the last World War II veteran to have campaigned for the presidency.
The close bond between Dole and the elder Bush formed when Dole became the Republican leader in the Senate. He loyally promoted Bush’s agenda, and Bush loyally promoted Dole’s, lending his support to the Americans With Disabilities Act the Kansas senator had championed.
“This is a case where two political enemies became fast, fast friends, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Dole said at a 2016 commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
World War II Wounds
Dole interrupted his college education in 1942 when he enlisted in the Army Reserves to fight in World War II. He was deployed for active duty in early 1943. While serving in the Apennine Mountains south of Bologna, Italy, in 1945, he came under German machine-gun fire, and doctors gave him little chance of survival.
He spent nearly three years recovering from his injuries: His right shoulder was shattered, vertebrae in his neck and spine were fractured, metal shrapnel ripped through his body and damaged a kidney, and he was paralyzed from the neck down.
Medically discharged from the Army in 1947, Dole was awarded two Bronze Stars, one with an Oak Cluster, along with the Purple Heart, an American Campaign Medal, a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and a World War II Victory Medal.
Honored previously by Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dole was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Trump in 2018. On May 17, 2019, the former Army 10th Mountain Division captain was promoted to the honorary rank of colonel at a private ceremony at the World War II Memorial, for which he helped raise $197 million to see erected on the National Mall.
He often showed up unannounced to greet veterans making a pilgrimage to the memorial, which was one of Dole’s favorite spots.
He went on from the military to graduate from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, with both undergraduate and law degrees. His political career began in 1950, when he was elected to a two-year term to the Kansas House of Representatives. After three terms as the Russell County attorney, Dole won the first of four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, then moved to the Senate in 1969, where he served until his 1996 retirement.
MLK Day, Voting Rights Act
Dole was a fierce party loyalist, but as Senate Republicans’ longest-serving majority leader at the time (Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell eclipsed the record in 2018), he bucked his party on issues, broadening his party’s base.
One such occasion was in 1983, when he led the effort to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as the nation’s 10th legal holiday. The late North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms had vehemently opposed it, and Dole acknowledged that constituent mail was running heavily against establishment of a King holiday, but he argued that Republicans needed to appeal to a more diverse group of voters.
“I would make a distinction in the fact that this has happened over my lifetime and I have watched the change taking place because I have been in Congress ever since the first time Dr. King demonstrated his effectiveness in pointing out discrimination and injustice in this country,” he said from the Senate floor. “I did not know Columbus and I did not know Franklin D. Roosevelt. When you have seen the dramatic change that has happened all across this land and other lands because of one man, because of his dream and his vision and his diligence and his commitment; that really, as I see it, is what the debate is all about today.”
Standing aside Coretta Scott King, the slain civil rights leader’s widow, at a news conference announcing Senate approval of the holiday, Dole said, “I’m proud of my party today. We’re in the mainstream.”
Dole also lists the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he championed in the House, among his proudest accomplishments. Among other things, it outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests that some Southern states used to deny African Americans their right to vote.
Humor, Books And Viagra Ad
After his retirement from public life, Dole worked with George McGovern, the Democrats’ 1972 presidential nominee, to establish the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, which helps in the fight against childhood hunger and poverty in developing countries. The two former senators received the 2008 World Food Prize for their collaboration.
In both his public and private life, Dole never took himself too seriously.
He parlayed his sense of humor into two books — “Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House” and “Great Presidential Wit: I Wish I Was in the Book,” which ranked U.S. presidents according to their sense of humor. He famously showed his self-deprecating humor, and his salty side, in a commercial for the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, deadpanning “I wish I had bought stock in it” in a 2013 interview with Larry King.
Occasionally, the joke was on Dole.
When he went home to Russell to vote during the last leg of his 1996 presidential campaign to cast his own vote, an old friend checking registrations looked up from the folding table and snapped, “Name please.”
Dole was taken aback for a few seconds, then said, “Oh c’mon, Martha,” before they broke into laughter.
Robert Joseph Dole was born on July 22, 1923, the son of Doran Ray and Bina (Talbott) Dole. His father was a grain elevator and produce station operator. He married Elizabeth (Hanford) Dole on Dec. 7, 1975, and was the father of one child, Robin, with his first wife, Phyllis (Holden) Dole.
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