Former Republican Senator, majority leader, and 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole died in his sleep Sunday morning. He was 98, and one of the ever-dwindling number of survivors of what has been called, with good reason, the greatest generation. No cause of death was given, but Dole had been diagnosed as having stage four lung cancer.
Dole was an important political figure for decades, serving as U.S. Senator from Kansas from 1969 to 1995, 10 of those years as the Republican leader, both of the minority and majority persuasions. His Senate service followed eight years in the U.S. House representing a Kansas district. He later served as Republican National Chairman under Richard Nixon from 1971 to 1973 and was Gerald Ford’s pick for VP on the unsuccessful Republican ticket that lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976. He was the Republican nominee for president in 1996, losing to incumbent Bill Clinton.
By the time of his presidential run, Dole was certainly less than a movement conservative. He had become more of a legislative technician, and moderate to the younger Dole’s conservative. In later years he referred to himself as an Eisenhower Republican, putting great store in compromise and amity with Democrats, even when the other side didn’t reciprocate.
But while conservatives may have been disappointed in some of the positions that Dole took in his late career, and disappointed in his lackluster 1996 campaign, there are still reasons to celebrate this man and his life. Man and boy, young conservative firebrand and older moderate, Dole was always a patriot, never a doubter of America’s greatness, and always a booster of its people and its values. Those who knew him testify that he was gracious in his dealings with people from all walks of life.
Lieutenant Dole, with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, almost gave his life for his country in April of 1945 in Italy when a German shell badly damaged his upper back, neck, spine, and right arm. For a short while after his injuries he was paralyzed from the neck down. Army corpsmen who treated him on the battlefield did not think he would survive. He spent more than three years in an Army hospital battling these horrific injuries. He endured blood clots, anti-biotic defying infections, multiple surgeries, and demanding physical therapy, a seemingly unending marathon of pain that would have defeated a less determined man.
Dole finally recovered from his wounds sufficiently to return to college — he had lettered in football, basketball, and track at the University of Kansas before entering the Army — where he completed bachelor’s and law degrees before beginning his long political career. He never recovered use of his right arm, and his left arm remained partially numb. But he never allowed his injuries to interfere with his work and never paraded them for his political advantage.
Many who met Dole didn’t know he was injured until he offered his left hand to shake. I was ready for this in my one brief and pleasant encounter with Dole on Capitol Hill, an encounter which gave me no reason to question others’ descriptions of Dole’s graciousness. It was in 1982 at one of those mix-and-mingle affairs after an event where Dole was the main speaker. He said the right things when I thanked him for his service. I was impressed that during our brief exchange Dole kept eye contact with me rather than looking over the shoulder of this lowly congressional press secretary in search of more important people he could be spending his time with. There certainly were such at this event.
After his political career Dole worked a bit as a lobbyist and was pitch man for several products (the less said about his Viagra ads the better). Dole was the last World War II veteran to run for president, and he always had an affinity for veterans of that war, who returned his affection. He worked for causes that support veterans, including serving as chairman of the World War II Memorial Campaign. He often spent weekends at the Memorial after it had been built, talking with visitors, many of them veterans of The Big One. He was a booster of the Honor Flights Network which pays to fly WWII veterans to Washington to visit the memorial.
RIP Bob Dole, a man who long served his country with courage and distinction. He was exemplar of a rightly celebrated generation of Americans that is, alas, like the old soldier, fading away.