WASHINGTON – Bob Dole willed himself to walk again after paralyzing war wounds, ran for Congress with a right arm too damaged to shake hands, and rose through the Senate ranks to become a long-serving Republican leader and tough and tireless champion of his party.
He embodied flinty determination to succeed.
Yet Dole, who died Sunday at age 98, was most famous for the times he came up short.
He was the vice presidential running mate in President Gerald Ford's post-Watergate loss and he sought the presidency himself three times. He came closest in his final race, securing the 1996 Republican nomination only to be steamrolled by President Bill Clinton's reelection machine.
Dole later said he had come to appreciate the defeats as well as the victories: “They are parts of the same picture – the picture of a full life.”
Representing Kansas in Congress for almost 36 years, Dole was known on Capitol Hill as a shrewd and pragmatic legislator, trusted to broker compromises across party lines. He wielded tremendous influence on tax policy, farm and nutrition programs, and rights for the disabled.
Colleagues also admired his deadpan wit. Dole wasn't a big talker; he was most comfortable communicating through a string of zingers and pointed asides.
Those qualities rarely came across on the national political stage, however.
Early on, Democrats dubbed him the GOP's “hatchet man.” Dole's voice was gravelly, his face stony, his delivery prairie-flat, even when delivering a quip. He could seem hard-bitten, or bitter. With each presidential quest Dole tried anew to soften his public persona. He could never pull it off – at least, not until he was out of politics for good.
Just three days after his final race ended in a resounding loss, Dole was cutting up with comedian David Letterman on late-night TV.
Letterman greeted him with a cheeky, “Bob, what have you been doing lately?”
“Apparently not enough,” Dole answered with a grin.
Out of office, Dole remained dedicated to helping disabled veterans and honoring the fallen. He was a driving force in getting the World War II Memorial built on the National Mall. Into his 90s, Dole still showed up regularly on Saturdays to greet veterans at the memorial.
In September 2017, Congress voted to award Dole its highest expression of appreciation for distinguished contributions to the nation, a Congressional Gold Medal. In 2019, it promoted him from Army captain to colonel. In 1943, Dole, a 6-foot-2 Kansas University basketball player with dreams of becoming a doctor, left for the war. He was 22.
Dole was leading an assault against a German machine gun nest in Italy when enemy fire tore through his spine and right arm. He nearly died and spent three years enduring multiple operations and painful physical therapy.
He never recovered use of his right hand and arm or the feeling in his left thumb and forefinger. To avoid embarrassing those trying to shake his right hand, he clutched a pen in it and reached out with his left.
“I do try harder,” he once said. “If I didn't I'd be sitting in a rest home, in a rocker, drawing disability.”