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Bob Dole, longtime Republican leader and presidential candidate, dies at 98

Though he failed to gain residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — which he jokingly referred to as "the big house" — Dole reigned for years as one of the nation’s most powerful lawmakers.

Bob Dole in 2016.
Bob Dole in 2016.Read moreCarolyn Kaster / AP

WASHINGTON — Robert Joseph Dole, who rose from humble beginnings on the western plains of Kansas and overcame devastating World War II injuries to become Senate majority leader and the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, died Sunday. He was 98.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation announced his death. While it didn’t cite a cause, Sen. Dole announced in February that he’d been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

The life work of Sen. Dole, who was described often as a patriot and a hero, was consumed by becoming a master practitioner of the political art. Though he failed to gain residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — which he jokingly referred to as “the big house” — Sen. Dole reigned for years as one of the nation’s most powerful lawmakers.

He tried three times to win the White House, and was his party’s candidate once. At 73, he was the oldest nominee to run.

Sen. Dole served in Congress for 35 years, the last 27 as a senator. One of his oldest friends, powerful Washington lobbyist Tom Korologos, once said of him: “The most important thing to remember about him is, he’s a constant political animal who has been in this town forever.”

This was true, but Sen. Dole never seemed to be of Washington as much as he was of hardscrabble western Kansas.

In his speech nominating Sen. Dole for president at the Republican National Convention in August 1996, then Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a war hero who had been imprisoned in North Vietnam, spoke of Sen. Dole’s Midwestern modesty.

“When the United States Senate tried to cut off funding for the war in Vietnam before America’s prisoners of war were released, Bob Dole led the opposition,” McCain said. “...All the while he waged that debate, Bob Dole wore a POW bracelet that bore my name. I never knew that Bob had done me that great honor until very recently. Bob never told me he wore my bracelet. He never sought my thanks. He never imposed on me an obligation to him for the support he gave me at a time when I needed it most.”

A man of mordant wit, Sen. Dole habitually greeted old congressional colleagues who’d left public service with the line, “Makin’ any money?”

Sen. Dole became Senate majority leader in 1985 and served for two years until Republicans lost control of that chamber. He served as minority leader from 1987 until the GOP regained control in 1995, then resumed being majority leader until resigning from the Senate in May 1996 to conduct his presidential campaign.

In a memorable farewell speech to the Senate, Sen. Dole said, “And my time to leave this office has come, and I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the people, and nowhere to go but the White House or home.”

But he did not go home to Kansas. Home had become Washington, and Sen. Dole and his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, resumed life in their Watergate apartment.

Sen. Dole joined a Washington law firm, Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, and helped attract legal business for the firm. His pungent wit, often turned on himself, stayed with him until the end. He even joked about his role in the initial testing of Viagra, the highly successful anti-impotency drug.

In the late 1990s, Sen. Dole took an active role in raising funds for the World War II memorial on the National Mall. While kicking off a $100 million fund-raising drive in March 1997 to pay for the memorial, Sen. Dole called the site “a great setting” for remembering the sacrifices made by the Americans who fought in the war.

One biographer, Richard Ben Cramer, wrote that Sen. Dole’s personal story always looked “much larger than his politics.” But his personal ordeal informed his politics and his life as a public figure. Some said Sen. Dole’s life read like a movie script.

Russell, Kan., his hometown and his father’s before him, was a dusty, sometime oil boom town that made for hard living in western Kansas. Oil was discovered in the wheat fields in 1923, the year Sen. Dole was born, and so Russell prospered and fell with the fortunes of the wildcatters.

“In western Kansas, you’re shaped by the pioneer spirit,” said former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker of Wichita, whose father, Alf Landon, and Abilene native Dwight D. Eisenhower, put the state on the political map. “The Midwest shapes a person in a way that makes you independent and fairly willing to step forward and say what you think.”

Armed in this manner, they are sent out into the world. Russell’s former mayor, Roger Williams, was once asked what was the town’s main export.

“We,” Williams replied, “ship out people.”

Sen. Dole left, but never forgot his family’s roots deep in Kansas soil.

Returning to his birthplace after World War I, Sen. Dole’s father, Doran, opened the White Front Cafe on Main Street and hung an American flag on the back wall. When the restaurant failed, he moved a few doors closer to the railroad tracks that bisected the town and opened Dole’s Produce, a creamery that resold farmers’ eggs and measured the butterfat content of their milk.

Just over 6 feet tall and powerful of build, Doran Dole could heft two full 100-pound steel milk cans at a time. In addition to the creamery, Dole managed a local grain elevator and volunteered as a fireman. His wife, Bina, drove out to farmhouses to sell Singer sewing machines.

Robert Joseph Dole, the first of four Dole children, born on July 22, 1923, was handsome and fun-loving and adopted his dad’s dry wit. As a boy, he helped out by selling Colverine salve at 25 cents a tube and by working as a roustabout at an oil patch west of town. The four children shared one bedroom until as teenagers Sen. Dole and his younger brother Kenny fixed a room for themselves in the basement.

At 15, he took his considerable charm to Dawson’s Drug Store, where he jerked sodas for $2 a week and all the ice cream he could eat. “My father hired him because he had a following,” G.B. “Bub” Dawson said. “You hired a popular kid, and the other kids all came.”

When the Depression hit, the Doles struggled to hold onto their house on North Maple. The family moved into the basement and rented the top floor to oil field workers for $100 a month. Dust storms obscured the sun, and dust piled up in the streets, seeped through the windows and shut school.

“It was so thick you couldn’t see across the classroom,” said Alice Mills, one of Sen. Dole’s high school teachers.

Sen. Dole distinguished himself as an athlete, conditioning that would later serve him well in a way he would least expect.

He was a 19-year-old premed sophomore at the University of Kansas when he entered the Army’s Enlisted Reserve Corps in December 1942. He went to training camps in Texas, New York and Louisiana. By the spring of 1944, with American casualties running high, Sen. Dole was rushed through Officer Candidate School and shipped off to Italy.

In Italy’s Po Valley in April 1945, just three weeks before V-E Day, Sen. Dole’s unit was decimated by a German sniper attack as his platoon tried to take Hill 913. After pulling his platoon’s mortally wounded radio man into a bomb crater, 2nd Lt. Dole’s right shoulder was ripped open by a shell fragment, breaking his collarbone and damaging his spinal cord.

He might have died right there if not for the heroic actions of some other members of his platoon, who dragged him out of the line of fire to safety behind a stone wall. “The rest of the day was a fever dream of pain and confusion,” Sen. Dole wrote in his autobiography.

In Russell, a shocked Chet Dawson wrote Sen. Dole’s name on a cigar box and displayed it at the VFW post. Another box sat on the counter at Dawson’s Drugs. Nearly $1,800, mostly in dimes and quarters, was raised for Sen. Dole’s medical expenses. The largest donation — $5 — came from Dick Driscoll, a banker.

“You do what you have to do,” said Russ Townsley, a former newspaper editor in Russell. “Dole wasn’t special; the need was.”

Years later, when he was introduced in front of the courthouse in Russell as Gerald Ford’s vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Dole broke down and sobbed. Later, he told his sisters that he couldn’t stop thinking about those cigar boxes.

“He got a lot of strength from this town,” sister Gloria Nelson said.

The shy teenager who once dreamed of becoming a doctor was shipped home in a plaster cast from his chin to his hips. He lost nearly half his weight, almost died twice, and spent most of four years in hospital wards. For a year, Sen. Dole couldn’t feed himself. Another six months would pass before he could stand alone. For 2 years, he recuperated at the Percy Jones Army Medical Center in Battle Creek, Mich.

Some gave up on him as a hopeless case, but Sen. Dole doggedly stuck to his rehabilitation regimen. “You learn to endure pain and suffering, loneliness,” he said years later.

Sen. Dole never regained use of his right hand and continued to suffer considerable pain. Just the act of buttoning his shirt was an excruciating exercise, he admitted. Friends said he avoided looking in a mirror, except to shave. He habitually kept a black felt-tip pen clenched in his right fist to keep his hand from splaying.

Tie one hand — the one you write with — behind your back and wear a glove on the other and you’ll know what my disability feels like, he once told a biographer.

For the rest of his life, he wore a Purple Heart pin on his suit jacket lapel.

“Much of my life since April 1945 has been an exercise in compensation,” Sen. Dole wrote in his 1996 autobiography. “Doors have been closed but windows opened.”

This determination to recover saw Sen. Dole achieve his law degree, win election to the Kansas House of Representatives in 1951, become county attorney in Russell in 1953, and then win a tough GOP congressional primary in 1960 against state Sen. Keith G. Sebelius, ensuring victory in a heavily Republican district.

There was another primary opponent as well, unfortunately named Phil Doyle. One Dole aide suggested handing out Dole pineapple juice to boost name recognition. Another organized a women’s group called “Dolls for Dole,” who wore red felt skirts with appliqued elephants.

Sen. Dole went on to beat Democrat William A. Davis in the general election. A self-described “dirt farmer,” Davis complained that Sen. Dole was trying to “scare” people into thinking that only the Republicans could prevent the onslaught of Communism. Sen. Dole won handily as Kansans also voted for Richard M. Nixon over John F. Kennedy.

In the winter of 1961, Sen. Dole moved to Washington with his wife and young daughter. He’d met Phyllis Holden, an occupational therapist, at a Battle Creek hospital where he had been rehabilitating. They were married in 1948 and had a daughter, Robin. They were divorced in 1972.

Sen. Dole was regarded as a tough Republican partisan, but his beginnings in workaday Russell gave him a feel for the common man — most of whom in his hometown happened to be Republicans.

His loyalty spurred him to volunteer to defend the Nixon administration when Sen. Dole first came to a very anti-Nixon Senate in 1969. Nixon rewarded him by naming Sen. Dole chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1971.

Two years later, Sen. Dole was removed to make room for a jobless George Bush, and Sen. Dole recalled being summoned by Nixon to Camp David. “It took a few more days for me to realize that though I hadn’t been the victim of a hanging, I had been pushed off the mountain,” he said.

Nixon would later admit that he was unfair to Sen. Dole.

“Dole was loyal, tough and out there defending me all the time, even when it wasn’t popular, which was most of the time, and even when what was happening couldn’t easily be defended. He took a lot of slings, and I just didn’t treat him very well. It was a terrible thing,” Nixon told one of his biographers in a book published in 1998.

In 1994, Sen. Dole delivered an exceptionally moving eulogy of Nixon, who, like Sen. Dole, had risen from humble origins. Sen. Dole described Nixon as “a boy who heard the train whistle in the night and dreamed of all the distant places at the end of the track.” Many thought he was referring to himself.

His compassionate nature and his own frailty led him to champion laws to help the disabled and to aid people on food stamps. Sen. Dole mainly had a consistently conservative record, however. He was staunchly anti-abortion and used the issue pointedly in his tough 1974 Senate race against lawyer-doctor Bill Roy, whom he asked during a debate how many abortions Roy had performed in his career as an obstetrician. From this, Sen. Dole earned a reputation for ruthlessness.

Running with Ford in 1976, Sen. Dole was labeled a hatchet man for his stinging attacks on Democrats. He returned to the Senate determined to soften his image and to prepare for his own run at the White House.

Still, Sen. Dole always had some trouble proving his GOP bona fides. As Senate finance chairman in 1981 he loyally managed the Reagan-inspired tax cuts, but came back a year later with the tax-raising Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act that he believed was necessary to decease the budget deficit (it did, by nearly $100 billion).

Nevertheless, Newt Gingrich, then a fire-breathing backbencher, was moved in 1984 to label Sen. Dole as “the tax collector for the welfare state,” a phrase that never failed to irk the senator.

Sen. Dole backed large defense budgets and an activist foreign policy, becoming the party’s leading spokesman in advocating intervention in Bosnia.

He puzzled other Republicans when he introduced resolutions condemning the 1915 Turkish massacre of Armenians — thus infuriating Turkey, a NATO ally — because the surgeon who repaired his war-torn body in seven operations was Hampar Kelikian, an Armenian immigrant.

Sen. Dole won his party’s Senate leadership in 1984, narrowly defeating Ted Stevens, Richard Lugar and James McClure, but he quickly made the position his own. As majority leader, Sen. Dole earned a reputation as a man who could work across the aisle, whose word was good, who could effect compromise and keep faith with his party.

His forays into presidential politics were less successful. In 1980, he got a mere 607 of the 145,000 votes cast in the New Hampshire primary. His well-financed 1988 race was a surprisingly short-lived affair. George Bush portrayed him as “Senator Straddle” and beat him in New Hampshire after Sen. Dole refused to sign a pledge promising not to raise taxes.

After losing the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Dole lashed out at winner Bush on live national television, saying, “Tell him to stop lying about my record.” Later, Sen. Dole would write, “It wasn’t the most diplomatic moment in my career, but at least it was real.”

Sen. Dole’s reputation for a quick temper and sour disposition was largely exaggerated after this episode. Yet Sen. Dole served the Bush White House well and Bush repaid his work by naming Sen. Dole’s second wife, Elizabeth, as secretary of labor.

Sen. Dole met Elizabeth Hanford in 1972 when she was in the White House office of consumer affairs. They were married in 1975, when Hanford was a Federal Trade Commissioner. Over the years, their union was described as a marriage of political convenience, yet it was marked by a deep and abiding affection for one another, according to friends.

Sen. Dole was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991, underwent surgery during the Christmas recess and returned to the Senate early in 1992. He briefly thought about retirement and then decided to run again.

Sen. Dole served as Senate Republican leader longer than anyone else in history. In the early 1990s, he was overshadowed by a Republican in the White House. But after the 1992 election, he emerged as the most prominent Republican. Although the 1994 GOP landslide and Gingrich’s emergence as Speaker focused much attention on the House of Representatives, Sen. Dole’s position made him crucial to the enactment of the GOP’s much-ballyhooed “Contract With America” agenda.

Sensing the country moving to the right, Sen. Dole voted for a GOP budget in 1995 that cut $72 million from domestic violence programs. He promised the National Rifle Association a vote to appeal an assault weapons ban. He even voted for a budget that cut money from a school-lunch program he once fought to fund.

Sen. Dole’s prominence pushed him into the forefront as a presidential contender. His age and war-hero background made him a hero to much of America. When it became apparent, however, that Democrats intended to trap the legislative agenda in gridlock, Sen. Dole decided to resign and campaign full-time as a “private citizen.”

Sen. Dole’s final presidential crusade in 1996 ended with a partial victory. He won the nomination, but did not perform particularly well in the campaign. Incumbency and a sound economy helped Clinton retain the White House, despite burgeoning scandals.

As Sen. Dole reentered private life for the first time in nearly five decades, his good humor and well-regarded character burnished his reputation.

Two years after he resigned from Congress, Sen. Dole was asked if it was the right move for him at the time.

“I don’t regret it,” he told Roll Call. “I wanted to make a statement. I had been in Washington a long time and it seemed to me that I could make a statement that I’m not all about power and holding on to things and not taking any risks.”

Sen. Dole had risked his life years before, paid for it in full, and learned that nothing is forever.

Steve Goldstein is The Inquirer’s former bureau chief in Washington and Moscow.