Memorable moments from Bob Dole's life and political career
Bob Dole's political career began in 1950 with election to the Kansas Legislature. It officially ended nearly five decades later, one step short of the White House. Dole kept working into his 90s for the causes he cherished, and fellow veterans were also close to his heart. Dole's wife, Elizabeth, says Dole died early Sunday at age 98.
WASHINGTON — Bob Dole’s political careerbegan in 1950 with election to the Kansas Legislature and officially ended nearly five decades later, one step short of the White House. In retirement, Dole kept working into his 90s for the causes he cherished.
A look at some of the moments from a life in politics:
As a college student, Dole had planned to be a doctor. World War II changed his life’s direction. He nearly died from injuries sustained as a second lieutenant leading an assault on German forces. After three years of surgeries and physical therapy, Dole regained the ability to dress, eat and walk. But he never recovered use of his right hand and arm, and much of his left hand was numb. Dole returned to college, earned a law degree and was elected county attorney. “The theory was, if I can’t use my hands, I can use my head,” he later recalled.
Dole was a senator already known for his biting remarks when President Gerald Ford chose him as his running mate. Dole shocked viewers of the 1976 vice presidential debate by declaring the wars of the 20th century so far — the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam — to be “Democrat wars” that had killed or wounded 1.6 million Americans. “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight,” his Democratic opponent, Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, responded.
Dole rebounded from his ticket’s loss to Jimmy Carter and Mondale. He toned down his barbs, directing more of them toward himself. He once analyzed the 1976 presidential campaign this way: “President Ford was supposed to take the high road, and I was supposed to go for the jugular. And I did — my own.”
During his nearly 36 years in Congress, Dole became known as a tough deal-maker, trusted to craft bipartisan compromises. “You’ve got to make the hard choices,” Dole said. It was not for him to “vote no against all the hard things and vote yes for all the easy things, and you go out and make speeches about how tough you are.”
In May 1996, Senate Majority Leader Dole surprised his colleagues by announcing that he would resign his seat to devote himself to his presidential campaign. “I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the people,” he said, “and nowhere to go but the White House or home.”
As a 73-year-old presidential nominee, Dole faced questions about his age. It didn’t help when he tumbled off a campaign stage in Chico, California, landing in the dirt. Dole tried to shift the focus to questions about the personal character of his opponent, President Bill Clinton. “If something happened along the route and you had to leave your children with Bob Dole or Bill Clinton,” Dole told voters, “I think you would probably leave them with Bob Dole.” Polling on the question suggested parents felt otherwise.
Hoping to revive his presidential campaign, Dole launched a round-the-clock marathon of events over the final 96-hour stretch to Election Day 1996. When a reporter asked whether Dole had brought enough clean clothes, he quipped, “We’re going to stop at an underwear factory.”
Dole chose comedian David Letterman’s show for his first postelection appearance. He unleashed a sharp wit that had been mostly kept hidden during the campaign. Invited to dish about Clinton’s weight, Dole demurred: “I never tried to lift him. I just tried to beat him.” Asked whether he would consider accepting a post in Clinton’s administration, Dole said, “Well, if he wanted to give me his job, I’d think about it.”
“I suppose you could say my post-political career really began on that Friday night as viewers discovered that I wasn’t the glowering, Social Security-devouring sourpuss” portrayed in Democratic campaign ads, Dole later wrote.
Dole was a driving force behind construction of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. He spoke poignantly at its 2004 dedication before tens of thousands of fellow veterans in their 80s and 90s about “the physical and moral courage that makes heroes out of farm and city boys.”
In 2012, looking frail and using a wheelchair, Dole returned to the Senate floor to rally support for passage of the U.N. treaty on the rights of the disabled, which was modeled after the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act he had shepherded through the Senate. The treaty, opposed by most of the Republican senators, failed despite his personal appeal.
Two weeks later, Dole was back in the Senate as mourners passed by the casket of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, whom Dole had befriended decades earlier as the men convalesced from their war injuries. Rising from his wheelchair and walking with help, Dole saluted Inouye’s casket. He explained to a Roll Call reporter that he “wouldn’t want Danny to see me in a wheelchair.”
In 2014, at age 90, Dole embarked on a series of sentimental tours of his home state, with a campaign-style pace of three or four stops per day. Dole, living in Washington, said he wanted to thank the people back home for their support over the decades. Kansans lined up at libraries and courthouses and senior centers to shake his hand and share memories as he visited all 105 counties.
“I’m proof that it’s never too late to join Twitter,” Dole, then 92, tweeted from his new social media account in June 2016. Dole used the platform to criticize Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a conservative Republican who was in a primary challenge from a candidate who campaigned as a pragmatist, Roger Marshall. In August, Marshall won the primary and his seat in the House, before winning a Senate seat four years later, also with Dole’s endorsement.
In 2016, Dole initially backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for the GOP presidential nomination. He later warmed to Donald Trump, but not to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, telling The New York Times in January of that year that Cruz was an “extremist” whose nomination would cause “catastrophic” GOP losses, adding, “Nobody likes him.” He later formally endorsed Trump.
In September 2018, then-President Trump signed legislation to award Dole the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors bestowed in the U.S., in recognition of Dole's Army service and long political career. In many respects, Dole embodied the state motto of Kansas: “Ad astra per aspera” — to the stars through difficulties.
Another Dole moment in the public eye was a moving one: On Dec. 4, 2018, Dole made an emotional appearance before the casket of another World War II veteran, former President George H.W. Bush, in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. As an aide lifted Dole from his wheelchair, a clearly ailing Dole slowly steadied himself and saluted Bush with his left hand, chin quivering. Witnessed by many, it was a moving tribute to his onetime political rival
Six weeks after the November 2020 election, when Trump still was refusing to concede to Democrat Joe Biden and promoting unfounded claims of voter fraud, Dole told The Kansas City Star, “The election is over.” He said of Trump: “It’s a pretty bitter pill for Trump, but it’s a fact he lost.
Dole announced on Feb. 18, 2021, that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and that he would start treatment in a few days. An outpouring of sympathy, prayers and well-wishes from across the political spectrum followed on social media. Dole said: “While I certainly have some hurdles ahead, I also know that I join millions of Americans who face significant health challenges of their own.”