Wed. May 25th, 2022

If anyone embodied Washington’s politics in the latter half of the 20th century – the good, the bad and the ugly – it must have been Robert Dole, the former Republican senator from Kansas, who died at the age of 98.

He was his party’s candidate for president in 1996, for vice-president 20 years earlier and in between ran twice for the nomination, losing all four offers for national office. In return, he was twice the majority leader in the Senate and managed the minority for eight years, as well as chairing the chamber’s finance committee. His hand was visible in countless pieces of legislation, not least for the poor and disabled. The World War II memorial at the National Mall would not have been built without his efforts.

He also undoubtedly had the sharpest tongue in the country’s capital, an amalgam of the shrewd and the really funny. In 1976, he attacked the “Democratic wars” of the 20th century and deprived the opposition party of its two-letter suffix; today Republicans refer to it just as he did back then. Much later, when Dole was asked to comment on former speaker Newt Gingrich’s lament that he did not understand why he attracted such “immediate aversion”, Dole said, “It saves time.”

Despite all his reputation for unbridled bias, as a Vietnam War falcon and in his fierce opposition to the Clinton administration’s health care reforms, he has repeatedly represented what is now an extinct species – the moderate Midwestern Republican. He supported most of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and built friendships across the political corridor, an essential feature of the cut-and-push of legislative negotiations that was his preferred milieu. Proof of this was the visit to his home by President Joe Biden, a Senate colleague for more than 30 years, on the day after he announced he had advanced cancer. Little of that spirit exists today.

Robert Joseph Dole was born on July 22, 1923 in Russell, Kansas, and although he lived mostly in Washington, he maintained the house in which he grew up as his primary residence, until his death. His father ran a creamery, but the family went through difficult times during the Depression. He was a star basketball and soccer player at the University of Kansas before the war called him into service. In 1945, serving as an Army 2nd Lieutenant, he was seriously wounded by German machine gun fire outside Bologna, which made his right arm virtually virtually useless.

Dole recovered from shrapnel wounds sustained while serving in Italy during World War II in April 1945 © US Army / AP

After completing his education at the University of Arizona and George Washington University Law School in the capital, he entered the Kansas state legislature in 1952 and served as a Russell County attorney for eight years. This led to a House seat in 1960 and the Senate eight years later.

After Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s withdrawal from consideration, Gerald Ford chose Dole as the running mate for the 1976 campaign, in which he piled up unfavorably against the genius and experienced Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s number two. The “Democratic wars” remark in their debate has provoked widespread criticism. He ran out in his own right for the nomination four years later, but withdrew early after poor primary results.

He ran harder in 1988, but a similar mood did not help. Asked on TV if he had anything to say to Vice President George HW Bush, who had just won the New Hampshire primary with Dole finishing third, he shouted, “Tell him to stop lying about my record.” Although he won some later by-elections in the Midwest, he never had a chance.

In 1996, he began as a frontrunner in a colorful Republican field including, to his right, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas; Pat Buchanan, the polemicist; and Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher; and, to his left, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who also grew up in Russell. Buchanan scored an upset victory in the opening of the New Hampshire primary, but after a long and financially debilitating campaign, Dole prevailed and chose Jack Kemp, the congressman and former soccer star, as his running mate. At 73, he was then the oldest man to be nominated as a candidate for a first-term president.

But it has always been an uphill battle against Bill Clinton, the incumbent, whose popularity has grown on the back of strong economic growth, not to mention the candidacy of Ross Perot, the populist billionaire, though he is less than the half would do as well as he had four years before. In desperation, Dole resigned from the Senate to concentrate on the campaign, but Clinton successfully committed himself to Gingrich, whose federal government closure at the end of 1995 was widely unpopular. At no point did the gap between them close and Clinton won the national vote 49-40 percent, with Perot winning just over 8 percent.

When a Republican presidential candidate, Dole, waves while boarding his campaign minibus on February 3, 1988, after completing a blunt speech in Belmond, small northern Iowa Town © Mike Sprague / AFP / Getty

In retirement, he kept busy, as a television commentator, writing books and again working with his old Senate opponent George McGovern on child malnutrition issues. But his coda on the Senate floor at the end of 2012 was a sad comment on how times have changed. He was called in to show symbolic support for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but the Senate voted against ratification on the grounds that it could violate US sovereignty.

Dole was twice married, first to Phyllis Holden, with whom he had a daughter and from whom he divorced in 1972 (she died in 2008). In 1975, he married Elizabeth “Liddy” Hanford, a significant political figure in his own right, later secretary of transportation and labor in the Reagan and First Bush administrations and Republican senator for North Carolina from 2003-08, respectively. Like her husband, in 2000 she ran for the Republican nomination. They formed the distinctive Washington insider power couple and she survives him.

Her foundation announced that Dole had died in his sleep early Sunday, noting that he had “served the United States faithfully for 79 years.”

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