Robert J. Dole — war hero, senator, presidential candidate, Kansan — has died, at the age of 98.
We offer condolences to his wife, Elizabeth, his family, and the many friends and colleagues he met over a full lifetime of service to his country.
We didn’t always agree with Bob Dole’s politics. He usually didn’t agree with us. But there can be no doubt the Russell native will be remembered as a titan of 20th century American government, and as one of the most important political figures in Kansas history.
At the same time, Dole’s legacy extends beyond his many accomplishments in Washington, or his resume. He remains important in our time. His tireless effort to find common ground with political opponents is more critical today than it was when he left elected office in the 1990s.
War wounds informed public service
Dole was not born to wealth — his family ran a small cream and egg business in Russell, Kansas, where he went to high school. After graduation, he enrolled at the University of Kansas.
World War II intervened, however, as it did for millions of Americans. Dole joined the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, where he served as a second lieutenant.
In April 1945, just days before Germany surrendered, Dole’s unit engaged the enemy on an Italian hilltop. A fierce battle left Dole grievously hurt, with internal injuries, a shattered shoulder and a permanently disabled arm. He barely survived.
The wounded veteran returned to the United States, where he began a grueling four-year struggle to regain his health. Famously, friends and neighbors in Russell passed a cigar box to help pay for his care. Experimental medicine and a series of operations aided the wounded veteran.
Dole’s war injuries deeply informed his life in public service. Through his rehabilitation, and setbacks, he developed an iron will, a sometimes caustic sense of humor — and an understanding that no one truly walks alone in this world. Sometimes you need help.
“I had a more optimistic view of the human race,” he later wrote. “Having benefited from an extraordinary outpouring of affection and support, how could I feel otherwise?”
Reputation for partisan political warfare
At times, Dole’s optimism could be hard to find.
As his career developed — state representative, county attorney, the U.S. House, the Senate — Dole’s reputation for sometimes heated partisanship grew. He was called a “hatchet man,” a caricature that, like all caricatures, contained a stubborn grain of truth.
He barely won his 1974 Senate reelection campaign, leaning on a controversial anti-abortion commercial to prevail. Two years later, some Republicans blamed Dole’s “Democrat wars” debate wisecrack for Gerald Ford’s presidential defeat in 1976.
Dole’s 1980 presidential campaign collapsed quickly. But the seeds of his greatest days had been planted.
Major role in Ronald Reagan years
In 1980, Americans overwhelmingly elected Ronald Reagan as president, and put Republicans in charge of the U.S. Senate, Dole among them.
Mainstream conservatives remember the Reagan years as the pinnacle of their movement. Yet Dole’s essential role should not be overlooked: The Kansas senator, more than any other single person, was responsible for the tax cuts of 1981, the 1980s rescue of Social Security and the myriad smaller accomplishments of Reagan’s terms in office.
He was, for a time, the most influential man in Washington. “People had real problems!” journalist Richard Ben Cramer wrote, explaining Dole’s thoughts at the time. “Government had to respond.”
Dole’s support for the food stamp program was legendary, and essential. He worked to protect the disabled. As Senate majority leader, he shepherded the massive immigration reform act of 1986.
He fiercely protected agriculture.
He helped create the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “To those who would worry about cost, I would suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery,” he said at the time.
In all of this, the senator worked harder than anyone, and always — always — believed a deal could be found. Almost always, he found it.
Yet Dole’s party was changing, even then, in ways few recognized. Dole’s obsession with excessive federal red ink and solid accomplishment was giving way to the cultural anti-government conservatism of Newt Gingrich and others.
Dole’s time was running out. He reached twice more for the White House.
Presidential bids unsuccessful
It was not to be.
Dole’s temper backfired after a surprise loss in the 1988 New Hampshire primary, dimming his White House aspirations. He tried again in 1996, seizing his party’s nomination, only to lose to incumbent President Bill Clinton.
He left the Senate that year — “a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man,” he said. His lifelong public career, falling just short of the ultimate prize, drew to a close.
“We can lead or we can mislead, as the people’s representatives, but whatever we do, we will be held responsible,” he told colleagues, Republicans and Democrats.
“I’m not talking about 1996,” he said. “I’m talking about any time, or the next century.”
A forgotten legacy of compromise
Today, America mourns Bob Dole.
We mourn an elected official who understood, through his own pain, responsibility — for a neighbor, a friend, a constituent, a country. We mourn the loss of that understanding in our politics.
We mourn the disappearance of compromise. It’s said Dole could not have won an election in Kansas in the 21st century. It’s probably true. That’s our fault, not his.
But his example remains with us, if we listen closely for the voice of Kansas’ favorite son, his words a reminder of what our nation used to be, and might be again.
“The American people are looking at us,” he said in his final Senate speech. “And they want us to tell the truth.”