Bob Dole, old soldier and stalwart of the Senate, dies at 98
By Katherine Q. Seelye
Bob Dole, the plain-spoken son of the prairie who overcame Dust Bowl deprivation in Kansas and grievous battle wounds in Italy to become the Senate majority leader and the last of the World War II generation to win his party’s nomination for president, died Sunday. He was 98.
His death was announced by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. It did not say where he died. He had announced in February that he had stage 4 lung cancer and that he was beginning treatment.
A Republican, Dole was one of the most durable political figures in the last decades of the last century. He was nominated for vice president in 1976 and then for president a full 20 years later. He spent a quarter-century in the Senate, where he was his party’s longest-serving leader until Mitch McConnell of Kentucky surpassed that record in June 2018.
As the old soldiers of World War II faded away, Dole, who had been a lieutenant in the Army’s storied 10th Mountain Division and was wounded so severely on a battlefield that he was left for dead, came to personify the resilience of his generation.
Politically, Dole was a man for all seasons, surviving for more than three decades in his party’s upper echelons, even though he was sometimes at odds ideologically with other Republican leaders.
He was national Republican chairman under President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s; the running mate to President Gerald Ford in 1976; chairman of the Senate Finance Committee during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s; and presidential standard-bearer during Newt Gingrich’s “revolution” of the mid-1990s, when the Republicans captured the House for the first time in 40 years and upended the power dynamic on Capitol Hill.
More recently, Dole, almost alone among his party’s old guard, endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016, after his preferred candidates had fallen by the wayside.
Dole himself ran three times for the White House and finally won the nomination in 1996, only to lose to President Bill Clinton after a historically disastrous campaign.
As the Republican leader, he helped broker compromises that shaped much of the nation’s domestic and foreign policies.
He was most proud of helping to rescue Social Security in 1983, of pushing the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and of mustering a majority of reluctant Republicans to support Clinton’s unpopular plan to send American troops to Bosnia in 1995. (Dole was not wild about the deployment either, but he long believed that a president, of either party, should be supported once he decided something as important as committing troops abroad.)
He was so at home in the Senate’s marble corridors that during his last campaign, in 1996, he constantly had to remind voters that he was “not born in a blue suit” — Dole shorthand for saying that he had a life before arriving in Washington in 1961. In fact, he had been shaped profoundly by the twin experiences of growing up poor in Depression-era Kansas and enduring the shattering wounds of war.
With dust storms blackening the skies of his tiny hometown, Russell, in north-central Kansas, and destroying the wheat economy, the Doles moved into the cramped basement of their home and rented out the upstairs to make ends meet.
As for the war, it changed the course of Dole’s life. A star athlete who was voted best looking in his class at Russell High School, he had planned to become a surgeon. Instead, he came home from the war in Europe in a body cast, mostly paralyzed.
He became a lawyer and a politician, though his injuries kept him from many of the fundamental rituals of politics. His right hand was so damaged that he couldn’t shake hands. Unable to cut his meat with a knife, he tended to avoid political dinners and ate at home.
Dole began his political career as a conservative and evolved into a pragmatist, even forging relationships with prominent liberals. With George S. McGovern of South Dakota, he expanded the food stamp program, and with Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, he made school lunches a federal entitlement.
He was such a good deal-maker that his own convictions were not always apparent. By the end of his long career, Dole had cast more than 12,000 votes, having stood on both sides of many issues.
Avoiding budget deficits had been his North Star, given his hardscrabble youth. Sometimes he supported tax increases, which led Gingrich to brand him “the tax collector for the welfare state.” But in 1995, he tried to recast himself as a tax-cutter, memorably telling party leaders, “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that’s what you want.” He then signed a pledge not to raise taxes as president, a pledge he had previously rejected.
“It adds a certain poignancy,” Richard Norton Smith, former director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, said in an interview for this obituary in 2009, “that he found himself chasing the caboose of movement conservatism at the height of his career.”
His fellow Republican senators elected him their leader in both the majority and the minority for a combined 11 years, from 1985 to 1996.
But away from Capitol Hill, Dole was a fish out of water. His insider skills as a tactician and deal closer did not translate to the presidential campaign trail.
During the 1996 race, he was faulted as having no overarching vision — for his campaign or for the country. He chafed at handlers who tried to package him, and he never adapted to the scripted politics of the television age. During speeches, he often lapsed into legislative lingo and referred to himself in the third person. He was detached as a candidate, more wry commentator than engaged participant.
After that final quest for the presidency, Dole became a lobbyist for powerhouse international law firm Alston & Bird. Despite his standing as a well-connected Washington insider, he cultivated a new persona: that of self-deprecating loser.
“Playing up the image of the downtrodden also-ran was great fun,” he wrote in his 2005 book, “One Soldier’s Story: A Memoir.” He starred in Super Bowl commercials for Visa (“I just can’t win”) in 1997 and for Pepsi in 2001 and later made a cameo in a Pepsi ad featuring Britney Spears. He spoofed previous ads he had made for male potency drug Viagra, for which he had become a spokesman after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer.
“Once you lose,” he told The New York Times, “people like you.”
Robert Joseph Dole was born in his parents’ house in Russell on July 22, 1923, the second of four children of Doran and Bina (Talbott) Dole. His mother was an expert seamstress and sold sewing machines; his father worked in a creamery and later ran a grain elevator.
Bob Dole enlisted in the Army Reserve during college and was called to active duty in 1943. On April 14, 1945, in the mountains of Italy outside the small town of Castel D’Aiano, about 65 miles north of Florence, the Germans began firing on his platoon. When he saw a fellow soldier fall, Dole went to pull him to safety. But as he scrambled away he was struck by flying metal. It blew apart his right shoulder and arm and broke several vertebrae in his neck and spine.
His men dragged him back to a foxhole, where he lay crumpled in his blood-soaked uniform for nine hours before he was evacuated. He was just 21.
He spent more than three years recovering and underwent at least seven operations. Back in Russell, he devised a homemade weight-and-pulley system to rebuild his strength. The townspeople rallied around him, pooling their nickels and dimes for his treatment.
Remembering that period, and the generosity of his neighbors, often brought him to tears. In his first appearance with Ford in Russell in 1976, with 10,000 well-wishers crammed into the downtown business district, he thanked the townspeople for their support after the war. Then he started to cry and couldn’t go on. The audience fell silent. Finally, Ford stood and began clapping, and the audience joined in.
After the war, during his recuperation, he met Phyllis Holden, an occupational therapist, and married her three months later, in 1948. He returned to college on the GI Bill. With Holden’s help, he earned a dual bachelor’s and law degree in 1952 at Washburn Municipal University (now Washburn University) in Topeka, Kansas. They had a daughter, Robin, in 1954.
Russell Republicans approached him in 1950 to run for the Kansas state Legislature — they saw the hometown war hero as an easy sell. But Dole had not yet picked a party, though his parents were New Deal Democrats. He said later that he had signed on with the Republicans after he was told that that’s what most Kansas voters were.
After a stint in the Legislature and as Russell County attorney, he won a House seat in Congress in 1960 and ascended to the Senate in 1968.
Nixon won the presidency that same year and became the driving political influence in Dole’s life. Dole saw them as soul mates. Both were self-made men, politically ambitious loners disaffected from their party’s elite Eastern establishment, Nixon hailing from California.
Dole made a name for himself by zealously defending Nixon, particularly in the president’s continued prosecution of the Vietnam War and his controversial Supreme Court nominees. He could be so snarly, though, that Sen. William B. Saxbe, R-Ohio, memorably derided him as Nixon’s “hatchet man.”
Nixon named him chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1971. The travel kept him far from home, and he and Phyllis divorced in 1972.
Three years later he married Elizabeth Hanford, then a federal trade commissioner; she later became a Cabinet secretary, president of the American Red Cross and a senator from North Carolina.
Elizabeth Dole as well as Dole’s daughter, Robin Dole, survive him. His first wife, Phyllis Holden Macey, died in 2008.
Ford, who was Nixon’s vice president and successor as president, gave Dole his first shot at national office, choosing him as his running mate in 1976. But Dole’s performance during the vice-presidential debate Oct. 15, 1976, against Walter F. Mondale, the Democratic nominee, was so harsh that some analysts say it contributed to Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter.
Still, he ran for president in 1980, a misbegotten venture that ended almost as soon as it began. He tried again in 1988 and won his party’s Iowa caucus but couldn’t overcome Vice President George H.W. Bush’s forces in New Hampshire.
But by 1996 his party seemed incapable of denying him the nomination.
Dole won 41% of the popular vote, with Clinton taking 49% and Ross Perot, a Reform Party candidate, winning 8%. The magnitude of Dole’s loss was more evident in the electoral votes; he won just 159 to Clinton’s 379.
In his memoir almost a decade later, Dole framed his crushing defeat in a way that would have made Nixon proud.
“Losing means that at least you were in the race,” he wrote. “It means that when the whistle sounded, life did not find you watching from the sidelines.”