Bob Dole first emerged as a national figure in the early 1970s, defending President Richard Nixon’s Vietnam policies and excoriating such Democratic opponents as Sens. Edward Kennedy and George McGovern.
The Senate had no more partisan member, and it made his national political career, first as Nixon’s Republican national chairman and, in 1976, as the GOP vice presidential nominee.
Later in the long life that ended Sunday, Dole’s other side emerged: the legacy of the poor boy from rural Kansas who was severely wounded in World War II. He became a leading advocate of expanded government food programs, working closely with like-minded Democrats like McGovern and Kennedy.
Reporters loved his quick wit, often flavored with sarcasm, and he was enlisted four times as the GOP speaker for Washington’s annual Gridiron dinner, which trades in humorous depictions of the powerful.
They also respected how he overcame his wartime injuries and, in his later years, became something of a symbol for a less partisan Washington, despite the way he first made his name.
Dole also became recognized as one of the Senate’s smartest members, someone who understood both the substance and the politics of the increasingly complex issues with which lawmakers grappled.
In 1986, as the Senate’s majority leader, he shepherded to passage a massive legislative package that simplified the federal tax code. A decade later, on his third try, he finally won his party’s presidential nomination, unfortunately in a year when an expanding economy and President Bill Clinton’s popularity limited the GOP’s electoral prospects.
He lived to see his GOP taken over by the more unyielding foes of government with whom he jousted during his years of congressional leadership. Unlike many colleagues, however, he remained a loyal Republican and twice supported Donald Trump — though not the former president’s challenge to the 2020 results.
Perhaps because political success proved so difficult to attain, Dole never quite put to rest that harsher side, which arose to bedevil and damage him at crucial moments.
In the 1976 vice presidential debate, he gave a partisan interpretation to the nation’s century-long efforts to secure the blessings of freedom with an unfortunate reference to “Democrat wars.”
“I figured it up the other day,” he said. “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.”
Replied Democratic rival Walter Mondale: “I think that Sen. Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight.”
During his unsuccessful bid to wrest the 1988 Republican nomination from the elder George Bush, Dole was so upset by criticism of his personal and campaign financial dealings that he confronted the then vice president in the Senate chamber. Repeatedly shoving a copy of a Bush campaign news release at him, he demanded to know “man-to-man” if the vice president authorized the attack. Bush conceded he had but had not read it, Dole later said.
Soon after, on the night Bush defeated him in the pivotal New Hampshire primary, Dole’s underlying bitterness erupted when NBC’s Tom Brokaw asked if he had anything to say to his rival, who was in the studio.
“Yes, stop lying about my record,” Dole snapped, a reference to a Bush television ad accusing him of “straddling” on tax cuts.
In 1996, even while losing, he showed a softer side. He turned an incident in which he accidentally slipped off a platform — some said that underscored his age, 73 — into an argument for regulatory reform.
“You know, I fell off a platform out in California, Chico, a while back,” he said during a later debate. “Before I hit the ground, my cellphone rang and this trial lawyer said, ‘I think we’ve got a case here.’ “
Throughout his life, Dole championed help for his fellow veterans and the World War II Memorial that opened in Washington in 2004.
In his post-Senate years, he teamed with McGovern — who grew up poor in rural South Dakota as did Dole in Kansas — to expand domestic and global feeding programs. And in 2007, he co-sponsored one of the events marking his one-time rival’s 85th birthday.
When the two were honored as co-winners of the World Food Prize in 2008, he noted, “I began my acceptance remarks by saying that ‘The good news is that we finally won something. It proves that you should never give up.’ ”
Dole lived long enough that, in an ironic turn, he came to epitomize a kinder day in an increasingly partisan Washington.
A decade before his death, he was wheeled into the Senate to help persuade recalcitrant GOP senators to back a United Nations treaty urging other countries to emulate the United States’ enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But in the partisan 2012 Senate, only eight of 46 Republicans voted for the pact, and it failed — “one of the saddest days I’ve seen in nearly 28 years in the Senate,” said its chief sponsor, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Dole also buried past political enmity with his most bitter onetime GOP rival, joining the elder Bush at his presidential library in 2016 in College Station, Texas, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Exchanging cocktails and camaraderie, the two aging war heroes, now wheelchair-bound, reminisced about shared experiences.
“I have great respect for this man,” said Dole, tears in his eyes. “This is a case where two political enemies became fast, fast friends, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”