Kansas icon Bob Dole’s death Sunday at 98 has deeply affected the multiple generations of Kansas politicians who learned their craft from the former senator and presidential candidate.
Former Sen. Pat Roberts, who knew Dole for decades and spoke to him just days before his death, mourned his political mentor as a friend and one of the most influential figures of American politics.
“This is a rough day. It’s a day of gratitude and credit. It transcends politics,” Roberts said in a phone call after Dole’s passing was announced. “I just talked to him a couple days ago and his voice sounded pretty strong.”
Roberts worked for Dole’s predecessor, Kansas Sen. Frank Carlson, when Carlson announced his retirement and threw his support behind Dole to replace him in the U.S. Senate in 1968.
Dole established himself as the leader of the Kansas delegation and eventually of the entire Republican Party.
“When Bob asked you to do something, that was it. I can tell you so many things we were able to solve by invoking Bob’s name,” said Roberts, a Republican who retired in January after 40 years in Congress.
“He’s legendary. We have lost one of the great figures, not only in Kansas history, but in national history.”
Roberts’ memories of Dole darted between pranks the pair played on each other while in office to a Halloween parade in Independence, Kansas, that Dole rode in a decade ago to the delight of the cheering crowd.
“In the first part of his career he was a partisan warrior, but he later became the epitome of how people could work across the aisle,” Roberts said, noting Dole’s late career partnership with South Dakota Democratic Sen. George McGovern on programs aimed at combating childhood hunger.
“I just feel like there’s been a seismic change,” Roberts said.
President Joe Biden offered a heartfelt tribute Sunday to Dole, with whom he served in Senate.
Biden had visited Dole at his residence in Washington in February after the former Senate majority leader’s stage IV cancer diagnosis was announced. Biden, whose son Beau Biden also died of cancer, reflected on the visit and their long friendship in a statement.
“Bob was 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 in the statement. “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.”
Dole, who emphasized personal relationships, inspired strong loyalty in his staff.
Bill Lacy, director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, worked Dole’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1996. He recalled how a year after the campaign ended Dole paid a visit to his family’s candy factory in Edwardsville and after touring the plant asked to speak privately with him in his office.
“We sat down across the desk from each other. And he said, I just wanted to come out here to make sure that our relationship was OK. And that just blew me away,” Lacy said. “Over a year after I’d left the campaign, after he had just lost, personally a devastating, a really difficult presidential election to President Clinton, here he was coming out to Kansas to make sure I was fine. And that just to me spoke volumes of the man.”
Politicians of both parties offered tributes to Dole, a World War II hero who defined Kansas politics in the second half of the 20th Century.
“Senator Bob Dole will be remembered as a true American hero and an exemplary statesman — a man who chose what was right over what was convenient,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. “Whether it was on the battlefield, in the halls of Congress, or in his everyday life, Senator Dole’s passion and dedication to his fellow Kansan and to his country was a steady reminder that a single person can make a difference and change the world.”
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, whose 2020 campaign for the Senate was boosted by Dole’s endorsement, said he appreciated Dole’s guidance throughout his career.
“Senator Dole always imparted the best advice to me, which was to ‘always remember where you are from’ and when there is ‘any problem too big, just go listen to the people of Kansas – they will give you the answer.’ He was forever a Kansan who always put service above self and was profoundly dedicated to bettering the lives of all those in our great state,” Marshall said.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, said Dole was “always a voice for Kansas” and complimented his work on Social Security and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Senator Dole’s legacy goes far beyond the walls of Congress. He was a larger-than-life presence in our nation’s politics and demonstrated a decency, a humility, and a civility that should serve as a model for those of us in public life,” Kelly said in a statement.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kelly’s likely GOP opponent in the 2022 race for governor, praised Dole’s “selfless service to his beloved country and his fellow Americans.”
Rep. Sharice Davids, the sole Democrat of the Kansas congressional delegation, called Dole a “true statesman and honorable man.”
Former President Barack Obama joined his fellow Democrats in offering praise for the Republican icon.
“His sharp wit was matched only by his integrity, and he lived his life in a way that made it clear just how proud he was to be an American, and how committed he was to making this country everything he knew it could be,” Obama said in a statement.
Former President Donald Trump likewise paid tribute to Dole, who was the only former GOP nominee to attend the 2016 Republican National Convention when Trump became the party’s nominee.
“Bob Dole was an American war hero and true patriot for our Nation. He served the Great State of Kansas with honor and the Republican Party was made stronger by his service. Our Nation mourns his passing, and our prayers are with Elizabeth and his wonderful family,” Trump said in a statement.
Former Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican who once interned for Dole, said the senator inspired him “to do more and be better.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Dole’s embrace of American exceptionalism.
“He devoted his life to serving Kansas & America — in and out of uniform,” Pompeo said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of Dole’s successors as Senate GOP leader, also offered a tribute to Dole, who took over leadership of Senate Republicans during McConnell’s first term in the 1980s.
“Whatever their politics, anyone who saw Bob Dole in action had to admire his character and his profound patriotism. Those of us who were lucky to know Bob well ourselves admired him even more,” the Kentucky Republican said. “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.”
The Star’s Katie Bernard, Anna Spoerre and Daniel Desrochers and McClatchy’s Francesca Chambers contributed reporting