Bob Dole Saw Every Stage of the GOP

From World War II to the election of Donald Trump, Bob Dole played a part in countless moments of American history.

A photograph of Bob Dole
Rick Wilking / Reuters

When Bob Dole returned to the Senate in 1988 after the second of his three presidential defeats, he told the assembled crowd of staffers and supporters, “I am bloodied, but unbowed, as the poet said.” The famous quote from Invictus defined few American politicians of the 20th century as much as Dole, who died this morning at the age of 98.

The son of Russell, Kansas, Dole was bloodied first on the European battlefield in World War II, when an artillery shell cost him a kidney, one of his shoulders, and, permanently, the use of his right arm. During a political career spanning nearly 50 years, he would serve for a decade as the Republican leader in the Senate, helping to usher in legislation reforming Social Security under President Ronald Reagan and the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act under President George H. W. Bush.

But Dole fell short in all four of his bids for national office and held the unfortunate distinction of being the only man ever to lose campaigns both as the Republican nominee for vice president, in 1976, and for president, in 1996. None of those defeats, however, pushed Dole out of the arena. He amassed seniority and power representing Kansas for four terms in the Senate, finally joining House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a foil to Bill Clinton before the young Democratic president ended Dole’s political career with a decisive reelection victory.

Dole had resigned from the Senate to focus on the presidential campaign, but even after the loss he did not retire from public life. He became a television pitchman and a lobbyist for foreign governments. He was instrumental in the creation of the National World War II Memorial, which opened on the Mall in Washington in 2004. Three years later, President George W. Bush asked him to serve as a co-chair of a bipartisan commission that sprung out of a scandal over the treatment of military veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center.

Born in 1923, Dole was a star athlete in high school and played varsity basketball at the University of Kansas. He had been studying for a degree in medicine before enlisting in the Army during World War II. On April 14, 1945, Dole’s unit in the 10th Mountain Division was part of an offensive against German soldiers in Italy when he was hit by exploding shrapnel that shattered his right shoulder and left him unable to feel either of his arms. He spent more than three years recovering in hospitals, but the injuries left him permanently disabled. For the rest of his life, Dole could not tie his own shoes, cut his food with a knife, or lift up his young daughter. In public, he carried a pen in his right hand at all times, both to prevent his fingers from splaying and as a signal for people to shake his left hand instead.

Dole went to college and law school on the GI Bill and entered politics in 1950, winning a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. He served a single two-year term before becoming a county attorney. In 1960, he won his first race for the U.S. House and after four terms, he moved up to the Senate, where he would stay for the next 38 years.

Dole’s rise in national politics began in 1971, when he became chair of the Republican National Committee. In 1976, President Gerald Ford had decided to replace Vice President Nelson Rockefeller as his running mate in a bid to keep conservatives from backing Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination. Ford announced Dole as his choice on the first day of the convention. “I’m not sure what I can add to the ticket,” Dole said at his introduction, “but I’ll do the best I can.”

Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, and Dole returned to the Senate. He made a brief foray into the 1980 campaign for the Republican nomination, but he finished far back in the New Hampshire primary and withdrew from a race that was dominated by Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Dole would go up again against Bush, then the sitting vice president, eight years later, and he made a much stronger showing. He won the Iowa caucuses and two other states before Bush overtook him in the South on Super Tuesday. The battle became heated, and during an interview with Tom Brokaw on NBC, Dole was asked if he had anything to say to his rival. “Yeah, tell him to stop lying about my record,” he snapped.

By this time, Dole was already minority leader of the Senate, a perch from which he helped pass the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. He rose to majority leader after the Republican wave of 1994, teaming—and occasionally battling—with Gingrich to take on Clinton over health care, welfare reform, and government spending. Dole and Gingrich were not close, and he later recalled that he’d sometimes ask Clinton to deal with his Republican ally instead. “I’m not going to talk to him, you talk to him,” Dole would say to Clinton about Gingrich, he told GQ in 2012. “No, you talk to him.”

There was little doubt Dole would seek the presidency in 1996. Republicans had been making a habit of nominating the man who had finished second the last time around, and Dole would continue the pattern. But there were hints of the GOP’s rightward shift to come, as the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan surprised Dole by winning the New Hampshire primary. Dole also found himself hamstrung by the budget fight that shut down the government in early 1996, a standoff that would bolster Clinton. Five months later, he quit the Senate altogether as a signal to voters that he was all in for the presidency—that he had, in his words, “nowhere to go but the White House or home.”

What Dole lacked in oratorical skills he made up for with a wry and often self-deprecating sense of humor. “Tomorrow’s the first day in my life I’m not going to have anything to do,” was how Dole started his concession speech after losing to Clinton in 1996. He also frequently referred to himself in the third person, a habit memorably satirized by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. When Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom just a day before his second inauguration the following January, Dole stepped to the lectern and said, “I, Robert J. Dole, do solemnly swear …” the room erupted in laughter. “Sorry, wrong speech,” Dole deadpanned. Two years later, Dole took another spin in the national spotlight by becoming a spokesperson for anti-impotency drug Viagra.

By the 21st century, Dole was, like the man who defeated him in 1996, largely a political spouse. Dole’s first marriage ended in divorce, and in 1975, he married Elizabeth Hanford, who would go on to become a Cabinet secretary under two Republican presidents and head of the American Red Cross. She made a brief run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 and then followed Dole to the Senate in 2002, serving a single term representing North Carolina.

In Dole’s later years, leaders in both parties would hold him up, along with Bush, his longtime GOP rival, as an emblem of a bygone era when politics wasn’t so personal, or partisan. But that legacy seemed to paper over Dole’s earlier image, first as a party chair during the Nixon era and then during the 1976 campaign, as a political “hatchet man.” And he was very much a party man to the end. Dole dutifully backed GOP nominees in each of the five campaigns after his final run in 1996, including even Donald Trump, whose slashing personal attacks on his opponents clashed so sharply with the tenor Dole espoused. By the summer of 2016, Dole was nearly 93 and used a wheelchair, but he nonetheless was the only former Republican presidential nominee to attend Trump’s nominating convention in Cleveland.

His influence within the party, however, had long since faded. In 2012, Dole urged Republicans in the Senate to ratify a United Nations treaty banning discrimination against the disabled. He had been wheeled onto the Senate floor by his wife, Elizabeth, herself also a former GOP senator. “Don’t let Bob Dole down,” Democratic Senator John Kerry implored his colleagues. But in the years since Dole had led the party, the GOP had drifted away from the internationalism embodied by his World War II generation, and concerns about U.S. sovereignty, antipathy toward the UN, and opposition to agreements backed by the Obama administration prevailed. The treaty failed to gain the needed two-thirds majority, and Bob Dole was defeated one last time.