Bob Dole tried and failed to reach the White House several times, but he leaves a powerful legacy as a war hero and senator who served the United States with honor, sacrifice, and humor.
Dole was born in Russell, Kansas, in 1923. He was a star basketball player in his youth and served in the Army in World War II. He was grievously wounded in combat in Italy in 1945, hit by a German shell in the upper back and right arm and not expected to recover. But he did, through grit and determination, though he permanently lost the use of his right arm. He would forevermore shake hands with his left, something he learned to do so as not to make the people he met uncomfortable.
Dole graduated college and earned a law degree, and then got involved in local politics in Kansas. He won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1960 and in the Senate in 1968, where he would serve until 1996.
He first came to national prominence as a staunch defender of Richard Nixon following Nixon’s election to the presidency in 1968. Dole had known Nixon since the 1950s and was eager to support a Republican after eight years in the House, during which he had largely opposed the legislative efforts of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Nixon communications director Herb Klein appreciated how cooperative Dole was; Klein’s office would send Dole talking points, and about “75 percent of the time he was receptive.” Dole’s support of Nixon helped make him chairman of the Republican National Committee, a position he held from 1971 to 1973.
It was during this period that Dole gained his reputation as a “hatchet man,” for his relentless critiques of Nixon’s opponents. Dole “took a bite out of me every morning for breakfast,” said George McGovern, Nixon’s 1972 presidential opponent.
Dole’s RNC experience illuminates two crucial relationships in his career—with Nixon, and with George H. W. Bush, who would become his great rival. After the president’s reelection in 1972, the Nixon team decided to replace the outspoken Dole with the more genteel Bush. They asked Dole to travel to New York to deliver the news to Bush in person, but Dole discovered that Nixon had already told Bush about his appointment. Dole angrily complained of having been “bushwhacked.”
Bush would be his rival in Republican politics for the next two decades. Both men wanted to be Gerald Ford’s vice-presidential nominee in 1976. Dole won out, with the help of a positive comment from Ronald Reagan, who didn’t know him well but amiably hyped him to Ford at aide Lyn Nofziger’s request. It was a pyrrhic victory, though, as Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter, and Dole damaged himself in his debate against Walter Mondale by complaining about the 1.6 million Americans who had died in “Democrat wars.” Mondale was quick to pounce, saying, “Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight. . . . Does he really mean to suggest that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the war to fight Nazi Germany?”
In 1980, Dole and Bush ran for president but were underdogs to Reagan. Bush won a surprise upset in the Iowa caucuses before Reagan overwhelmed him in the New Hampshire primary. Bush’s defeat was a foregone conclusion after a debate in which Reagan outmaneuvered and outperformed him with his now-legendary comment, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” Dole played a small role in this episode; he was one of the candidates Bush wanted off the stage so he could have a one-on-one against Reagan. After the crowd cheered Reagan, who clearly emerged as the winner, Dole whispered words of consolation rival: “There’ll be another day, George.”
Dole was right—there was another day for Bush. He ended up as Reagan’s vice president and vied to replace Reagan in 1988. Once again, Dole ran against him, and this time, each man had a genuine shot at the title. Dole, by now the Republican leader in the Senate, beat Bush in Iowa, making New Hampshire a make-or-break state for the vice president. Bush won, arguing that Dole was soft on taxes. Dole was angered by the loss and the accusation; when Tom Brokaw asked Dole, with Bush present, whether he had anything to say to his rival, Dole replied: “Yeah, stop lying about my record.” Bush maintained a disciplined smile on the air, but later, writing in his diary, branded Dole “a no-good son-of-a-bitch.”
Bush won the presidency in 1988 but lost his reelection bid to the moderate-sounding Bill Clinton in 1992. As president, though, Clinton initially veered sharply to the left. As a result, in 1994, Dole became Senate majority leader again (he had held the post before), in the Republican Revolution that swept the GOP into control of both Houses. He held this post for only a few years, though, during which he had a testy relationship with House speaker and fellow Republican Newt Gingrich, who had once derided Dole as “the tax collector of the welfare state.” Gingrich’s comment demonstrated how Dole, once seen as a right-winger, had become a moderate in the modern, more conservative Republican Party.
In 1996, Dole finally won the GOP nomination, and he faced off against Clinton, who was seeking a second term. In resigning his Senate seat to make the presidential run, Dole gave the speech of his life—written by novelist Mark Helprin—on the Senate floor, saying, “I will then stand before you without office or authority, a private citizen, a Kansan, an American. Just a man.”
The speech shocked the political establishment and got great reviews but did not change basic political dynamics. Dole seemed old and overmatched in the race, even though, at 72, he was young compared with today’s politicians like Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, or Mitch McConnell. Dole’s odd habit of referring to himself in the third person emerged in his debate against Clinton, and it did not wear well: “Of the people listening tonight, the working families who will benefit from economic packages, they’ll be better off when Bob Dole is president and Jack Kemp is vice president.” And once again, Dole was unhappy with how his opponent portrayed him, complaining that Clinton “chose to engage in a campaign to scare American seniors. We call it Medicscare! Mediscare! Mediscare! All the ads you see in Florida, all the ads you see in Florida, are negative Mediscare ads!” It didn’t help. Clinton won easily.
With his political career over, another side of Dole emerged. For too long, his image was that of the thin-skinned hatchet man, who spoke Senate-ese, a language only resembling English. The most famous instance of this was in 1988, when he incomprehensibly told a college student worried about acid rain, “That bill’s in markup.” Now people began to see what his Senate colleagues had long understood—that he was a funny guy and delightful company. David Letterman asked him about Clinton’s weight. Dole’s reply: “I never tried to lift him. I just tried to beat him.”
He also became an ad pitchman, doing commercials for Visa, Pepsi, and Viagra. And he did TV commentary with Bill Clinton on CBS, holding his own when many feared he would be overmatched by the glib Clinton. But he remained the essential Dole, beloved by former Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle. When President Biden, who served with Dole in the Senate for over two decades, heard about his cancer diagnosis, he came to visit Dole at his Watergate apartment, prompting Dole to call him “A great, kind, upstanding, decent person.” But he remained a Republican to his core, criticizing Biden for moving too far left and for shutting the Keystone Pipeline. And he remained Dole to the core. Describing his meeting with the president, he said—now using the first person—“I asked him, I said, ‘Why did you close that pipeline in (South) Dakota?’”
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