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Bob Dole, Senate GOP Leader in By-Gone Era, Dies

December 5, 2021 by Dan McCue
Bob Dole, Senate GOP Leader in By-Gone Era, Dies
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Robert Dole R-Kan., gestures while making a speech in Washington, March 28, 1988. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File)

WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., who went from majority leader to his party’s presidential candidate in 1996, died Sunday morning at age 98.

According to a statement released through the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the former senator died peacefully in his sleep after having “served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years.”

Dole, who was the longest serving Republican leader in the Senate until Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., surpassed his record in June 2018, was remembered Sunday as someone who loved the bartering then that went along with successful legislating on Capitol Hill.

In fact it’s been said when controversial measures came to his chamber, he quickly made a point of finding out what every senator, on both sides of the aisle wanted, and at what level they might be disposed to engaging in a little give and take.

It was in this way that he helped rescue Social Security in 1983, and got the Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990.

Throughout a nearly three-decade tenure in the Senate, Dole was also known for his ability to broker compromises on a wide range of legislation.

That’s why it came as something of a surprise when he endorsed the uncompromising Donald Trump for president in 2016. He even went so far as to appear at the party’s convention in Cleveland, Ohio, where Trump accepted the nomination.

On Sunday, McConnell said Dole had “lived the kind of full, rich, and deeply honorable American life that will be impossible for any tribute today to fully capture.”

“Bob’s rooted in a simple mission: looking out for his neighbors,” McConnell said.

“At first that meant serving his customers at a soda fountain in Russell, Kansas. Then it meant heroic, decorated service with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II; brutal fighting from which Bob barely made it home. And then came a remarkable career in public service, capped off by nearly 30 years in the U.S. Senate and more than a decade as Republican Leader.

“Senate Republicans and the entire Senate were better off for Bob’s stewardship,” McConnell continued in a heart-felt tribute. “But more importantly, his beloved Kansas and the entire nation reaped huge rewards from his service. Bob was a steady leader and a legislative master. He unlocked both conservative victories and big bipartisan achievements. His Dust Bowl roots fueled a special commitment to vulnerable Americans, and sure enough, Bob’s work on food security, veterans’ issues, and the rights of disabled Americans have continued to have an especially lasting impact.

“Whatever their politics, anyone who saw Bob Dole in action had to admire his character and his profound patriotism,” the current GOP leader said. “Those of us who were lucky to know Bob well ourselves admired him even more. A bright light of patriotic good cheer burned all the way from Bob’s teenage combat heroics through his whole career in Washington through the years since. It still shone brightly, undimmed, to his last days.”

President Joe Biden recalled Sunday that about a month after he was sworn in, he visited with Dole at the home the former senator shared with his wife at the Watergate.

Dole had only recently been diagnosed with lung cancer, and Biden, coming up for air from a grueling campaign and transition, hoped to provide the same support to his former colleague that Dole provided him and First Lady Jill Biden when Beau Biden was battling cancer.

“Like all true friendships, regardless of how much time has passed, we picked up right where we left off, as though it were only yesterday that we were sharing a laugh in the Senate dining room or debating the great issues of the day, often against each other, on the Senate floor,” Biden said. 
“I saw in his eyes the same light, bravery, and determination I’ve seen so many times before. 

“In the Senate, though we often disagreed, he never hesitated to work with me or other Democrats when it mattered most,” the president said. “He and Ted Kennedy came together to turn Bob’s lifelong cause into the Americans With Disabilities Act — granting tens of millions of Americans lives of greater dignity. 

“On the Social Security Commission, he led a bipartisan effort with Pat Moynihan to ensure that every American could grow old with their basic dignity intact. When he managed the bill to create a federal holiday in the name of Martin Luther King Jr. — a bill that many in his own caucus opposed — I will never forget what he said to our colleagues: ‘No first-class democracy can treat people like second-class citizens,’” Biden said.

“Another bipartisan effort, the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, provided school meals and food for nursing mothers and young children. It saved the lives of countless young people who would otherwise have died in infancy — and brought dignity to tens of millions of families at home and abroad. This work, for Bob, was about more than passing laws. It was written on his heart.”

Dole himself quite got lucky in his bids for higher office. He was nominated for vice president in 1976 and ran for president three times, finally securing his party’s nomination on the third try.

But that campaign, with Rep. Jack Kemp, of New York, as his running mate, proved disastrous, and ended his public career.

He spent his post-political life earnestly raising money for the World War II Memorial in Washington, and got there as often as he could to welcome visiting veterans personally.

Thousands of old soldiers massed on the National Mall in 2004 for what Dole, speaking at the dedication of the World War II Memorial there, called “our final reunion.” He’d been a driving force in its creation.

“Our ranks have dwindled,” he said then. “Yet if we gather in the twilight it is brightened by the knowledge that we have kept faith with our comrades.”

Dole came by his love of the military naturally. A child of the Midwest, he spent his formative years confronting the hardships of the Depression and Dust Bowl eras, escaping them only after joining the military in World War II.

His experiences in the war would change his life and, in some ways, American history.

Prior to enlisting, he had been a star athlete, lettering in basketball, football and track. And he hoped to become a surgeon some day.

But as a young lieutenant in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division he was so badly wounded on a battlefield in Italy that he was initially left for dead.

Following his rescue from the battlefield, Dole spent nearly 40 months recovering from numerous surgeries and in and out of a body cast.

Though he mostly recovered from the ordeal, his right hand was so damaged he had to give up his dream of being a surgeon and became a lawyer and — eventually — a politician instead.

After entering public life he clutched a pen in his right fist to discourage people from trying to shake his mangled hand.

But resilience became his trademark; so much so, that word of his death Sunday morning came as a surprise despite the fact he’d announced he had Stage IV lung cancer in February and was beginning treatment.

In a statement he released at the time, even cancer was something he seemed to take in stride, “While I certainly have some hurdles ahead, I also know that I join millions of Americans who face significant health challenges of their own.” 

Dole served as U.S. senator for the state of Kansas from 1969 through 1996, and served two stints as the Senate majority leader: first from 1985 to 1987 and later, from 1995 to 1996. 

House Rules Committee Chairman James P. McGovern, D-Mass., said in a statement that during those years, “Bob Dole defined public service.

“He was a true statesman in every sense of the word,” McGovern continued. “His leadership with Senator George McGovern focused the nation on the scourge of hunger and helped our country make some of our greatest strides in the fight against food insecurity. Senator Dole’s bipartisan collaboration inspired me to dedicate much of my career to working across the aisle to end hunger once and for all.

“I was honored to author the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program to carry on their legacy and feed some of world’s most vulnerable children,” the Rules Committee Chairman said. “And Senator Dole’s endorsement of a modern-day White House hunger conference led to Republican and Democratic members joining our call. His passing is a tremendous loss for America — and the many Democrats and Republicans alike who were called by his example to serve our nation.”

Upon learning of Dole’s death, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ordered the flags at the Capitol to be lowered to half-staff.

President Biden concluded his remarks about Dole on Sunday by calling him “an American statesman like few in our history.”

“A war hero and among the greatest of the Greatest Generation. And to me, he was also a friend whom I could look to for trusted guidance, or a humorous line at just the right moment to settle frayed nerves,” Biden said. “I will miss my friend. But I am grateful for the times we shared, and for the friendship Jill and I and our family have built with Liddy and the entire Dole family.

“Bob was a man to be admired by Americans. 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,” the president added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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