Bob Dole – Life and Legacy

Bob Dole – Life and Legacy

Nick Watts, News Editor '23

Former Senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole recently passed away on December 5th, 2021, at the age of 98. He is the most recent major-party presidential nominee to pass away, with the last being the death of former Vice President Walter Mondale, who served as former President Jimmy Carter’s vice president from 1977 to 1981 and was the Democratic nominee in 1984. Robert J. Dole was a self-made man from Russel, Kansas who, after sustaining horrific wounds in World War Two, rose to the highest levels of American government at the zenith of his career. After recovering from his wounds, Bob Dole went on to become a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Republican National Committee Chairman, 1976 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Senate Majority Leader, and 1996 Republican presidential nominee. Through his actions in each of those roles of his life, Dole fundamentally shaped the political landscape of America and was witness to some of the most crucial political moments of the second half of the 20th century. With his famous wit and humor, Dole navigated through all of it and had many accomplishments to show for his time in and out of office by the end of his life.

Robert Joseph Dole was born on July 23rd, 1923, at his home in Russell, Kansas to Doran Ray Dole, who operated a creamery, and Bina M. Dole. During the Dust Bowl, Dole witnessed the hardships endured by his family and neighbors in Russell, a fact that he would never forget and often brought up. He attended Russell High School and was a star track athlete. At the onset of World War Two, Dole did not shy away from duty and enlisted soon after America entered the war. Serving with the famous 10th Mountain Division during the invasion of Italy, he was severely wounded when a mortar exploded close to him sending shrapnel into his entire body. Lying on the battlefield and near death, medics coming by injected him with morphine to ease the pain before he was expected to die. A red “M” was painted on his forehead in his own blood to signify to other passing medics that he had already been given a shot of morphine and that another shot would kill him. Miraculously, Dole was recovered from the battlefield and did not die that day, however his long and arduous journey to recovery had just begun. After being transferred to Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, Dole met future U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, a fellow injured WW2 veteran. The two became friends and Dole remarked to Inouye that he was thinking of entering politics when he returned to Kansas. Inouye liked Dole’s idea and went on to become a colleague of Dole’s in the Senate representing Hawaii. The two remained lifelong friends. Upon his return to Kansas, he discovered that the recovery process would be a lengthy one for him. He permanently lost the use of his right arm, so relearning how to feed and wash himself, drive a car, and other daily activities were all part of that process. A story he liked to retell was of how the citizens of Russell used a cigar box to raise money to pay for his hospital bills as an example of his debt of gratitude to his hometown that he never forgot.

A rising star in the Republican Party, Dole ran for the Kansas State Legislature in 1950 and won. He was then elected as Russel County Attorney in 1952 before running for Congress in 1960. From 1961 to 1969, Dole represented the 1st and then the 6th district in Congress. Finally, in 1968, Dole ran for the U.S. Senate, succeeding the well-known and longtime Kansas senator, Frank Carlson. Senator Bob Dole, one of the last ‘lions of the Senate,’ truly lived up to that moniker during his tenure. Barely two years after his freshman year as a senator, Dole was appointed Chairman of the Republican National Committee. From 1971 to 1973 he worked tirelessly to elect Republicans nationwide. The 1972 Election, when incumbent President Richard Nixon flattened his Democratic opponent, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, 520 to 17 in the electoral college, and when Republicans gained twelve seats in the House, occurred during Dole’s tenure as RNC Chair. During his early years in the Senate, Dole earned a reputation as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” defending him all the way to his resignation. In January 1973, having been successful in the ’72 election, Dole was out as the Republican National Committee chair and returned to his regular Senate activities.

In 1975, Bob Dole married Elizabeth Hanford. He had divorced his previous wife, Phyllis, three years earlier, with whom he had his one and only child, his daughter, Robin. Elizabeth herself would go on to become a Senator from North Carolina and run for President in 2000. Many regard Bob and Elizabeth Dole as the first ‘power couple’ of Washington D.C. In August of 1974, after Nixon resigned, Vice President Gerald Ford ascended to the presidency. In 1976, Ford fought out a brutal primary with California Governor Ronald Reagan to win the Republican nomination. Incumbent Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was declined to be on the ticket, so Ford chose Dole. Gerald Ford, a former Michigan Congressman, valued Dole’s humble midwestern roots and status as a war hero. Together, the two went on to run a solid campaign against the virtually unknown former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and his running-mate, Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale. Despite the closeness of the election, the Carter-Mondale ticket edged out the Ford-Dole ticket 297 to 240 in the electoral college. The popular vote was even closer, coming in at 50.1% to 48%. Despite the loss, Bob Dole’s selection as the vice-presidential nominee was no small achievement. His star power should have helped carry him to the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. It did not. Dole’s quixotic bid in 1980 ended in less than 1% of all primary votes cast. Instead, it would carry him to the post where he would craft his enduring legacy, the Senate Majority Leader. In 1984, in a 28 to 25 vote, Bob Dole succeeded outgoing Majority Leader Tennessee Senator Howard Baker.

As a senator, Bob Dole fought for what he believed in while compromising with the opposition. Major issues that Dole focused on were Social Security, voting rights, and rights of the disabled, among many others. In 1982, after supporting both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a young Congressman, Dole co-sponsored a bill strengthening and renewing the Voting Rights Act, recommitting the nation to enforcing the rights African Americans and other minorities to vote. In 1983, he also cosponsored the bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday against fierce opposition from within of his own party. In 1983, Dole and New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, worked together to save Social Security, a popular payment system established under FDR as a New Deal Program that paid senior citizens money after paying into the program as young people. During their negotiations, Senators Dole, Moynihan, and others worked towards a compromise, taxing payroll increases within the program among other provisions to produce the Social Security Amendments of 1983, a bill signed into law that likely saved the program from elimination and allowed for its continuation into today. Finally, in 1990, Senator Dole was instrumental in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark bill that was a major step forward for civil rights for the disabled in America. The bill stated, “that persons with disabilities ought to be judged on the basis of their abilities; they should not be judged nor discriminated against based on unfounded fear, prejudice, ignorance or mythologies.” As a disabled veteran himself, this bill was personal to Bob Dole. Since entering politics, he was always sure to be clutching a pen in his right hand to deter people from reaching their hands out to shake it. He also had to avoid certain dinners due to his struggles with cutting food. The ADA revolutionized the way that disabled persons in America were treated by forcing most public places, employers, and the federal government to accommodate people with disabilities and prohibited workplace discrimination based on ability. For the rest of his life, Senator Dole always lauded the Americans with Disabilities Act as one of his proudest achievements.

Three years after his election as Senate Majority Leader, Dole yet again sought the Republican nomination in 1988. His chief rival in the race, incumbent Vice President George H.W. Bush, defeated him handily. Dole did, however, win the Iowa Caucuses and lost narrowly in New Hampshire. A Bush attack line against Dole during the ’88 campaign was accusing him of wanting to raise taxes. Dole famously responded by snapping, “stop lying about my record.” After losing and returning to the Senate again, Dole, at age 72, made a final return to national politics in 1996. After Bush lost the 1992 Election to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, Dole decided to run against Clinton in his bid for re-election. With the field finally cleared for Dole, he easily secured the nomination and chose New York Congressman Jack Kemp as his running mate. Dole, facing headwinds of a popular Bill Clinton, a prospering economy, the advent of the internet, and campaigning as Bob Dole, lost the 1996 Election 379 to 159. On that last point, Bob Dole simply ran a rather uninteresting campaign. Though his speeches during the Republican Convention fired up those in attendance, he sometimes gave vague reasons on the campaign trail as to why he wanted to be the president that gave some voters little incentive to vote against Clinton. This was not necessarily a bad thing. “He couldn’t jackknife himself into a persona that was fundamentally at odds with the real thing,” said Richard Norton Smith, former director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. Bob Dole wanted to be president to serve the people. He wanted the people to choose him because of his background and achievements in Congress. As a pure creature of the Senate, Dole struggled to talk to voters in a language they understood. While on the campaign trail, a child once asked Dole how he planned to combat acid rain. After thinking, Dole responded, “That bill’s in markup.” Bob Dole never strayed from who he was, staying true to his personality as a compromising senatorial dealmaker who knew how to use the levers and gears of government to get bills passed to help people, a personality that is difficult for anyone to sell in a presidential election.

He retired from the Senate on June 11th, 1996, to run for president full-time. After his defeat, he devoted his time and energy into advocating for private causes. He lobbied for various groups and dedicated much of his time to helping the ASPCA and serving on the WWII Memorial Commission as a national co-chairman. Bob and Elizabeth Dole were also official hosts of the “Paws for Love” and “Paws for Celebration” pet adoption events held annually on Capitol Hill. From 2001 to 2004, Senator Dole also raised over 197 million dollars for the construction of the World War Two Memorial. As a WW2 veteran, the construction of the memorial was another personal victory and one of his proudest achievements. He also wrote a memoir, One Soldier’s Story, detailing his experiences during the war and his entry into politics. Finally, in 2018, during one of his last public appearances, he became one of only eight senators awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Senator Bob Dole will go down as arguably one of the best lawmakers of the 20th century. Though he was never able to attain the ‘ultimate prize’ of the presidency, his positive accomplishments have left our country better than he found it. Dole stood for what the best of America is. Persevering through a grievous wartime injury, fostering bipartisanship in Congress, and advocating for noble causes in retirement, all with his famous sense of humor, is an example we all can and should look to. His quips and jokes deserve their own article, however I thought I would share some of my favorite of his one-liners. Only days after he had lost the election, he was asked by David Letterman on his show whether he would accept a post in the Clinton Administration, to which he replied, “well if he, uh, wanted to give me his job I’d think of it.” The crowd responded by laughing hysterically. When Clinton awarded Dole the Presidential Medal of Freedom three days before his second inauguration, Dole began his acceptance speech with the first words of the oath of office. “I Robert J. Dole do solemnly swear… oops sorry wrong speech,” immediately drawing lots of laughs from lawmakers and everyone in attendance.

While I am deeply saddened by the passing of Bob Dole, I am glad that I got a chance to call him on the phone in March of 2021. Despite his lung cancer diagnosis, he still made the effort to call me, for which I will forever be grateful. He was in no hurry to get off the phone and we spoke for fifteen minutes. I enjoyed being able to hear his humor in a conversation with him. I had previously exchanged many emails with him, and he sent me a letter in response to a thank-you note I sent after our call. I am honored to be able to say that he was my friend. In a final writing of his, an op-ed for the Washington Post, Bob Dole made a call for unity over division during this hyper partisan time. “My political opponent on one day often became a friend and supporter on another day. I never took it personally, nor should those in Congress today,” he said. Always one to see the best in people, he also said, “Our history is rich with political debate and deep divisions, but collectively we share a common purpose for a better America. We cannot let political differences stand in the way of that common good.” To honor Bob Dole’s memory, we must heed his words and look within ourselves about how we can respect everyone, regardless of political beliefs. I, myself, could do a better job of this, as could everyone else. The health of our country and our democracy depends on it. We all need to do our part to make sure that we are engaging in constructive civil discourse rather than bitter and utterly unproductive shouting matches. The loss of Senator Bob Dole is a major loss for our country and is no doubt the end of an era, however using this time to reflect on his legacy and asking ourselves how we can best serve and compromise with others while not taking ourselves too seriously would be the best way to honor his memory.