Former U.S. senator Robert Dole, who overcame the hardships of dust bowl Kansas during the Depression and devastating injuries in World War II to run three times for the presidency and serve more than a decade as the Senate Republican leader, died Dec. 5 at 98.
The death was announced by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. No cause was immediately mentioned. He announced Feb. 18 that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
Dole’s life was a trajectory played out against nine decades of America’s political, economic and cultural transformations, from his birth in a one-bedroom house to a career that lasted more than a third of a century under the Capitol dome, where he was presented the Congressional Gold Medal in 2018.
Arriving in Washington a few months shy of his 38th birthday, a House backbencher from Kansas among the minority Republicans, he methodically climbed the Washington ladder, possessed of a talent for counting votes and finding the sort of consensus rarely achieved today.
His rise paralleled a personal evolution from abrasive partisan to a more statesmanlike role in which he worked across party lines to forge compromise, whether bailing out the Social Security system or recommending an overhaul of long-term care for wounded veterans.
Dole was often critical of the Republican Party after leaving office, telling audiences that it had become too conservative, with far-right positions that recalled those of his former rival Patrick Buchanan. But he remained loyal to the party and, in 2016, became the only former GOP presidential candidate to endorse Donald Trump, whose campaign advisers included former Dole lieutenants such as Paul Manafort.
Despite the harsh turn his party took under Trump, he said in an interview in July with USA Today that he regretted the former president’s loss in November but broke with him over claims of election fraud and was “sort of Trumped out.”
His influence reached a peak in the early 1980s as Senate Finance Committee chairman and then as leader of the Senate Republicans – in the majority, the minority and majority again – from 1985 until his retirement from Congress in 1996 as his party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
Dole had a reputation for keeping his eye more on the votes than on a bill’s philosophical underpinning.
Facing a considerable budget deficit from President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts that he helped engineer in 1981, Dole masterfully pushed through a tax reform plan the next year that repealed some of the cuts and increased taxes on corporations.
“Dole was a wizard at putting together coalitions. It was always the art of the possible with Bob Dole,” said Kenneth Duberstein, who, first as the Reagan White House’s chief congressional liaison and later as Reagan’s chief of staff, worked closely with the senator.
Whatever the issue being pushed by the White House, Duberstein said, with Dole it always came down to: “You got the votes? You got the votes? You got the votes?”
With his dry wit, sharp tongue and dour demeanor, he fit easily into Darth Vader-like assignments as chairman of the Republican National Committee during President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972 and as President Gerald Ford’s running mate four years later. Ford had told him, “You’re going to be the tough guy.”
In the vice-presidential debate with then-Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota, he said that the U.S. wars of the 20th century, from World War I to Vietnam, were “Democrat wars.”
Mondale responded: “I think Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight.”
That was his introduction to the national audience. By playing the attack dog, Dole allowed Ford to run a “Rose Garden” campaign intended to take advantage of his incumbency and project a presidential appearance.
Years later, Dole lamented the remark. “One of my heroes was FDR, and I’m a World War II veteran, so it wasn’t my view to run around and say, ‘Well, the Democrats started all the wars in the world.’ ”
It upset him politically, too. “I went for the jugular – my own,” he said.
Over the years, his appearance – perfectly creased trousers, dark suit, immaculately combed jet-black pompadour, even his cultivated deep tan – lent him the aura of a man not to be trifled with. So, too, his matter-of-fact delivery.
The tough-guy image was underscored by a sardonic, though sometimes self-deprecating – and perfectly timed – humor delivered in a droll staccato. After he lost the 1996 presidential race, he feigned indifference to the result: “I slept like a baby,” he said, then adding: “Woke up crying every two hours.”
And his repeated references to himself in the third person became rich fodder for the NBC comedy-skit show “Saturday Night Live.”
Behind that mask, though, was a soft spot for – and a legislative record that supported – the underdog, with whom he felt a special kinship born of his hardscrabble young life and shattering war wounds. Two months shy of his 22nd birthday, he was struck by shrapnel in the Allies’ Italian campaign, wounded so grievously that he was not expected to walk again.
He emerged steeled for the future.
“What can you do to a guy who’s lain in a hospital bed for three years?” former senator Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., once asked. “You can’t spook him. He’s invulnerable.”
His inclination toward lesser government notwithstanding, Dole carried throughout his life a hard-learned appreciation for what government could do: Government doctors saved his life. The G.I. bill sent him back to school. And as county attorney, he signed welfare checks for tenant farmers who had lost their land and relied on government help – his grandfather among them.
Building a complex legislative record that reflected such crosscurrents, then-Rep. Dole voted against Medicare in 1964. Early on, he opposed aid to Appalachia and much of President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty program. Thirty years later, he fought President Bill Clinton’s effort to overhaul health care, saying, “There is no crisis in health care.”
But he also played key roles in expanding Medicare to cover hospice care and providing support for rural medical clinics and a drug for hemophiliacs. He worked to expand Medicaid for children.
There were issues for which Dole developed a personal passion: His first Senate speech was on aid for the physically impaired; he became a leading force behind the sweeping Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and, after leaving office, became one of the most vocal supporters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He pushed enactment of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. And he was the driving power behind creation of the National World War II Memorial.
After the memorial opened in 2004, he visited two or three times a week each summer, greeting fellow aging veterans or quietly standing by during their pilgrimage. He also pressed for the opening of the nearby Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, honoring a fellow Kansan whom he served under in World War II.
The broad web of Dole’s legislative record – voting to cut taxes one year and raising them the next; supporting government-funded nutrition programs (that also benefited Kansas farmers) while giving voice to reduced-government conservative dogma – was often masked by the hardball partisan edge he brought to public debate.
Across two decades, Dole strove for the ultimate political prize, the presidency. After his unsuccessful vice-presidential candidacy in 1976, he failed in his first run for the party’s presidential nomination in 1980. He failed again in 1988. When at last he succeeded, in 1996, he was swamped in a general election that largely stamped the nation’s approval on Bill Clinton’s first term as president.
Dole received 40.7 percent of the popular vote and 159 electoral votes to Clinton’s 49.2 percent and 379 electoral votes.
Although a traditional Midwest fiscal conservative, he moved into positions of increasing authority even as his party moved increasingly to his right. Its grass-roots activists harbored suspicions of his old-time Republicanism. They were unimpressed by his decades-long fight against budget deficits. And the party embraced a conservative social ideology with which he was never fully comfortable.
“Ironically, he rose in a party that in many ways was moving in a different direction,” said Richard Norton Smith, a historian and occasional Dole adviser who was the first director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. “As he matured and became less reflexively partisan and a more complicated conservative, he found himself reaching for the brass ring in a party that was becoming less complicated and more partisan.”
That Dole and the conservative ranks were growing apart was apparent after the 1994 midterm elections: Even as he continued to lead the Senate Republicans, he was, in effect, hostage to the conservative followers of the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who orchestrated the campaign that gave the GOP its first House majority since the Truman administration.
It was Gingrich who, angered by Dole’s support for tax increases in the 1980s to reduce the deficit, called him the “tax collector for the welfare state.”
The division only grew during the 1996 campaign. Despite the support of the state Republican establishment, Dole was stunned in the New Hampshire primary by the upstart campaign of Pat Buchanan, who summoned the image of peasants “coming over the hills” with pitchforks as a metaphor for a conservative insurgency. Buchanan won 27.2 percent of the vote; Dole finished with 26.2 percent.
Dole fought back, all but securing the nomination within four weeks with a series of Super Tuesday victories. But trailing Clinton throughout the spring, with his party never fully behind him, Dole announced in May that he would resign from the Senate, opening a go-for-broke strategy.
The emotional pain was evident. In his final Senate speech a month later, he said: “I would no more distance myself from the Senate than I would from the United States itself.”
His choice of former congressman Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., as his running mate in August reflected a last-ditch attempt to reach out to the “supply-side” wing of the Republican Party, seeking compromise with conservatives favoring tax cuts, above all else, as the foundation of economic progress.
Before he resigned from the Senate, he had declared that he would “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.”
With his defeat, he was neither in office nor running for office for the first time in nearly half a century – and the shift within the party was cemented.
Three years after his final presidential campaign and his departure from the Senate, he was still a player in the Republican arena, advising his wife, Elizabeth Dole – twice a Cabinet secretary – on her own, ultimately unsuccessful race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. She later served one term as a senator from North Carolina. After she left office in 2009, the Doles continued to reside in their apartment at the Watergate.
After his 1996 campaign failed, Dole accepted a job as a television pitchman for Viagra, the blue erectile-dysfunction pill. The Viagra assignment grew out of his own experience: He had been treated for prostate cancer and made televised public-service announcements encouraging men to be screened for the disease. Erectile dysfunction is sometimes a side effect of the treatment.
Three days before the 1997 inauguration, Clinton awarded his erstwhile rival the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, declaring that Dole had “turned adversity to advantage and pain to public service, embodying the motto of the state that he loved and went on to serve so well: Ad astra per aspera, to the stars through difficulties.”
Even in seeming retirement and well into his 90s, Dole took on lucrative lobbying assignments and helped smooth the way for a telephone call in December 2016 between President-elect Donald Trump and the president of Taiwan – shattering precedent because the United States had shunned such contact since establishing normal diplomatic ties with China nearly four decades earlier.
Robert Joseph Dole was born on July 22, 1923, and raised in Russell, Kan. Life there was emblematic of rural, Midwest America between the Wars, scarred by the Depression.
Candidate Dole proudly reported on the stump that his father, Doran, “wore his overalls to work every day for 42 years” – first when he ran a small dairy station and later while managing the local grain elevator. His mother, the former Bina Talbott, “sold Singer sewing machines and vacuum cleaners to try to make ends meet.”
To take in extra money, the family – parents, young Bob, his brother and two sisters – moved into the basement and rented out the upstairs quarters.
From the time he was 12 or so, the future senator worked the soda fountain at night and on weekends at Dawson’s drugstore. With a $300 loan from a Russell businessman, he enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of Kansas, but his major could have been freshman basketball and track, Kappa Sigma fraternity and parties.
By December 1942, one year after the United States entered World War II, he joined the Army’s Enlisted Reserve Corps. He was called to active duty in June 1943 and, after Officer Candidate School, was appointed second lieutenant in November 1944.
On April 14, 1945 – 24 days before the war ended in Europe and two months after he first saw combat – his life was changed forever near the town of Castel d’Aiano in the Apennine Mountains southwest of Bologna. He wrote in his memoir, “One Soldier’s Story”: “As the mortar round, exploding shell, or machine gun blast – whatever it was, I’ll never know – ripped into my body, I recoiled, lifted off the ground a bit, twisted in the air, and fell face down in the dirt.”
He continued: “Then the horror hit me – I can’t feel anything below my neck! I didn’t know it at the time, but whatever it was that hit me had ripped apart my shoulder, breaking my collarbone and my right arm, smashing down into my vertebrae, and damaging my spinal cord.”
The lieutenant was given a shot of morphine – his blood was used to mark the letter “M” on his forehead to avoid a second and possibly fatal dose – and little hope for survival. Eventually the battle moved on, he was moved to an evacuation point, and, from a hospital in Casablanca, shipped stateside, arriving at Winter General Army Hospital in Topeka, Kan., plaster encasing him from chin to hips.
So began 39 months of recuperation in and out of military hospitals. He could not feed himself or hold a cigarette. Life-threatening infection led to the removal of a kidney and his treatment with what was then an experimental antibiotic, streptomycin, initially used to treat tuberculosis. The people of Russell collected money in cigar boxes to help pay for reconstructive surgery.
He eventually returned to college, earning undergraduate and law degrees at Washburn University in Topeka. He overcame what wounds he could and learned to live without. Such an elemental task as buttoning a shirt became a painstaking chore for the onetime basketball and track star.
Dole married a physical therapist, Phyllis Holden, who had helped him during his recuperation. (They had a daughter, Robin Dole, and divorced in 1972.) After serving two years in the Kansas House of Representatives, he became the Russell County attorney in 1953. He went to the U.S. House in 1961 and the Senate eight years later.
In 1975 he married Elizabeth Hanford, who was then serving on the Federal Trade Commission. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
When he campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, Dole told this story about his entry into politics upon his return to Russell after the war and his recuperation.
The leading Democrat in town said he should consider running for office. The young veteran protested that he knew nothing about politics. His visitor replied: “It’s not necessary. You got shot. I think we can get you elected.”
The leading Republican visited. He, too, said the young veteran should run for office but as a Republican.
Why a Republican?
“Because there are twice as many Republicans as Democrats in Russell County,” came the reply.
“So,” the candidate for the Republican presidential nomination told potential voters in characteristic sardonic humor, “I made a great philosophical decision right there on the spot. I’d learned how to count in the Army.”
(c) The Washington Post · James Gerstenzang