He was one of the oldest first-time presidential nominees at age 73, but even after retiring from politics after losing the race to President Bill Clinton, Dole didn’t shy away from the limelight. He took on a new career starring in television commercials for Viagra, Visa and other brands. He also kept his commitment to fellow war veterans, spending Saturdays well into his 90s greeting veterans who flew to Washington, courtesy of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit that arranges such flights for veterans.
Clinton tweeted following Dole’s death on Sunday, offering a tribute to his former presidential opponent who had “dedicated his entire life to serving the American people.”
“After all he gave in the war, he didn’t have to give more. But he did,” Clinton said. “His example should inspire people today and for generations to come.”
Despite failing in his quest for the presidency, Dole had an impressive run in politics. He was the top-ranking Republican in the Senate for nearly 11 years (a record until Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., beat it); he was President Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976; and in January 2018, he received a Congressional Gold Medal, making him only the eighth senator to be so honored.
“I want to thank all those who’ve said such kind words about me,” Dole said when he received the award, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress. Then he joked: “They’re probably not true, but they were nice.”
Dole came from humble beginnings. He was born Robert Joseph Dole on July 22, 1923, in Russell; his father sold dairy products and his mother was a traveling saleswoman, selling sewing machines and other products.
Dole grew up wanting to become a doctor. That changed after World War II, which nearly killed him and left him permanently disabled, earning him two Purple Hearts and two awards of the Bronze Star.
Dole registered for the Army in 1942 and was a second lieutenant when he was sent to Italy in 1944. The following year, while attempting to rescue an army radioman, Dole got caught in a German machine gun attack that cost him a kidney, shattered his right shoulder and damaged his neck and spine, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the neck down.
In a letter to his parents at the time, the Army wrote, “At the present time it would appear that his recovery is somewhat questionable.” But Dole beat the odds, and after years of treatment, had regained much of his movement.
His arms never fully recovered — his left remained partially numb for the rest of his life, and he never got back the use of his right arm.
In political and other public appearances in his later years, Dole would often spend hours gripping a pen or some other object in his right hand to signal that he couldn’t shake hands on that side and to keep his fingers from splaying.
The injuries had a lasting effect. He told The New York Times five decades after the attack that he allowed 50 extra minutes in the morning to get dressed, and that he tried to avoid any clothing with buttons.
Dole first entered politics when he returned to school in Kansas after the war in the 1950s, winning a seat for the Kansas state Legislature as a Republican. He received a law degree and became county attorney for Russell County, before a successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960. He went on to become elected a senator and served in the Senate from 1969 until 1996; he was also the Republican national chairman in 1971.
As his political career was taking off, his first marriage fell apart. Dole and his wife, Phyllis Holden, with whom he had one daughter, Robin, were divorced. He married his second wife, Elizabeth Hanford, in 1975; Elizabeth Dole later was elected a senator in North Carolina, in 2002.
Bob Dole’s politics were characterized by a commitment to the disadvantaged, whether it was spearheading the passage of the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act or combating hunger and poverty.