Robert Dole, Republican senator, 1923-2021
If anyone embodied Washington politics in the second half of the 20th century – the good, the bad, and the ugly – then it must have been Robert Dole, the former Republican Senator from Kansas, who died at the age of 98. years.
He was his party’s presidential candidate in 1996, running for vice-president 20 years earlier, and ran twice in between, losing all four candidates for national office. In compensation, he was twice Senate majority leader and for eight years led the minority, as well as chairman of the chamber finance committee. His hand was visible in countless pieces of legislation, especially for the poor and the disabled. The World War II memorial on the National Mall would not have been built without his efforts.
He also had arguably the sharpest language in the nation’s capital, an amalgamation of sharp and genuinely funny. In 1976, he attacked the “democratic wars” of the twentieth century, depriving the opposition party of its two-letter suffix; today, Republicans only refer to it as it did then. Much later, when asked to comment on former speaker Newt Gingrich’s lament that he didn’t understand why he attracted such “instant dislike,” Dole joked, “It saves time.
Despite his reputation for unbridled partisanship, as a Vietnam War Hawk and staunch opposition to the Clinton administration’s healthcare reforms, he most often represented what is now an extinct species – the moderate Republican of the Midwest. He supported most of the civil rights laws of the 1960s and formed friendships across the political aisle, an attribute necessary for the rigor of legislative negotiations that were his favorite background. Proof of this is the visit to his home by President Joe Biden, a colleague of the Senate for more than 30 years, the day after the announcement of his advanced cancer. Little of this spirit exists today.
Robert Joseph Dole was born in Russell, Kansas on July 22, 1923 and, although living primarily in Washington, retained the house he grew up in as his primary residence until his death. Her father ran a creamery, but the family went through tough times during the Depression. He was a star basketball and football player at the University of Kansas before the war called him to service. In 1945, while serving as an army second lieutenant, he was seriously injured by German machine gun fire outside Bologna, rendering his right arm virtually useless forever.
After graduating from the University of Arizona and George Washington University Law School in the capital, he entered the Kansas State Legislature in 1952 and served as Russell County Attorney for eight years. This led to a seat in the House in 1960 and in the Senate eight years later.
After Vice President Nelson Rockefeller retired, Gerald Ford chose Dole as his running mate for the 1976 campaign, in which he placed unfavorably against the brilliant and experienced Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s number two. The remark about “democratic wars” in their debate drew much criticism. He ran for the full nomination four years later, but retired early after poor primaries results.
He ran harder in 1988, but a similar fit of anger didn’t help. When asked on television 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 scolded, “Tell him to stop lying about my record. ” Although he later won a few Midwestern primaries, he never had a chance.
In 1996, he started as a frontrunner in a diverse Republican field including, to his right, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas; Pat Buchanan, the polemicist; and Steve Forbes, publisher of the magazine; and, to his left, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who also grew up in Russell. Buchanan scored a shaken victory in the New Hampshire opening primary, but after a long and financially debilitating campaign, Dole won, choosing Jack Kemp, the congressman and former football star, as his running mate. At 73, he was then the oldest man nominated as a candidate for a first presidential term.
But it was always a bitter fight against Bill Clinton, the incumbent president, whose popularity was increasing thanks to vigorous economic growth, not to mention the candidacy of Ross Perot, the populist billionaire, even if he was to make less than half as well. although he was four years earlier. In desperation, Dole resigned from the Senate to focus on the campaign, but Clinton successfully linked him to Gingrich, whose shutdown of the federal government in late 1995 was largely unpopular. At no point did the gap between them close and Clinton won the national vote with 49 to 40 percent, while Perot won just over 8 percent.
He remained busy during his retirement, as a television commentator, writing books and again working with his former Senate opponent, George McGovern, on issues of child malnutrition. But his coda on the Senate floor in late 2012 was a sad commentary on how times had changed. He was led to show symbolic support for the United Nations Disability Convention, but the Senate voted against ratification on the grounds that it could undermine American sovereignty.
Dole has been married twice, first to Phyllis Holden, with whom he had a daughter and divorced in 1972 (she died in 2008). In 1975 he married Elizabeth “Liddy” Hanford, a prominent political figure in her own right, later Transportation and Labor Secretary in the Reagan and Bush administrations respectively and Republican Senator for North Carolina from 2003-2008. Like her husband, she briefly ran for the Republican nomination in 2000. They were the quintessential Washington insider couple and she survives him.
His foundation announced that Dole died early Sunday in his sleep, noting that he had “served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years.”