Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole died in his sleep early Sunday morning, according to a statement from his family. He was 98.
The Kansan was the Senate GOP floor leader for 11 years and five months. Dole held the title from January 1985 until June 1996, when he resigned from Congress to focus on being that year’s GOP challenger to President Bill Clinton.
Dole was majority leader for the first two years, as well as the last year and a half that he occupied one of the chamber’s front row desks by the center aisle, with eight years as minority leader in between.
But regardless of whether his side was in control, Dole played a central role in writing virtually every significant piece of legislation enacted during that time. Even when he wasn’t the party leader, he was a key player on dozens of other occasions, forging one bipartisan compromise after another during the long stretches of divided government that started in the late 1960s.
Long before his time in Senate leadership, and his ill-fated runs for the White House, Dole earned a legitimate claim to being called a hero.
Robert Joseph Dole was born on July 22, 1923, in Russell, a Kansas town of about 5,000 that’s 250 miles due west across the prairie from Kansas City. His mother sold sewing machines door-to-door and his father had a retail dairy. He was a pre-med student at the University of Kansas, where he played football and basketball, before being summoned to active Army duty in 1943. Two weeks before the war ended in 1945, he was severely wounded by machine gun fire while trying to rescue a fallen comrade during an assault on a German outpost in northern Italy’s Po Valley.
During his three years of surgeries and rehabilitation at a hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., Dole befriended two other disabled veterans who would become senatorial colleagues: Michigan Democrat Philip A. Hart, for whom the newest Senate office building is named, and Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Inouye.
After Inouye died in 2012, an ailing Dole rose from his wheelchair to salute his late colleague. Dole was assisted to the casket saying, “I wouldn’t want Danny to see me in a wheelchair.”
The GI Bill permitted Dole to resume college, spending a year at the University of Arizona before moving close to home and enrolling at Washburn University in Topeka. Though both his parents were registered Democrats, Dole decided to stake his political fortunes in Kansas as a Republican, which was deep red even then, and ousted an incumbent Democrat from the state Legislature in 1950. Two years later, just months after receiving both an undergraduate and law degree, he was elected prosecutor for his home county.
He held that job for eight years before winning an open U.S. House seat after edging state Sen. Keith Sebelius (father-in-law of former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius) by 982 votes in the GOP primary.
After four terms, Dole trounced the incumbent governor in the 1968 primary and then cruised into an open Senate seat at the same time Richard M. Nixon was elected president. He became Nixon’s staunchest senatorial backer, defending in often abrasive terms the president’s Vietnam policy, his two unsuccessful Supreme Court nominees, his approach to the Cold War and almost every other move Nixon made. The performance did not sit well with some Senate colleagues — and in fact it was a fellow Republican, Ohio’s William B. Saxbe, who dubbed Dole a “hatchet man,” a moniker that stuck.
Nixon rewarded Dole’s loyalty in 1971 by naming him national party chairman, a job he held until persistent disagreements with the White House marginalized him and then pushed him out in January 1973. That proved fortunate for Dole, because it allowed him to avoid any attachment to the subsequent Watergate scandal. (The Democratic headquarters burglary that started it all, he’d quip, “happened on my night off.”)
A political life to the end
Dole had a peripatetic career after Congress. He was the first television pitchman for Viagra, in 1999, but since then has touted such G-rated consumer goods as Pepsi and Dunkin’ Donuts. He wrote several books, one on presidential wit and another on his lifetime of physical struggle. He served on several blue-ribbon panels, was a principal fundraiser for the World War II Memorial on the Mall and formed the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank with several other former Senate leaders. He also worked since he turned 80 as an elder statesman rainmaker for the lobby law firm Alston & Bird.
(“Call me for lunch sometime,” Dole urged the crowd of political and lobbying luminaries packed into Statuary Hall for a party featuring chocolate milkshakes, his favorite, on his 90th birthday in 2013. Then, after a beat: “Cost you about $300 an hour.”)
But, almost to the end of his life, Dole remained a player in the politics and policymaking of Congress, the arena where he thrived best. Using a wheelchair guided by his wife Elizabeth, herself a former Republican senator from North Carolina, Dole went to the Senate floor in December 2012 to buttonhole former colleagues in an unsuccessful effort to win ratification of an international treaty protecting rights of the disabled.
In 2014, he stumped across his home state and recorded a television ad for GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, who was in a surprisingly tight race for re-election.
“Hello, everyone. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m Bob Dole,” the spot began.
The Dole deal-making kit
Dole saw himself as a personification of the American ideal, proof positive that hard work and determination could lift someone from humble roots and carry him through adversity to sustained success. Believing in that ethic helped him through a career as accomplished as it was physically taxing and oftentimes painful — the consequences of World War II combat injuries that left him with a paralyzed and nearly useless right arm and an impaired left one.
His disability also helped explain Dole’s unusual blend of go-it-alone determination with negotiating savvy. “I do try harder,” he once said. “If I didn’t, I’d be sitting in a rest home in a rocker, drawing disability.”
Based on today’s confrontational, hyper-partisan baseline for the conduct of business at the Capitol, Dole will be remembered as a paragon of patience and conciliation. But in the 1980s and 1990s, he was viewed as much more of a win-at-all-costs partisan than his predecessor as GOP leader, the amiable Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. While Baker’s approach was to permit fellow senators to argue at length — in the hope that eventually exhausted, they’d agree on something — Dole saw the job differently. “I don’t wait for the consensus,” he said explaining his pragmatic approach to the forceful exercise of power. “I try to help build it.”
Dole embodied the mainstream Midwestern Republicanism of his era: While open to civil rights protections, he was much less concerned with hot-button social issues than with curbing the deficit and holding the line on expansions of federal power that would make either Main Street or Wall Street nervous. But his ideology was mainly about the pursuit of accomplishment: Dole’s doctrine was synthesized in Otto von Bismarck’s famous declaration, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”
Many of his deals were brokered on “Dole’s beach” — the nickname for the fluted-columned balcony adjacent to the GOP leader’s office and steps from the Senate floor, where Dole liked to woo his colleagues, or work the phones, while taking in the afternoon sun and the grand view down the National Mall.
As effective as he was at the Capitol in navigating the nuances of policy and greasing the legislative machinery, Dole was never fully able to translate that skill set into an effective message for the national stage. He was a lackluster campaigner who seemed out of his element on the stump, a flat and uninspiring orator (when he was not in hatchet-man mode) who had trouble expounding an overarching vision for the country.
Lengthy legislative legacy
As ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee in the late 1970s, Dole helped engineer significant expansions in food stamp and school lunch programs and the creation of the nutrition program for low-income pregnant women, mothers and young children.
As chairman of the Finance Committee in the first half of the 1980s, he orchestrated the package that restored solvency to Social Security, drove the historic tax cut at the outset of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and then — when the promised economic expansion didn’t pan out — agreed to a significant increase in taxes the next year.
(It was then that Rep. Newt Gingrich, still a gadfly GOP backbencher, derided Dole as “the tax collector for the welfare state,” a remark that assured their relationship would be complicated when they were the Hill’s top Republicans a decade later. But Dole was unbowed in his role as a budget hawk. “The good news is that a bus full of supply-siders went off the cliff,” he would joke. “The bad news is that two seats were empty.”)
Dole won a five-way race for leader when Baker retired. On the fourth and final ballot, he bested Majority Whip Ted Stevens of Alaska, 28-25. His first tour as majority leader featured a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and a revamping of the immigration system, both enacted in 1986 with lopsided Senate majorities from both parties.
As minority leader during the first George Bush’s presidency, Dole was instrumental in writing the landmark law protecting the civil rights of the disabled, the first comprehensive updates since the 1970s of clean air and public housing law, an extension of the Voting Rights Act and a breakthrough deficit reduction package combining both spending cuts and new revenue.
Almost all his victories were achieved in collaboration with Democrats, including some of the most famous liberals of the modern era. George McGovern of South Dakota was his partner on the hunger efforts of the 1970s, while Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Tom Harkin of Iowa were his co-pilots in shepherding the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some Republicans grumbled that Dole was rougher on his own team than on lawmakers across the aisle. One of his most famous moves was dragooning Sen. Pete Wilson of California, in hospital pajamas and a wheelchair one day after an emergency appendectomy, to the Capitol in 1985 for an every-vote-counts roll call on a GOP budget bill. Less well known was Dole’s backup plan: He’d arranged for a second ailing Republican, John P. East of North Carolina, to take an ambulance ride to the Hill from what was then Bethesda Naval Hospital within hours of urgent gallbladder surgery.
With Democrats narrowly in charge of the Senate, as well as the House at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Dole was on defense more than at any other time — although, since he was already laying plans for 1996, he was politically loath to appear obstructionist and actually worked to keep alive the GOP’s stated interest in bargaining on Clinton’s ideas.
After Republicans took full control of the Capitol for the first time in four decades in 1994, Dole spent much of 1995 playing second-fiddle to Gingrich, who ardently cultivated the perception that he uniquely personified a new “Republican revolution.” Dole’s uncharacteristic patience abruptly ended in December, after the GOP shut down much of the government for a second time that fall. With financial markets nervous and the public clearly on Clinton’s side in the budget standoff, Dole broke with Gingrich by taking the Senate floor and acidly declaring, “It’s time for adult leadership.”
Stymied national ambitions
And all that happened by May 15, when Dole shocked the political world by announcing he would quit the Senate a month later. “I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the people, and nowhere to go but the White House or home,” he declared.
Although Dole spent the bulk of his adult life mastering the legislative branch, taking charge of the executive branch was the focus of his ambition for fully two decades.
He was the last World War II veteran to mount a serious run for president. And he’s the only person since the two-party system took hold after the Civil War to be nominated for both president and vice president without being elected to either office.
Early in his second term, in 1976, Dole was chosen for his caustic verbal punch to be President Gerald R. Ford’s running mate. The campaign may have marked the rhetorical low-water mark of Dole’s career — his assertion, during his vice-presidential debate against Sen. Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota, that all four major military conflicts of the 20th century were “Democrat wars.”
Dole never accepted that the ensuing controversy helped cost Ford the election, but he rarely went so overboard again. Some attribute that to the influence of his second wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a member of the Federal Trade Commission when they married in 1975.
She went on to run two Cabinet departments (Transportation and Labor) and briefly made her own bid for president, before winning an open Senate seat in her native North Carolina in 2002. She was ousted six years later by Democrat Kay Hagan. (Both the husband and wife in nine marriages have served in the Senate, but only the Doles have represented different states.)
Dole first sought the top spot on the ticket in 1980 but washed out early. In 1988 he looked like the main alternative to the elder Bush, Reagan’s vice president. Farm state appeal helped Dole win Iowa’s caucuses, but then he went to New Hampshire and set such high expectations of victory in the primary that he looked foolhardy when he lost. He also looked like a sore loser, snapping on network TV at Bush on election night to “stop lying about my record.”
The two patched things up sufficiently that the 41st president was able to recruit Dole as his most effective champion on the Hill — and the senator proved to be as loyal and untiring as the president could have asked for, sticking with Bush even as the GOP rank and file began fracturing in ways that foreshadowed today’s establishment versus confrontational conservative divide.
“Party discipline is not a problem on this side of the aisle,” Dole carped from his floor leader’s desk one day in 1990. “We never had it.”
But when Clinton defeated Bush in 1992, Dole wasted no time asserting himself as commander in chief of the opposition. “The good news is, he’s getting a honeymoon in Washington,” the senator said of the president-elect, once again drawing on his favorite construct for a political jab. “The bad news is that Bob Dole is going to be his chaperone.”
Four years out, Dole also made clear he viewed himself as the party’s heir presumptive for 1996, and the most consequential Republican who ended up challenging him was conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.
Dole’s fondness for practicality over ideology was reflected in his choice of a running mate: Jack F. Kemp, who during two decades as a House member from western New York became one of the most vocal advocates of the supply-side economics Dole so often ridiculed.
Several of those sorts of campaign stumbles led to Dole largely being dismissed as too old and inarticulate for the television age, but in the end the race was closer than expected. He won 19 states with 159 electoral votes and lost the popular vote by 8 points.
Dole made political history in at least one other way: His career as a campaigner bridged two very different periods in American culture. His first bid for Congress, in 1960, featured such old-fashioned gimmicks as a female singing group dubbed “Dolls for Dole.”
In 1996, he became the first presidential nominee to urge a national TV audience (albeit a bit awkwardly) to learn more about him online. “If you really want to get involved, just tap into my home page: www.Dole Kemp96.org,” was his closing line in his first debate against Clinton.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. David Hawkings covered Congress for CQ Roll Call from 1995 to 2018, most recently as a senior editor and columnist.