Bob Dole, a man of war, power, fuss and denied ambition


WASHINGTON (AP) – Bob Dole forced himself to walk after crippling war wounds, ran for Congress with a damaged right arm to shake hands, and rose through the Senate ranks to a longtime Republican leader and tough and tireless advocate of his party.

He embodied the tenacious determination to be successful.

But Dole, who died on Sunday at the age of 98, was best known for his brief periods.

He was the runner-up for President Gerald Ford’s loss to Watergate, and he himself sought the presidency three times. He came closest in his final race, securing the 1996 Republican nomination only to be run over by President Bill Clinton’s re-election machine.

Dole later said he had come to appreciate both defeats and victories: “They are part of the same picture – the picture of a fulfilled life.”

A Kansas representative in Congress for nearly 36 years, Dole was known on Capitol Hill as a shrewd, pragmatic lawmaker who was trusted to negotiate compromises across party lines. He exerted a tremendous influence on tax policy, agriculture and food programs, and the rights of the disabled.

Colleagues also admired his dry wit. Dole wasn’t a great speaker; he found himself most comfortable communicating through a series of tongues and pointed sides.

However, these qualities were seldom shown to advantage on the national political stage.

Early on, the Democrats called him the GOP’s “ax man,” and Dole seemed born to play that role. His voice was rough, his face petrified, his speech flat, even when he was joking. He could come across as persistent, bitter, or just plain mean when hitting political opponents.

On each presidential mission, Dole tried again and again to soften his public figure. He could never do it – at least not until he was out of politics for good.

Just three days after his last race ended in defeat, Dole split from comedian David Letterman on late night TV.

Letterman greeted him with a cheeky “Bob, what have you been up to lately?”

“Apparently not enough,” replied Dole with a grin.

The freshman Dole parodied himself on Saturday Night Live, wrote two collections of political humor and shot a surprising commercial for the anti-impotence drug Viagra at a time when sexual problems were not so openly discussed.

Dole later said that people kept coming up to him to tell him they would have voted for him in 1996 if only he had been so free and fun in his presidential campaign. But he believed that voters preferred seriousness and restraint in their politicians.

“You have to be very careful with humor,” he said. “It has to be self-deprecating or it can be fatal, fatal, just cutting into someone else out there, and I’ve kind of learned that over the years.”

Outside of office, Dole continued to be committed to helping disabled veterans and honoring the fallen. He was a driving force behind the construction of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. In his 90s, Dole still turned up regularly on Saturdays to greet veterans at the memorial.

In September 2017, Congress awarded Dole its highest recognition for outstanding service to the nation, a gold medal from Congress. In 2019, it promoted him from army captain to colonel.

His February 2021 announcement that he was having lung cancer in the 4th President Joe Biden visited Dole’s home in the famous Watergate complex shortly after Dole was seriously diagnosed; The White House said they were close friends.

Dole was born July 22, 1923 in Russell, Kansas, a small agricultural and oil community. His father ran a cream and egg business and sold bootleg whiskey during Prohibition. The family of six struggled through the Depression and Dust Bowl. They were so broke that they moved into their basement and rented out the rest of the house.

In 1943, Dole, a six-foot Kansas University basketball player who dreamed of becoming a doctor, went to war.

Army 2nd Lt. Dole led an attack on a German machine gun nest in Italy when enemy fire ripped through his spine and right arm. He nearly died and spent three years undergoing multiple surgeries and painful physical therapy.

Dole had to learn to walk, bathe, and write again, this time with a clumsy left hand scribble.

He could never regain his right hand and arm, or the feeling in his left thumb and forefinger, which made it difficult to button a shirt or cut his flesh. Still, Dole earned a law degree from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas in 1952.

In order not to embarrass those who tried to shake his right hand, he held a pen in it and held out his left hand.

“I’m trying harder,” he said once. “If I didn’t, I would be in a retirement home, in a rocking chair, and have a disability.”

This was undoubtedly part of his motivation to persuade Congress to embed protection against discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, education and public services.

Today, accessible government offices and national parks, sidewalk ramps and the sign language interpreters at official local events are just some of the more visible hallmarks of his legacy and that of the MPs he summoned for this civil rights legislation 30 years ago.

Dole became legislature and district attorney for Kansas, won a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1960, and entered the Senate in 1968. His mentor, President Richard Nixon, sent Dole to the Senate to help critics of the Vietnam War and other senators involved with the White House.

Nixon rewarded him with a stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee, including the time of the Watergate slump that destroyed Nixon’s presidency. Dole, who was cleared of involvement, liked to joke, “I was free that night.”

He would later assess the disgraced Nixon by branding ex-presidents Jimmy Carter, Ford and Nixon in turn with “See No Evil, Hear No Evil … and Evil”.

Dole’s aggressiveness brought him his first major breakthrough in national politics.

Ford selected Dole as a running mate, who could fire verbal attacks while the president stayed up to date. Dole accepted the mission with perhaps too much zeal.

He shocked viewers of the nation’s very first Vice Presidential Debate by revealing all of the wars of the 20th century.

Dole later said he regretted making a remark that offended so many and did not reflect his own views as a veteran. In that campaign, Dole said, “I should go with the carotid artery. And I did it – my own. “

In the Senate, Dole began to see the importance of forging alliances with Democrats, and it became a lifelong habit. He teamed up with Democrats to uphold civil rights, expand grocery stamps, strengthen social security, and create the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Dole was commended for handling a 1982 tax bill that increased revenue to reduce the budget deficit. However, some Republicans were appalled at the higher taxes. MP Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., Called him “the tax collector for the welfare state”.

Dole didn’t think much of Gingrich back then. “It’s just difficult to work with,” he said. “Either Newt’s Way or the Autobahn. He has a lot of ideas. Some of them are good; not many.”

Even so, Republicans made Dole the majority leader in 1984, and he held the highest Senate post in his party for more than 11 years, a record until Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell broke him in 2018.

Dole’s bid for the 1980 presidency was short-lived. In the 1988 primary, he won the Iowa primary before losing to George HW Bush in New Hampshire, where Dole stared into a television camera and snapped that Bush “should stop lying about my record.”

Shaken by the defeat, he still used it to make fun of himself. “The day after New Hampshire, I went home and slept like a baby,” he said. “Every two hours I would wake up and cry.”

When it finally came to his turn in 1996, Dole was 73 years old, making him the oldest first-time candidate – he was running against one of the youngest presidents.

Dole tried to take advantage of the 23-year age gap by portraying himself as the greatest generation soldier facing an undisciplined baby boomer who avoided his service in Vietnam. However, he was unable to overcome a pronounced charisma gap with Clinton.

Clinton won 31 states, Dole 19.

Dole’s first marriage to occupational therapist Phyllis Holden, whom he met while recovering from war injuries, ended in divorce in 1972. They had a daughter, Robin. In 1975 he married Elizabeth Hanford, a Nixon-appointed senator with her own ambitions as president. The game lasted.

When asked how he hopes for his legacy, in 2014 Dole spoke of hard work for the people of Kansas and couldn’t resist meddling in a joke.

“That I was 200 years old,” says Dole, then 91 years old. “Or at least 100. And that I have never forgotten where I come from.”


Cass is a former Associated Press writer. AP writer Jennifer C. Kerr and the late AP writer Tom Raum contributed to this report.

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