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Bob Dole Is Dead. He Overcame War Wounds, Nearly Became President, Worked for Disability Rights

Former Kansas Republican Senator Bob Dole on the campaign trail.

Bob Dole, who overcame war wounds to dominate Kansas politics for much of the 20th century and nearly capture his nation’s presidency, has died. He was 98.

The death of the former U.S. senator and Republican nominee for president was announced by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The announcement did not say where he died. He died Sunday. He is survived by his wife, former U.S. Sen. and cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole and his daughter, Robin Dole.

Dole grew up in the boom-and-bust oil town of Russell, Kansas, watched his family scrape by during the Great Depression, suffered crippling wounds on an Italian battlefield during World War II and worked his way up from county politics to leadership in the U.S. Senate.

He left a legacy marked by both fierce partisanship and landmark lawmaking defined by his willingness to team with Democrats. He beat cancer in the 1990s, but Dole announced Feb. 18, 2021, that he had stage 4 cancer and would undergo treatment.

And though he became a creature of Washington — cashing in on decades of Capitol Hill connections by spending the last decades of his life as a lobbyist — he always saw himself as a Kansan.

Early days

His days in Russell, Dole once said, gave him a certain perspective.

“The first thing you learn on the prairie,” he said, “is the relative size of man compared to the lay of the land.”

Robert Joseph Dole was born July 22, 1923. His father ran a small creamery and his mother sold Singer sewing machines door to door. They lived on Maple Street.

Bob Dole (top right) with siblings Kenneth, Norma Jean, and Gloria in front of the family home in Russell, Kansas. Date unknown. (Courtesy of the Dole Institute of Politics.)
As a teenager, Dole washed cars and worked as a soda jerk at Dawson’s Drug Store. Classmates remembered Dole as a smart dresser, a good-looking guy who modeled in a high school fashion show and served as sports editor of the school paper. The family was active in the Methodist Church, saw hard financial times and was battered by the blinding storms of the Dust Bowl years in Kansas and economic despair. He shared a single room, one bike and a pair of rollerskates with his siblings.

The farthest east he traveled in the first 20 years of his life was to Kansas City.

In 1941, Dole entered the University of Kansas with the help of a $300 loan from a Russell banker and became the first in his family to go beyond high school. He led an active life on campus, pledging a fraternity, working multiple jobs and playing basketball under legendary KU coach Phog Allen.

World War II and Recovery

Three years into college, Dole left to join the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School. He was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division. That took him to Italy — and the battle wounds that would leave his right arm all but useless for the next seven-plus decades of a storied life.

On April 14, 1945, a German shell shattered Dole’s right shoulder, collarbone and arm. It crushed a piece of his spine, leaving him temporarily paralyzed and in a full-body cast. Dole was shipped home, first to Kansas, then to Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, for rehabilitation.

Bob Dole recovering at Winter General Veterans Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, 1945. (Courtesy of the Dole Institute of Politics.)
 

He struggled with tremors and physical coordination, and learned to do everything with his left hand. In the three years following his injury, he underwent seven surgeries, none of which improved his condition much.

The people of Russell chipped in to help pay Dole’s hospital bills, putting coins and bills into an old cigar box. Hometown supporters would later put $100,000 in a similar cigar box during Dole’s presidential run in 1987. Dole kept the box in his Senate office for years.

Dole’s new disability had a profound impact. For the rest of his life, he often held a pen in his weakened right hand at public events to keep people from trying to shake it. In his 2005 memoir, “One Soldier’s Story,” Dole wrote that seeing his wasted body in the mirror disturbed him so much that in the 60 years since his injury, he had scarcely looked at himself without a shirt on.

“I don’t need any more reminders,” Dole wrote.

During his recovery, he met his future first wife, occupational therapist Phyllis Holden. He also befriended Daniel Inouye, a fellow wounded soldier who would later become Hawaii’s first senator and the president of the U.S. Senate. And Dole grew close to an Armenian doctor, Hampar Kelikian, an immigrant who refused to take payment for treating American GIs.

“He inspired within me a new attitude,” wrote Dole about Kelikian in “One Soldier’s Story.” “He encouraged me to see possibilities where others only saw problems. It’s an attitude that has served me well over the years.”

Political Beginnings

The optimism and perseverance remained with Dole when he left the Army in 1948. He returned to college at the University of Arizona and then Washburn University in Topeka, where he finished his undergraduate and law degrees. His wife, Phyllis, attended classes with him, taking notes and acting as his scribe during law exams. The Department of Veterans Affairs gave him a Sound Scriber, a huge, phonograph-like device that Dole used to record lectures and later copy them painstakingly by hand.

At Washburn, Dole met Beth Bowers, a law librarian who suggested he run for the Kansas Legislature in 1950, when he was 27 years old. In “One Soldier’s Story,” Dole wrote that he chose to run as a Republican on the advice of the county attorney in Russell — to appeal to the majority of the Kansas population.

“My entry into politics certainly wasn’t propelled by partisan fervor,” Dole wrote. “I became a Republican, pragmatically at first, and then philosophically later on.”

That pragmatism would develop into a dogged dedication to the party line when he reached Congress a decade later. Dole made $5 a day in the Kansas Statehouse — $7 a day during the legislative session — and made his living working as a private attorney in his hometown.

In 1952, he ran for Russell County attorney. He held the office until he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960. As part of that congressional campaign, his volunteers bought every can of Dole pineapple juice they could find and gave them to voters. Dole would reuse the gimmick in subsequent bids for office.

The National Stage

In his first years in Congress, Dole voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He criticized the policies of Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and befriended Republican former Vice President Richard Nixon.

“Dole mentioned once that Nixon was the only one in Washington who stuck out his left hand to shake with Dole,” wrote political journalist Richard Ben Cramer in “What It Takes,” his chronicle of the 1988 presidential election.

That friendship continued through 1969, when Nixon began his presidency and Dole began his tenure in the U.S. Senate. Dole was a staunch supporter of Nixon, defending the president’s choices in the Vietnam War and through the Watergate scandal. In an attempt to protect the reputation of the president and the Republican Party, the senator introduced a resolution that would pull the Watergate committee hearings off TV.

“The purpose of the hearings is to serve legislative interests. It is not to try, convict and sentence Richard Nixon,” Dole said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Lives, reputations and careers can be hopelessly shattered by such exposure.” Dole’s resolution failed. And those televised hearings sped the end of the Nixon presidency.

The 1970s brought changes in Dole’s personal life. He started spending more time at the office and away from his wife and daughter, Robin, who was born in 1954. Dole and Phyllis divorced in 1972, shocking his constituents in Kansas. Soon after, Dole met then-White House staffer Elizabeth Hanford and the two married in 1975.

In the political world, Dole made a name for himself by chairing the Republican National Committee from 1970 to 1972, occasionally crossing party lines to support issues such as food stamps.

Presidential ambitions

Dole’s party loyalty and Midwestern sensibility led President Gerald Ford to choose him as his running mate in his bid for reelection in 1976. After a heated race, they lost the contest to Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter by three points.

President Gerald Ford raises Sen. Bob Dole’s arm on the third night of the 1976 Republican National Convention. (Courtesy of the Dole Institute of Politics.)
 

It was Dole’s first bid for national office. In 1979, he made another. After an aggressive campaign of speeches touting the Republican platform across the country, Dole decided to run for president. He returned to his hometown, Russell, to make the announcement. His wife, Elizabeth Dole, quit her job at the Federal Trade Commission to support him.

But his campaign was rocky. The candidate spent little time in Iowa and New Hampshire. Several campaign staffers were fired and had to be replaced multiple times. Dole performed abysmally in the New Hampshire primary, winning only 0.4 percent of the vote, and announced he was dropping out.

He returned to the Senate. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, he wrote up a milder version of President Ronald Reagan’s proposed tax cuts. The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 passed both chambers and became the biggest tax cut in U.S. history.

A year later, Dole authored a bill with the opposite result, convincing Reagan that tax hikes were needed to close a federal deficit of $230 billion. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act raised nearly $100 billion for the federal government, mostly through higher taxes and closed loopholes.

Dole took on the mantle of Senate majority leader in 1984. The next year, he again worked to reduce the federal deficit through the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act and helped pass a farm bill.

Sen. Bob Dole discusses legislation with President Ronald Reagan, 1985. (Courtesy of the Dole Institute of Politics.)
 

His next bid for president came in 1987. Dole stuck it out longer this time, in a primary crowded with seven Republicans. Dole had a reputation for working hard, but micromanaging to the detriment of his campaign. He lost several primaries and dropped out in March 1988.

Accepting that his shot at president had probably come and gone, Dole threw his support behind Reagan’s Republican successor, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

“It’s probably finished for me, but you never know,” Dole told biographer Jake H. Thompson. “My role now is to make George Bush a good president. I’m certainly not trying to keep anything alive.”

He would change his mind in a few years.

During the first Bush presidency, Dole traveled on diplomatic missions to Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, notably visiting Saddam Hussein in a failed attempt to stop Iraq from trying to build nuclear weapons. The senator played central roles in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clear Air Act, both passed in 1990.

In 1991, Elizabeth Dole was named the president of the American Red Cross and Bob Dole underwent surgery for prostate cancer.

Four years later, Dole announced he was running for president again. This time, he won the Republican nomination. He swept the primaries and chose former New York Rep. Jack Kemp — a politician whose supply-side economics clashed with Dole’s budget-hawk ways — as his running mate.

Dole left the Senate on June 11, 1996, to focus on the general election campaign. In his farewell speech on the Senate floor, he asked his colleagues to work together across party lines.

“I’m not here to make a partisan speech,” he said. “I would hope that we would keep in mind that there are still threats around the world. And also keep in mind that we’re the envy of the world.”

Dole ultimately lost to incumbent President Bill Clinton by eight points in the popular vote and received fewer than half of Clinton’s electoral votes.

In his concession speech, Dole pledged his support to Clinton and joked about his own retirement.

“I was thinking on the way down the elevator, ‘Tomorrow will be the first time in my life I don't have anything to do.’ … I'm going to sit back for a few days, and then I'm going to start standing up for what I think is right for America.”

Post-Political Life

In his last two decades, Dole dedicated himself to advocacy. He chaired the WWII Memorial Commission, raising nearly $200 million for the memorial. At a 1997 ceremony revealing the design for the memorial, Clinton awarded the former senator the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The late 1990s also marked the beginning of a brief television career. Dole famously starred in an early commercial for Viagra, later parodied in a commercial for Pepsi. He shilled for Visa and Dunkin Donuts and appeared on Comedy Central's “The Daily Show” as a commentator for the 2000 election.

He returned to the Senate floor in 2012, asking legislators to vote in favor of ratifying the United Nations-backed Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Democratic senators stayed seated in solidarity with Dole, a wheelchair user, as they cast their votes in favor. But the controlling majority of Republicans opposed the treaty, citing concerns about states’ rights and U.S. sovereignty. Two years later, despite another visit from Dole, the Republican-led Senate again rejected the treaty, refusing to bring it to a full vote.

In the last years of his life, Dole worked for Alston and Bird, helping the firm lobby for a Russian oligarch and policies favorable to Taiwan.

Ever the GOP loyalist, Dole endorsed candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

“I like Donald Trump because he's a strong leader and he is someone who can work with Congress,” Dole told NPR at the Republican National Convention that year. “There are a lot of similarities between my days in the Senate and what Donald is proposing.”

In the 2018 midterms, Dole threw his support behind Republican congressional candidates Kevin Yoder, a Republican incumbent in eastern Kansas, and Steve Watkins, a newcomer who had few ties to Dole’s home state. The former senator endorsed incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primaries, and later stayed silent when then-Secretary of State Kris Kobach won the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Bob Dole, with his wife to the left and former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum behind him, attends the unveiling of a statue in his likeness at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, 2018. (Photo by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, KNS)
 

In 2019, Congress unanimously passed a bill to promote Dole to the rank of colonel in the Army.

In 2020, Dole did not publicly endorse a candidate, but maintained his support of Trump, accusing the bipartisan Committee on Presidential Debates of being biased against the candidate ahead of the election. Dole endorsed Republican Roger Marshall, a candidate cast more in the mold of Trump than the politics of Dole's career.

Dole later said he believed Joe Biden had won the election over Trump. He told The Kansas City Star that he considered Biden a friend.

“He did a good job,” Dole said. “Proud to be a liberal — hopefully not too liberal — but he knows how the government works and the Congress works and all this will be a benefit to Joe.”

Dole’s health began to decline in early 2021, when he announced he had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and would soon begin treatment.

Dole saw his political career, like his personal battle with a physical disability, as one of perseverance.

“In the final analysis, that’s what great leaders do, not just in the Senate but also in daily life,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir. “They face life without flinching. They make the tough decisions. They live with the consequences whether good or bad. They make the most of what they have. That’s the kind of leader I have always tried to be.”

Legacy

Throughout his career, Dole was a staunch supporter of disability rights and some social welfare programs.

  • In 1990, Dole asked President George H.W. Bush to provide sign language interpreters for White House visitors
  • Later that year, Dole was a major proponent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which created reasonable accommodations for and banned discrimination against people with disabilities in many aspects of life
  • Dole worked closely with Democratic South Dakota Sen. George McGovern to expand the National School Lunch Program, which provided free and reduced meals for 30.4 million children in 2016.
  • Dole and McGovern created the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, which served 8 million people in 2016.

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Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ. Scott Canon is the managing editor of the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @ScottCanon. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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