He was one of the oldest first-time presidential nominees at age 73, but even after retiring from politics after losing the race to President Bill Clinton, Dole didn’t shy away from the limelight. He took on a new career starring in television commercials for Viagra, Visa and other brands. He also kept his commitment to fellow war veterans, spending Saturdays well into his 90s greeting veterans who flew to Washington, D.C., courtesy of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit that arranges such flights for veterans.
Despite failing in his quest for the presidency, Dole had an impressive run in politics. He was the top-ranking Republican in the Senate for nearly 11 years (a record until Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., beat it); he was President Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976; and in January 2018, he received a Congressional Gold Medal, making him only the eighth senator to be so honored.
“I want to thank all those who’ve said such kind words about me,” Dole said when he received the award, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress. Then he joked: “They’re probably not true, but they were nice.”
Dole came from humble beginnings. He was born Robert Joseph Dole on July 22, 1923, in Russell; his father sold dairy products and his mother was a traveling saleswoman, selling sewing machines and other products.
Dole grew up wanting to become a doctor. That changed after World War II, which nearly killed him and left him permanently disabled, earning him two Purple Hearts and two awards of the Bronze Star.
Dole registered for the Army in 1942 and was a second lieutenant when he was sent to Italy in 1944. The following year, while attempting to rescue an army radioman, Dole got caught in a German machine gun attack that cost him a kidney, shattered his right shoulder and damaged his neck and spine, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the neck down.
In a letter to his parents at the time, the Army wrote, “At the present time it would appear that his recovery is somewhat questionable.” But Dole beat the odds, and after years of treatment, had regained much of his movement.
His arms never fully recovered – his left remained partially numb for the rest of his life, and he never got back the use of his right arm.
In political and other public appearances in his later years, Dole would often spend hours gripping a pen or some other object in his right hand to signal that he couldn’t shake hands on that side and to keep his fingers from splaying.
The injuries had a lasting effect. He told The New York Times five decades after the attack that he allowed 50 extra minutes in the morning to get dressed, and that he tried to avoid any clothing with buttons.
Dole first entered politics when he returned to school in Kansas after the war in the 1950s, winning a seat for the Kansas state Legislature as a Republican. He received a law degree and became county attorney for Russell County, before a successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960. He went on to become elected a senator and served in the Senate from 1969 until 1996; he was also the Republican national chairman in 1971.
As his political career was taking off, his first marriage fell apart. Dole and his wife, Phyllis Holden, with whom he had one daughter, Robin, got divorced. He married his second wife, Elizabeth Hanford, in 1975; Elizabeth Dole later was elected a senator in North Carolina, in 2002.
Bob Dole’s politics were characterized by a commitment to the disadvantaged, whether it was spearheading the passage of the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act or combating hunger and poverty.
But he butted heads with other politicians, most notably in 1976 when, as then-President Ford’s running mate, he blamed the casualties of more than 1.6 million American soldiers on “Democrat wars” during a vice presidential debate and in 1988, while running for president, told then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, his Republican presidential primary opponent and a fellow veteran, on live television to “stop lying about my record,” then called Bush a “qualified loser.”
The rivalry between the two was long-lasting, but, ultimately, forgiven. After Bush’s death in 2018, in one of the most striking moments when the former president was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, Dole was helped up from his wheelchair by an aide to shakily stand before Bush’s casket. With tears filling his eyes, Dole silently raised his left hand in salute to the flag-draped casket before sitting back down.
After retiring from politics, Dole continued to work for the international law firm Alston & Bird. He met with veterans at the National World War II Memorial, which he had led a campaign for that brought in more than $170 million before it opened in 2004. And he spoke out about men’s health issues, including his own prostate cancer diagnosis, in a Viagra commercial in 1998 (doubts over whether that was the right choice were quelled by women who came up to him in airports to “say, simply, ‘Thank you, Senator,’” he later wrote).
Dole reflected on life following his failed 1996 presidential bid in an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2012. “Sure, losing an election hurts, but I’ve experienced worse. And at an age when every day is precious, brooding over what might have been is self-defeating,” he wrote.
Answering letters from veterans and meeting them in person gave him more satisfaction than anything else, he added.
“In their company, I am reminded of just how much life there is after presidential politics,” he wrote. “The greatest of life’s blessings cannot be counted in electoral votes.”
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