Without the conscription that required him and millions of his fellow citizens to join the Army during World War II, Bob Dole might never have left Kansas. He came of age in an America where travel was for the rich, and everybody else, battered by the Depression, had to work hard just to get by.
Instead, his life was defined by a great and noble war that took young men like him away from home and turned them into the greatest generation.
The war opened his world. It took him far from home—to Italy, where he was grievously wounded. The experience, both on the battlefield and in the lengthy recovery that followed, gave him leadership abilities, fortitude, and a depth of faith he might not have found otherwise. He wasn’t expected to heal, and the wounds he suffered marked him throughout his life: the shattered shoulder, the withered left arm, his fingers wrapped around an ever-present pen should some thoughtless stranger try to shake his hand.
When he returned to Kansas as a decorated war veteran, a political career awaited. Though he came from a Democratic family, the GOP offered more of a future in a state that was predominantly Republican. He first ran in 1950 for the Kansas House of Representatives, serving a two-year term before setting his sights on Washington. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1960 and the Senate in 1968, and re-elected four times before stepping down in 1996 to focus on his presidential campaign.
Dole died Sunday morning in his sleep at the age of 98, his wife’s foundation announced on social media.
Tributes from Washington immediately poured in. Sen. Chuck Grassley recalled that Dole “took me under his wing” when he joined the Senate. He was, Grassley tweeted, “a dedicated public servant + kind + funny + hard worker + a true patriot.” Many posted video of Dole in 2018 struggling to stand so he could salute the flag-draped coffin of President George Bush.
Dole’s public persona—as a dark and slashing political figure—took root in 1976 when he was President Gerald Ford’s running mate on the Republican ticket. In the vice-presidential debate with Walter Mondale, Dole made a comment about “the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century.” The remark left a bitter aftertaste that Dole was never able to shake, and which shaped the public’s view of him as deeply cynical and sarcastic.
Yet inside the Beltway and back in Russell, Kansas, he was a much admired and even beloved figure. Those who worked with him knew him to be fair-minded, funny, and kind, an old-fashioned gentleman who didn’t swear and whose movie tastes ran to 1940s Hollywood classics. “When I went into the service, I promised my mother I wouldn’t drink and I wouldn’t swear—and I figured two out of three isn’t bad,” Dole explained.
When he railed against Hollywood’s excesses during his ’96 campaign, an aide figured he should at least see the films he was complaining about. She gave him Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers. He didn’t last more than 10 minutes.
He ran for president three times, faltering in the primaries in 1980 and 1988 but capturing his party’s nomination in 1996 only to confront what to many seemed an unfair contest at the time: the then 73-year-old Dole against Bill Clinton, standard-bearer for the baby boom generation, in a clash framed as the future versus the past.
“If I’m gonna lose this, I’m gonna lose my way,” he told campaign manager Scott Reed a week before the election. Showing his stamina, Dole campaigned nonstop for the last four days in what became known as the “96 Hours to Victory Tour,” flying 10,534 miles and touching down in 20 states.
The presidency eluded him, but his real love was the Senate, and that’s where his legacy is best understood. As Republican leader, he was master of his universe, an old school legislator who worked across party lines more than the new conservative majority ushered in by Newt Gingrich would have liked. Dole cared less about ideology than he did about putting wins on the legislative scoreboard. “The magic to get Bob Dole’s attention is to say, ‘You don’t have the votes for this, but you could get them if you do such and such,’” Paul Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation, complained at the time.
Dole teamed up with liberal Democrat George McGovern on making food stamps more available, and then more broadly after leaving the Senate on programs to combat hunger in the U.S. and internationally. He worked with liberal Senator Tom Harkin on the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was one of President George H.W. Bush’s signature achievements.
Dole chafed at the unyielding conservatism of the Gingrich-led House, and took pleasure in blocking many of its initiatives, marveling that after first gaining national attention decades earlier as a partisan slasher, “I am now the rational voice of the Republican Party.”
He cultivated his image as a hatchet man when it was useful, but his record and his many friends across the aisle speak to a gentler and wiser man who loved the institution of the Senate, and who could make it work for the common good—no small feat.