Bob Dole, Old Soldier and Stalwart of the Senate, Dies at 98

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Mr. Dole, a son of the Kansas prairie who was left for dead on a World War II battlefield, became one of the longest-serving Republican leaders.

Bob Dole in 1996. He was the last of the World War II generation to win the Republican nomination for president.
Credit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Katharine Q. Seelye

Dec. 5, 2021, 11:52 a.m. ET

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 on 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 IV lung cancer and that he was beginning treatment.

A Republican, Mr. 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, Mr. 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. In his post-political career, he devoted himself to raising money for the World War II Memorial in Washington and spent weekends there welcoming visiting veterans.

In one of his last public appearances, in December 2018, he joined the line at the Capitol Rotunda where the body of former President George H.W. Bush, an erstwhile political rival and fellow veteran, lay in state. As an aide helped him up from his wheelchair, Mr. Dole, using his left hand because his right had been rendered useless by the war, saluted the flag-draped coffin of the last president to have served in World War II.

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Credit...Associated Press

Politically, Mr. 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 M. Nixon in the early 1970s; the running mate to President Gerald R. 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, Mr. Dole, almost alone among his party’s old guard, endorsed Donald J. Trump for president in 2016, after his preferred candidates had fallen by the wayside. On the eve of his 93rd birthday, he was the only previous Republican presidential nominee to appear at the party’s convention in Cleveland, where Mr. Trump was nominated.

Mr. 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. He had given up his secure post in the Senate to pursue the presidency, although, as he acknowledged, he was more suited to the Senate.

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 Mr. Clinton’s unpopular plan to send American troops to Bosnia in 1995. (Mr. 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.)

A skilled legislative mechanic, Mr. Dole understood what every Senator wanted and what each could live with, and he enjoyed the art of political bartering.

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.

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Credit...Dole family photo, via Associated Press

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 Mr. Dole’s life. A star athlete who lettered in football, basketball and track and 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 spent 39 months convalescing, much of it in surgery — as a patient, not as the surgeon he had hoped to become. Instead, 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, and he would clutch a pen in his fist to discourage people from trying. Unable to cut his meat with a knife, he tended to avoid political dinners and ate at home.

Mr. 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. Kansas farmers applauded both efforts.

He was such a good deal-maker that his own convictions were not always apparent. By the end of his long career, Mr. Dole had cast more than 12,000 votes, having stood on both sides of many issues.

He opposed many of the Great Society programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson, but he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Avoiding budget deficits had been his North Star, given his hardscrabble youth. Sometimes he supported tax increases, which led Mr. 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, the 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.”

Mr. Dole thrived as chairman of the Finance Committee, a powerful position that attracted big corporate donors often seeking favors. At one point he raised more money from special interests than any other senator. A particularly generous donor was Dwayne Andreas, chairman of Archer Daniels Midland, the giant agribusiness; over two decades, the company received millions of dollars in tax breaks and federal subsidies.

“When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government,” Mr. Dole bluntly told The Wall Street Journal, pinpointing why the system benefited wealthy interests over poor ones.

His fellow Republican senators elected him their leader in both the majority and the minority for a combined 11 years, from 1985 to 1996.

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Credit...Michael Geissinger/Library of Congress

He conducted much of his bargaining with other senators on the balcony off the Republican leader’s office. When he left the Senate in 1996, his colleagues unanimously passed a resolution naming it the Robert J. Dole balcony. It overlooked the National Mall and the Washington Monument, affording him what he wistfully called “the second-best view in Washington.” Unofficially, the balcony was called “Dole Beach,” because he often escaped there to soak up the sun and refresh his perpetual tan.

But away from Capitol Hill, Mr. 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.

“Stayed on message,” Mr. Dole congratulated himself in front of reporters after one campaign event, then went on to mock the process in which he was involved: “Every time I do that ‘reconnect the government to values’ stuff, I feel like a plumber.”

After that final quest for the presidency, Mr. Dole became a lobbyist for the powerhouse international law firm Alston & Bird. Despite his standing as a well-connected Washington insider, he cultivated a new persona, one unexpected for a man of Mr. Dole’s dark visage and mordant wit: 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 the 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.”

It was a surprising turn for Mr. Dole, who was long linked in the public mind with the glowering Nixon. He had defended that beleaguered president so fiercely that one critic branded him Nixon’s “hatchet man,” a label that stuck.

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Credit...David Scull/The New York Times

Like Nixon, Mr. Dole had overcome struggles early in life. And like Nixon, he felt embittered toward people for whom he thought things came easy.

“I trust in the hard way, for little has come to me except in the hard way,” he said when he announced he was leaving the Senate in 1996.

His bitterness found an outlet in partisanship, which he often expressed in acerbic asides. It flared in public during a vice-presidential debate in 1976, when he blamed Democrats for all the wars of the 20th century, and again in 2004, when some fellow Vietnam veterans challenged the military record of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee. Mr. Dole, who had received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with an oak leaf cluster, joined in, questioning whether Mr. Kerry had deserved his Purple Hearts.

“Three Purple Hearts,” Mr. Dole said of Mr. Kerry, “and never bled that I know of.”

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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

It was a horrifying turn of events for one of Russell’s most promising young men. Unable to feed or care for himself, he feared he was doomed to a life of selling pencils on the street.

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Credit...Dole family photo, via Associated Press

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.

Russell was a speck on the flat Kansas prairie, but in the Dole biography it took on mythic significance. In his political campaigns, Russell was cast as the shaper of noble, small-town virtues and Mr. Dole as their personification.

Remembering that period, and the generosity of his neighbors, often brought him to tears. In his first appearance with President 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, Mr. Ford stood and began clapping, and the audience joined in.

Regaining his composure, Mr. Dole said: “That was a long time ago.”

And yet even in 1996, long after Russell and his recovery had become a staple of his origin story, he could hardly mention that period without choking up. When his image-makers wrote references to it in his prepared remarks, he would often skip over those passages or truncate them to avoid the inevitable tears.

He could not avoid them on the final leg of his presidential campaign, however, by which time it was clear that he was going to lose. At a bowling alley in Des Moines, his friend Senator John McCain, a former naval aviator and Mr. Dole’s wingman in those last days on the road, delivered a spontaneous tribute to him.

“This is the last crusade of a great warrior,” Mr. McCain told a small crowd over the clatter of falling bowling pins, “a member of a generation of Americans who went out and made the world safe for democracy so that we could have lives that were far better for ourselves and for our children.”

Mr. Dole, standing nearby, wept.

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 G.I. Bill. He already had credits from the University of Kansas, where he had studied pre-med. With Ms. Holden’s help, he earned a dual bachelor’s and law degree in 1952 at Washburn Municipal University (now Washburn University) in Topeka, Kan. They had a daughter, Robin, in 1954.

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Credit...Dole family photo, via Associated Press

Readjusting his aspirations from medicine to the law, Mr. Dole had to develop his mind, he said, because he could not use his hands. His life, he said, would be “an exercise in compensations.”

Russell Republicans approached him in 1950 to run for the Kansas State Legislature — they saw the hometown war hero as an easy sell. But Mr. 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 Mr. Dole’s life. Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Senator William B. Saxbe, Republican of Ohio, memorably derided him as Nixon’s “hatchet man” and said he was so disagreeable, “he couldn’t sell beer on a troop ship.”

Even Nixon worried that Mr. Dole’s lust for the fight would undermine his effectiveness. In a memorandum made public years later, Nixon wrote that it was “important that we not let Dole destroy his usefulness by having him step up to every hard, fast one.”

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Credit...Bob Daugherty/Associated Press

Nixon named him chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1971. It was a role Mr. Dole relished as he raked in political chits. 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. They became one of Washington’s original power couples.

Elizabeth Dole as well as Mr. Dole’s daughter, Robin Dole, survive him. His first wife, Phyllis Holden Macey, died in 2008.

After Nixon won re-election in 1972 and the Watergate scandal was closing in, he dumped Mr. Dole as party chairman, saying the senator was too independent. But Mr. Dole remained loyal, so much so that he tried to shut down the live television coverage of the Watergate hearings.

When Nixon died in 1994, Mr. Dole delivered a sentimental eulogy, sobbing as he described the disgraced former president as a “boy who heard train whistles in the night and dreamed of all the distant places that lay at the end of the track.”

He also recalled Nixon’s advice that while failure was sad, “the greatest sadness is not to try and fail, but to fail to try.”

Mr. Smith, the historian, said he believed that Nixon, in his preparations for his own funeral, had a political motive in asking Mr. Dole to deliver the eulogy. Nixon, Mr. Smith said, expected that Mr. Dole would become emotional, and that his “authentic display of grief” would reveal Mr. Dole’s human side and perhaps help his presidential bid.

Ford, who was Nixon’s vice president and successor as president, gave Mr. Dole his first shot at national office, choosing him as his running mate in 1976. Ford needed to shore up strength with conservatives and also hoped that the selection would appeal to voters in farm states. But Mr. Dole’s performance during the vice-presidential debate on 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.

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Credit...United Press International

In response to a question about Ford’s 1974 pardon of Nixon, Mr. Dole veered off topic and in an inexplicable tangent said: “I figured up the other day, if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.”

A stunned Mr. Mondale said he could not believe that Mr. Dole would cast the war against Germany and Japan in partisan terms. Mr. Dole, he said, “has richly earned his reputation as hatchet man.” Even Republicans joined in the post-debate criticism, as did Mr. Dole himself.

“I went for the jugular,” he said later. “My own.”

The reaction was so negative that he sought out an image consultant and paid her to help him appear more likable.

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 Bush’s forces in New Hampshire, where Bush had the invaluable support of the governor, John Sununu, and ran a TV spot suggesting that Mr. Dole would raise taxes.

The ad infuriated Mr. Dole, who snapped that Bush should “stop lying about my record.” The comment only reinforced the impression that Mr. Dole was too mean to be president.

But by 1996 his party seemed incapable of denying him the nomination. At that point, President Clinton was popular, the nation was enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, and the strongest potential Republican contenders — Gen. Colin L. Powell among them — declined to run.

Mr. Dole prevailed over a weak primary field that included Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patrick Buchanan, a conservative broadcast journalist. But then Mr. Dole ran a terrible general election campaign, offering voters little rationale for denying Mr. Clinton a second term. At times, he made no pretense that he was even taking his task seriously.

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Credit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“We’re trying to get good pictures,” he told reporters on his campaign plane the day after he quit the Senate to devote himself full time to running for president. “Don’t worry very much about what I say.”

In 1995, Richard Ben Cramer, one of Mr. Dole’s biographers, asked him to name the first thing he might do in the White House.

“Haven’t thought,” he replied in clipped Dole-speak, as quoted by Mr. Cramer.

“If I get elected, at my age, you know,” he trailed off, revealing a paucity of plans for the presidency. “I’m not goin’ anywhere. It’s not an agenda. I’m just gonna serve my country.”

His lack of preparation stood in stark contrast to his wife’s tendency to over prepare. Mrs. Dole delivered a polished star turn for her husband at the Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1996. But her choreographed precision only highlighted how much her husband was winging it.

“Watching Bob Dole campaign for the presidency,” the journalist Michael Kelly wrote in The New Yorker, “is a curious and dislocating experience, like showering clothed or eating naked.”

Mr. Smith, the historian, said he was always puzzled about why Mr. Dole, who had sought the nomination for so long, seemed to take it so casually and “wasn’t willing to adapt himself to the changing media climate.” Mr. Smith concluded that this was a mark of Mr. Dole’s integrity. “He couldn’t jackknife himself into a persona that was fundamentally at odds with the real thing,” he said.

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Credit...Erin Schaff for The New York Times

Others said his goal was not the presidency but winning the nomination — and proving he could rehabilitate himself politically just as he had physically.

Mr. Dole won 41 percent of the popular vote, with Mr. Clinton taking 49 percent and Ross Perot, a Reform Party candidate, winning 8 percent. The magnitude of Mr. Dole’s loss was more evident in the electoral votes; he won just 159 to Mr. Clinton’s 379.

In his memoir almost a decade later, Mr. 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.”

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