TOPICS > Politics

Conversation with Richard Ben Cramer: Bob Dole’s War Years

August 14, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
Probably the most important defining moment in Bob Dole's life happened over fifty years ago on a battlefield in Italy. Dole biographer, Richard Ben Cramer, paints an emotional picture of the courageous actions that reveal much about the character of the GOP presidential hopeful.

DAVID GERGEN: Richard, the story of polio and the way it shaped Franklin Roosevelt’s character is very familiar to most Americans. What’s much less familiar is the way the warchanged Bob Dole and then shaped his character. Tell us about it.

RICHARD BEN CRAMER, Author, What It Takes: Well, you know, David, I think you’ve got to go back even before the war. You have to know what kind of kid Bob Dole was when he went to war. Dole was the, probably the biggest, smartest, handsomest kid that ever got out of Russell High School. He was a kid who was always working on himself. You know, he wouldn’t ever walk anywhere. He’d run. He had the first set of weights in Russell, which was an iron bar with some cement on the ends, and he would lift that thing to build his body.

DAVID GERGEN: And he had a plan for his life.

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: He had a plan. He was always looking ahead, having a plan, working on his case. He was going to by virtue of his basketball talent, he was going to get himself to KU, where no member of his family had ever thought of going. I mean, that was “the” East, that was snob hill, you know. He was going to play for Fog Allen, the legendary coach there, and then he was going to get himself into medical school.


RICHARD BEN CRAMER: He was going to become a doctor, and by that means, he would raise himself past any want or uncertainty in his life.

DAVID GERGEN: So he goes off to KU. He begins becoming the star. His plan is unfolding. Then he’s called off to war.

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: Right. And the war happens while he’s in his first year.

DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. He goes off to Italy.


DAVID GERGEN: Where he’s a platoon leader.


DAVID GERGEN: He’s an officer. And one of his first missions–he hasn’t been there long, and Franklin Roosevelt has just died. The war is coming to an end.

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: Actually, you know, Dole thought he might never get into the action.


RICHARD BEN CRAMER: You know, the allies had already landed at Normandy. They were forcing their way across France toward the Reich. And, uh, just, you know, literally a few days before, uh, Hitler actually folded, Dole was sent as a replacement platoon leader to Italy. And the Italian campaign was a horrible meat grinder.

DAVID GERGEN: Take us to that day. He was trying to take out some Germans who had a machine gun nest, and he was shot, because I really want to get to the question of what happened thereafter. That’s really what formed him.

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: Right. Well, uh, Dole’s mission as–his platoon was given the mission to take a hill, to go down into a valley over a stone fence and take a hill on the opposite side. But a lot of the Americans got hung up in the field. The field had been mined. And there was a machine gun nest ahead and on the left in a farm house, German machine gun nest that was mowing these kids down.

So Dole knew his duty. He had to take out that nest. And he and his platoon started forward basically in a kind of scramble over this stony ground, looking for any hole you could get yourself into, and one of his guys tried to throw a grenade and got killed. Another one threw one but it fell short, and meanwhile, the machine gun nest had spotted Dole’s platoon and turned its guns, and Dole’s runner, Sims, got hit.

So Dole scrambled out of his hole to go get Sims, and he got him, and hauled him back, but Sims was dead. And as Dole was trying to get back into his own hole, get down, get low, he, himself, got hit. Now, it may have been machine gun bullets or it may have been a fragment of an exploding shell, but he was basically ripped open, his whole right side. I mean, his unit left him for dead on that field.

DAVID GERGEN: Tell us, the next 39 months he spent trying to recover from that, how did that shape his character?

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: Well, you know, when you think of this kid who had always not only strived so hard, had a plan for himself, not only that but he had always measured himself by his physical talent, you know, how he could run, how he could jump, how much he could lift, and by the time he was shipped home from Europe, he was in a full body cast, couldn’t move anything, couldn’t raise himself to eat, couldn’t go to the bathroom, couldn’t do anything for himself.

And he was–he was basically sent home to die. I mean, all along they thought he would die. But they just hadn’t reckoned on his will. I mean, his will was alive. And he first got a little bit of movement in his left arm, and then little by little, but it then took work, he got the rest of his body back, except for the right arm, which was literally shot away.

DAVID GERGEN: So an enormous amount of determination. You said there was this reserve that also came down, this dark curtain of reserve that he had.


DAVID GERGEN: He was ashamed in the beginning of his wounds.

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: He had this enemy which was his own body. He had this problem which was his, himself. And at first there was terrible rage. I mean, why him? What the hell had he done so wrong?

Even after the rage had passed, there was this unwillingness to drop his own conception of himself. He was going to get back. He was going to work until his body could carry him back to KU and back to play basketball for Fog Allen.

DAVID GERGEN: And that’s what–we have to finish here, I’m afraid, but that’s why you called your book The Faith to Endure.

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: Right. Well, that was actually the words that the doctor who performed the operations on Dole that eventually set him on the path, the doctor did the operations for free because he said this young man, he said, he had the courage to endure.

DAVID GERGEN: Thank you very much.