Robert Joseph Dole, the five-term senator from Kansas whose career took him from the heights of political power in Congress to the lows of three failed presidential bids, died Sunday at the age of 98.
“Senator Robert Joseph Dole died early this morning in his sleep. At his death, at age 98, he had served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years,” the Elizabeth Dole Foundation said in a statement.
For more than three decades, Dole was a fixture in the United States Senate. As minority leader, he helped orchestrate the sweeping, Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. But Dole is perhaps best remembered for what he was unable to accomplish: winning a seat in the Oval Office.
Through it all, Dole was a champion of disability rights and a tireless advocate for veterans. His unwavering love of his home state of Kansas guided him through more than 40 years in political office.
“My legacy will be that the people of Kansas trusted me … and I did the best I could,” he told the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff in a 2014 interview. “I’m sure I made mistakes, but I think I served Kansas well.”
Dole was born in the small town of Russell, Kansas, on July 22, 1923 during the throes of the Great Depression. His father ran a small creamery, and his mother sold sewing machines, earning a modest income to help support the family.
After the outbreak of World War II, Dole joined the U.S. Army. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and served in the 10th Mountain Division. In April 1945, at just 21, Dole was deployed in the mountains of northern Italy when his platoon came under German machine gun and artillery fire. While attempting to pull a radioman who had been shot, Dole was struck by shrapnel, shattering his right shoulder and fracturing his spine. He would later say, he thought at that moment that both of his arms had been blown clean off.
Dole was sent home and spent the next three years recovering, mostly in military hospitals. At one point, he weighed just over 120 pounds. After nine operations, Dole returned to Russell, where he would eventually regain his strength. But the tolls of war would stay with him for the remainder of his life. Dole was left without the use of his right arm and had just limited feeling in his left. At times during his recovery, Dole would tie a six-pound lead pipe to his arm to help it straighten.
After the war, Dole returned to college and earned a law degree. It was after law school that he first entered professional politics, starting as a member of the Kansas state legislature and then as an attorney for Russell County.
In 1960, Dole ran a successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, and eight years later he won a seat in the U.S. Senate, beginning a career that would span six presidencies. In the Senate, Dole quickly developed a reputation as someone willing to bridge partisan divide.
Longtime friend and former Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell told the NewsHour he could always count on Dole, despite their political differences.
“He had a very strong, innate sense of fairness. I never once doubted his word, and he never doubted mine and we became close friends even as we competed vigorously. It doesn’t have to be personal. You can compete on the issues. Sometimes he prevailed, sometimes I prevailed. That’s democracy, and he was a great practitioner of democracy.”
Dole was well-respected by members of his own party as well. In 1971, President Richard Nixon named Dole Republican National Committee chairman, and during the Watergate hearings, Dole made a name for himself defending the embattled president.
That earned him the attention of Mr. Nixon’s successor President Gerald Ford, who asked Dole to be his running mate in 1976. Throughout the campaign, Dole earned praise and criticism for his sharp tongue.
In a memorable exchange during the vice presidential debate with Senator Walter Mondale, Dole referred to World War II and the Korean War as “Democrat wars,” suggesting casualties from those wars were that party’s responsibility. The remark earned him swift rebuke, including from Mondale himself, who called Dole a “hatchet man.”
Years later, Dole told the NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer he regretted making those remarks. Mr. Ford would eventually lose the general election to President Jimmy Carter.
In 1980, Dole sought the presidency again but dropped out after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary. Then in 1988, he lost the Republican nomination to then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. It was during that election that Dole’s temperament once again caught national attention.
In an interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw, Dole pointedly told Mr. Bush to “stop lying about my record,” when asked if he had anything to say to his opponent. The remark came after the Bush campaign ran an advertisement critical of Dole in advance of the New Hampshire primary.
It wasn’t until 1996, at the age of 73, that Dole finally secured the Republican nomination for president, making him the oldest, first-time presidential nominee. The run was short-lived, however. Dole was criticized for lacking a concrete agenda and moving too far to his right in an attempt to appease his Republican base. He was soundly defeated by incumbent President Bill Clinton in the general election.
At his concession speech, Dole reflected on the end of his political career, leaving his supporters with these words: “Any of you who wonder what my plans may be in the future, I’m going to sit back for a few days, then I’m going to start standing up for what I think is right for America and right for you.”
Dole kept his true to his word. After leaving office, Dole continued his work as an advocate for disability rights. In 2012, just weeks after being released from the hospital, Dole made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, calling on Congress to approve a United Nations treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities. The measure was voted down.
After leaving office, Dole also spent much of his time with veterans groups. He was a major proponent behind the construction of the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., and made regular appearances there after its completion to meet with veterans.
In February of 2021, Dole announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and would begin treatment.
“While I certainly have some hurdles ahead, I also know that I join millions of Americans who face significant health challenges of their own,” he said.
“I don’t know what my legacy will be,” he told the NewsHour in 2014. “That I lived to be 200, or at least 100, and that I’ve never forgotten where I’m from.”