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Bob Dole, war hero, senator, Republican mainstay, dies at 98

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Bob Dole, the long-time senator, former Republican presidential nominee and World War II hero, died Sunday at age 98.

Growing up in a blue-collar family in Depression-era Kansas, Dole rose to become a fixture in Washington, D.C. Badly wounded in action in Italy, he lost the use of his right arm, but reached the peak of Republican politics, serving as the party’s presidential nominee, vice presidential nominee and Senate leader in a career that spanned nearly four decades.

In a statement, the family said he died in his sleep early Sunday morning, having “served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years.” Dole announced in February that he had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

Senator Bob Dole about to be photographed on the  Capital Hill in Washington on June 6, 1996. (Yunghi Kim/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Senator Bob Dole about to be photographed on the Capital Hill in Washington on June 6, 1996. (Yunghi Kim/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“Bob was a man to be admired by Americans,” said President Biden, who served alongside Dole for many years in the Senate. “He had an unerring sense of integrity and honor. May God bless him, and may our nation draw upon his legacy of decency, dignity, good humor, and patriotism for all time.”

Robert Joseph Dole was born on July 22, 1923, in Russell, Kan. — Dust Bowl country — and grew up during the Great Depression. His family moved into the basement of their home and rented out the rest of it to make ends meet, while Dole had a paper route and a job behind the soda counter at a drugstore. He was a standout athlete who was recruited to University of Kansas by the legendary basketball coach Phog Allen. He was on the basketball, football and track teams and was planning to go to medical school until his time in Lawrence was cut short by the war.

A photo of Bob Dole at age 4 and another taken while he in the U.S. Army.
Undated handout photos of Bob Dole at age 4 and in the U.S. Army. (AP)

In 1942, Dole enlisted in the Army and was commissioned a lieutenant assigned to the 10th Mountain Regiment. In April 1945, fighting on Hill 913 in the Apennine Mountains in Italy, he came under fire while attempting to rescue his radio man, who later died. Hit in the shoulder and spine, Dole was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. His fellow soldiers rolled him to safety and gave him a shot of morphine, using his blood to write “M” on his forehead to warn medics not to give him another dose.

Back in the States, his recovery and rehabilitation took more than three years and numerous surgeries, some paid for with donations from his neighbors in Russell. Although he lost his right shoulder, a kidney and the use of his right hand, he regained the ability to walk and the partial use of his left hand. He received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor but would spend his political career with a pen gripped in his right hand, masking the effects of the injury. The Battle Creek, Mich., hospital where Dole recovered is now a government office complex named the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in honor of the three future senators who were patients there (Dole, Philip Hart of Michigan and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii).

A black-and-white photo of Bob Dole and his mother, Bina, standing in front of the family home.
Bob Dole and his mother, Bina. (AP)

Dole was known for his dry, sometimes self-deprecating wit. In 1972, as Republican national chairman, he assessed the effect of the Watergate break-in on the election. “We got the burglar vote,” he said.

In 2000, he authored an anthology of presidential humor, “Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House.”

In 1948, Dole married Phyllis Holden, who worked as an occupational therapist at the Michigan hospital where he was undergoing rehabilitation. The couple had a daughter, Robin. Despite being unable to use his right hand to take notes — Dole would record the lectures and listen to them later or have Holden help him take notes — he finished his studies at Washburn University, earning degrees in history and law. He began his political career in 1950, winning a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives, followed by a successful campaign for Russell County attorney. In 1960, he advanced to the U.S. House of Representatives, the beginning of a three-and-a-half-decade career in Congress.

Bob Dole  and his first wife, Phyllis, look at a book about World War II as well as photos of him from his time in the service.
Bob Dole looks at World War II memorabilia with his first wife, Phyllis, in 1968. (CWH/AP)

Dole won his first Senate seat in 1968 and was reelected four times, rising to become leader of the Republican Caucus in 1987. As chairman of the Republican National Committee, he was an outspoken supporter of President Nixon during Watergate and later earned the nickname “Mr. Gridlock” for his efforts to stymie President Clinton’s agenda in the 1990s. (When pushing for Republicans to work together with President Obama on a health care plan in 2009, he admitted, “We probably should have passed the Clinton bill, but it got so politicized.”) Dole wrote in his 2005 book “One Soldier’s Story” that the actions in Congress he is most proud of are saving Social Security and passing the Americans With Disabilities Act.

After a 1972 divorce from Holden, Dole married Washington lawyer Elizabeth Hanford in 1975. The two became a power couple in Washington, with Elizabeth Dole serving as secretary of transportation, secretary of labor, president of the Red Cross and as a U.S. senator from North Carolina. She mounted a brief presidential campaign of her own before the 2000 election. The two wrote a joint autobiography, “Unlimited Partners: Our American Story.”

Elizabeth and Bob Dole give a toast on their wedding day.
Elizabeth and Bob Dole on their wedding day in 1975. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Bob Dole got close to the White House several times. In 1976, he was tapped to serve as Gerald Ford’s running mate after Vice President Nelson Rockefeller withdrew from the ticket, earning the nickname of “Hatchet Man” for his perceived role as Ford’s enforcer. They lost to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, and Dole again fell short in the 1980 and 1988 Republican primaries. But in 1996, Dole recovered from early losses to Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes to easily win the nomination. In June of that year, he resigned his Senate seat in order to focus on the presidential campaign with the understanding it would be difficult to effectively serve as the Republican leader in the Senate after a loss.

Failing to find a consistent message and hindered by the belief that at 73 Dole was too old for the job, his campaign never really took off. With third-party candidate Ross Perot also on the ballot, Dole and his running mate Jack Kemp won 40 percent of the vote to President Clinton’s 49, losing the electoral college 379 to 159.

Bob and Elizabeth Dole interact with crowd members while standing behind a podium with a sign that says
Bob and Elizabeth Dole acknowledge supporters during a rally in 1996. (Greg Gibson/AP)

Following his presidential loss, Dole focused on his law practice, various philanthropic efforts, and the occasional gig as a television pitchman, most famously for Viagra. He served as the chairman for the campaign to create the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., which opened in 2005. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1997 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2018.

After initially supporting Jeb Bush and then Marco Rubio for the 2016 Republican nomination, Dole endorsed Donald Trump after he locked up the nomination in early May. Having attended every Republican National Convention for decades, he continued the tradition that year, the only former Republican presidential nominee to attend.

Bob Dole, seated in a wheelchair, gives a thumbs-up.
Bob Dole arrives for the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in January 2017. (Saul Loeb/Pool/Reuters)
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