A look at the life and legacy of former GOP Majority Leader, presidential nominee Bob Dole

Bob Dole's storied political career spanned five decades, taking him from the heights of power in Congress to the lows of failed presidential bids. During his career, Dole helped shape the Republican party as a senator from Kansas, and majority leader. Judy Woodruff reports on his lifetime in politics.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now we take a look back at the decades-long career of Bob Dole, who helped shape the Republican Party as a senator from Kansas, majority leader and presidential nominee.

    Judy Woodruff has this report on his lifetime in politics.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bob Dole's storied political career spanned five decades and took him from the heights of power in Congress to the lows of failed presidential bids.

    He mused on it all in a "NewsHour" interview in October 2014.

  • Fmr. Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS):

    I don't know what my legacy will be, that I lived to be 200, or at least 100, and that I have never forgotten where I was from.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Robert Joseph Dole was born in the small town of Russell, Kansas, in 1923. He grew up with a brother and two sisters in the hard times of the Great Depression. His father ran an egg and cream stand and his mother sold Singer sewing machines to help make ends meet.

    Dole went off to college, but World War II intervened. He enlisted in 1942, and was sent to Italy in 1944.

  • Narrator:

    The infantry moves toward the jump-off position.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In April 1945, weeks before the war ended, Dole was trying to rescue a radioman, when he was hit by enemy fire. It shattered his right shoulder, fractured vertebrae and, for a time, paralyzed him from the neck down.

    He spent 39 months recovering, mostly in military hospitals, where he listened to Frank Sinatra's "You'll Never Walk Alone" every day for inspiration.

    His brother Kenny, interviewed years later, reflected on just how bad Dole's injuries were.

    Kenny Dole, Brother of Bob Dole: I was just never so shocked in my life to see him as he laid there in bed from where I saw him last. It was like yesterday and today. It's just a whole new ball game. And, at that time, the doctors said he couldn't live another 48 hours.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Eventually, Dole returned home to Russell to continue recovering with the support of family. And when he was fully recuperated, he finished college and law school, and went on to serve as a county attorney and in the Kansas state legislature.

    In 1960, he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, pulling out all the stops to boost his name recognition. There was a singing group called Dolls For Dole. Dole pineapple juice was a staple at campaign stops. And his 7-year-old daughter wore a skirt that read: "I'm for daddy. Are you?"

    It all worked. And Dole won. Eight years later, in 1968, he won a seat in the United States Senate. There, he became known for a moderate to conservative voting record and an ability to bridge policy divides.

  • Fmr. Sen. George Mitchell (D-ME):

    Often, when we ran into problems of one senator against another or one group against another on some issue, Bob would figure out a way to untangle it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell worked closely with Dole after the Kansas Republican became minority leader.

  • Fmr. Sen. George Mitchell:

    We had a lot of trust with each other. I never once doubted his word. He never once 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.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But Dole was also a partisan warrior. He served as Republican national chairman starting in 1972, and defended President Nixon during much of the Watergate period.

    He impressed Nixon's successor, President Gerald Ford, who asked him to be his running mate in 1976. The announcement came in Dole's hometown.

  • Fmr. Sen. Bob Dole:

    It shows that you can come from small town in America, that you don't need the wealth and all the material things in this world to succeed, if I have succeeded, and some might quarrel with that.

    Don't be fooled by the words.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But Dole had also earned a reputation for a sharp tongue. And during a vice presidential debate with Walter Mondale, it came back to haunt him.

  • Fmr. Sen. Bob Dole:

    I figured out the other day, if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.

    Walter Mondale, Former Vice President of the United States: I think Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight by implying and stating that World War II and the Korean War were Democratic wars.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Ford-Dole ticket lost. But, in 1980, Dole ran for the Republican presidential nomination, again returning to Russell for the campaign's launch.

  • Fmr. Sen. Bob Dole:

    Whenever I set out on a new path, I have come back here to begin. No failure has ever been so hurtful that this place cannot ease the pain, and no success has ever been so great that its satisfaction exceeded the satisfaction of being a part of the people of Russell.

    Good to see you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Still, Dole struggled to gain traction, and dropped out after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary.

    Eight years later, after President Reagan's two terms, he tried again for the White House, discussing the decision with Jim Lehrer.

    Jim Lehrer, Co-Founder and Former Anchor, "PBS NewsHour": Don't you have to want it very badly to go through what you and the others go through to be a candidate?

  • Fmr. Sen. Bob Dole:

    I think you have to have the drive, but you shouldn't be driven. You shouldn't be so obsessed with becoming president or anything else, whatever you may do, that you sort of lose your perspective.

    And, I mean, a lot of people would maybe be consumed by ambition: I just have to have it. It's the next step. It's power.

    That would be for all the wrong reasons.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dole lost the 1988 nomination to Vice President George Bush, but he had one more presidential race in him, in 1996. He resigned from the Senate, where he'd become majority leader.

  • Fmr. Sen. Bob Dole:

    And I agree with the prairie poet, Carl Sandburg, who told us: "Yesterday is a wind gone down. A sun dropped in the west. I tell you that there is nothing in the world, only an ocean of tomorrows, a sky of tomorrow."

    And like everybody here, I'm an optimist. I believe our best tomorrows are yet to be lived.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This time, Dole became the oldest first-time presidential nominee, at the age of 73, only to be overwhelmed by President Clinton's reelection landslide.

    Even so, his work was far from over. He championed construction of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, and routinely met with veterans in Washington. Along the way, he helped his second wife, Elizabeth, in her own Senate career. And through it all, he said, there was always time for going back to Kansas.

  • Fmr. Sen. Bob Dole:

    So, I have had a great experience because the people of Kansas in both parties have supported me. And so I don't think my — my legacy will be the people of Kansas.

Listen to this Segment