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Robert Dole, presidential candidate and stalwart of Republican Party, dies at 98

Mr. Dole, greeting supporters in Waltham during his quest for the presidency in 1996.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/file

Robert Joseph Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee and for more than a third of a century a leading figure and force in American politics, has died. He was 98.

His wife, Elizabeth Dole, posted the announcement Sunday on Twitter, according to the Associated Press. Mr. Dole had announced in February that he was undergoing treatment for an advanced stage of lung cancer.

American culture served up no purer emblem of the nation’s triumphs and challenges in the postwar period than Mr. Dole, a son of the center of the country, a disabled veteran of the war at the center of the century, a leader in the political dramas that were at the center of American national life.


He was a state legislator, a House member, a Senate leader, a national spokesman for a sturdy brand of common-sense conservatism, four times a candidate for national office and always an advocate for the nation’s farmers and war veterans. He dominated the life of the Senate for a decade, was a leading Republican in Washington, and emerged as a potent symbol, not only for Democrats who derided him as an obstructionist, but also for the new breed of Republicans who considered his style too accommodating, his ideology too squishy, and his identification with establishment Washington too strong.

Nonetheless, no Republican, aside from Richard M. Nixon, was at the center of Washington and the searing battles within the Republican Party for so long and with so great an impact.

It was an impact that survived his own retirement; he worked tirelessly for the election of his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, to the Senate in 2002 and joked that he and Bill Clinton, his rival in the 1996 race, would compete to be president of the Senate spouse club. In a heartbreaking coda to his public life, Mr. Dole, 89 years old and using a wheelchair, returned to the Senate in December 2012 and there appealed to his former colleagues to ratify a United Nations convention on disability rights that was modeled on the legislation he crafted himself in the chamber.


The treaty failed and Mr. Dole was wheeled out of the chamber by his wife.

Mr. Dole lost the 1996 presidential race to Clinton despite a spirited challenge, a series of daring gambles, and a brave campaign finale of 96 hours of grueling air travel that left the Kansan hoarse and exhausted — but that failed to persuade the nation that a 73-year-old World War II veteran was the man to lead the nation into the 21st century.

“Bob Dole dedicated his entire life to serving the American people, from his heroism in World War II to the 35 years he spent in Congress,” Clinton said Sunday. “After all he gave in the war, he didn’t have to give more. But he did. His example should inspire people today and for generations to come.”

Mr. Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, celebrated his nomination to serve as the Republican candidate for president in 1996. J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/Associated Press/file

In many ways Mr. Dole’s general-election campaign was an anticlimax to the greater dramas of his life. For years he sought and was denied his party’s nomination for president, winning it in 1996 only after a difficult struggle with two foes whose vision of the Republican Party and its future couldn’t have been more different from his — the publisher Malcolm S. Forbes Jr. and the commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.


But Mr. Dole, who for decades prided himself on understanding the prevailing winds of American politics, was nonetheless himself willing to bend, and on the eve of the Republicans’ 1996 nominating convention he reached out to a former rival, Jack F. Kemp, offering him the vice presidential nomination and embracing his notions of supply-side economics. Six months after his defeat, he startled Washington with another gesture to a party rival, offering Newt Gingrich a $300,000 loan to permit the House speaker to pay off a fine in connection with an ethics investigation.

As he aged, his impulse for political pugilism withered and died, permitting a tender rapprochement with his rival George H.W. Bush; in their 90s the two called each other on their birthdays and, to mark the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, appeared together at a Texas commemoration of the attack that began World War II. As they gathered, in December 2016, news accounts were reporting that Mr. Dole, the only living GOP nominee to support Donald J. Trump for president, had helped a lobby client by arranging for a phone call between Trump and the president of Taiwan — an intercession that prompted some of those who knew Mr. Dole to wonder whether, at 93, he had been manipulated by friends or business associates.

Mr. Dole came to Washington the year John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president, but as a young man he had strong emotional ties with Dwight D. Eisenhower, a fellow Kansan and the commander of the American force in Europe that shaped Mr. Dole’s life. He fell into the political circle around Nixon and was Republican national chairman during the height of the Watergate period.


President Ford picked Senator Dole for his running-mate against Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1976.Handout

He was Gerald R. Ford’s running mate in 1976, when he gave the nation its first taste of his bitter tongue. He ran against Ronald Reagan for the GOP presidential nomination four years later, finished at the back of the pack, but was the president’s legislative leader for two terms.

Mr. Dole was for a time the favorite to capture the Republican nomination in 1988 and actually won the Iowa caucuses that February, but his struggle with George Bush took on a bitter tone and his eventual loss came to symbolize Mr. Dole’s failures as a national candidate — his lack of vision, his imprisonment in the image and idiom of Washington, his reflexive impulse to use his wit as a weapon.

(When, for example, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced he was to have brain surgery and would be absent from the chamber, Mr. Dole said he would miss Specter like a hole in the head.)

Despite his lengthy midlife rivalry with Bush, he later served the president well and loyally, acting as his agent on Capitol Hill. So dominant was he in the Congress that, though he was well over 70 years old and his World War II generation had been eclipsed by Clinton and the Baby Boomers, Mr. Dole swiftly emerged as the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996.


Then-Senator Dole bought some maple syrup on a campaign visit to a Cracker Barrel store in Hopkinton, N.H. Mark Wilson/Globe Staff/file

Though Mr. Dole’s life was intertwined with the leading figures of Washington’s postwar political establishment, his relationship with the greatest political outlaw of the age, Gingrich of Georgia, defined GOP politics at century’s end.

For years he and Gingrich sparred, two symbols of competing and oftentimes irreconcilable visions of Republicanism. Gingrich was a supply-sider, an economic theory that left Mr. Dole unimpressed, and Gingrich was also an insurgent, a political tactic that left Mr. Dole cold.

Then-Senator Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich worked together as GOP leaders, although the two were quite dissimilar both in backgrounds and in visions for the future of the Republican Party. JOHN DURICKA/Associated Press/file

The bitterness flared often, and Mr. Dole spent a decade answering Gingrich’s well-worn taunt that the Kansan, no doctrinaire tax-cutter, was the tax collector for the welfare state. When Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995, Mr. Dole suppressed his skepticism, perhaps because he recognized that Gingrich now held the whip hand in GOP politics, and the two often appeared together, working in tandem.

But, in truth, the two came from different worlds and emerged in Washington (and as national figures) in different ways.

Mr. Dole was the quintessential young man of the innocent America before World War II. His world view, his accent, his conservatism, and his life rhythms were set in Russell, Kan., far from metropolitan America and deep in grain country. His father, Doran Dole, operated the White Front Cafe on Main Street and then ran a cream and egg station, while his mother, Bina, sold sewing machines, was an accomplished seamstress, and was known for her fried chicken and cream gravy and homemade ice cream.

“Russell’s the Bob Dole difference,’’ John J. Streck, one of Mr. Dole’s high school classmates, once said. As a young man, Mr. Dole played basketball — he was known for being the first lad in Russell with a one-handed shot — and minded the soda fountain at Dawson’s Drug. He was chosen to be the soda jerk because he was smart, he was efficient, he was honest, and he had a following. Those same characteristics would mark him for life.

“He was an all-American boy,’’ said Everett Dumler, a lifelong friend who later became manager of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.

Like many young men of his town, he went to war. He saw a bit of the world and then had his whole world changed. In the last weeks of World War II, in Italy, an exploding shell so racked his body that a platoon sergeant gave him a shot of morphine on the battlefield.

Mr. Dole would spend two years in a military hospital recovering from his wounds. “His body was just shattered with shrapnel,’’ recalled fellow patient and eventual Senate colleague Daniel Inouye.Bob Kerry

Then began years of recovery. He had a persistent fever, he lost a kidney, he lost 72 pounds. He lost, he later admitted, his entire sense of physical robustness. His family doubted he would ever walk again. He shared their doubts — but he had a remarkable sense of determination, an outsized measure of courage, and a dedicated hometown filled with people who dropped nickels, dimes, and quarters into a cigar box at Dawson’s Drug to help the Dole boy get on his feet.

It was a challenge greater than any presented by politics.

“His body was just shattered with shrapnel,’’ recalled Daniel K. Inouye, another future senator and a fellow patient at the Percy Jones Army Medical Center in Battle Creek, Mich., where Mr. Dole lived for nearly two years. When he finally returned home, no one recognized him, and, remembered his aunt, Gladys Friesen, he didn’t want anybody to see him.

When he wanted a smoke, his mother had to hold the cigarette to his lips.

He worked and he struggled and he worked some more, eventually being able to take a step, then a few, then to reach the end of the block. Much of his life since April 1945, he wrote in his memoirs, has been an exercise in compensation.

Mr. Dole went to law school and into politics, traveling hundreds of miles in a legislative race and then thousands of miles in a congressional contest in 1960. He wasn’t much of an ideologue, later joking that he looked at the voting rolls, saw more Republicans than Democrats, and decided, right there on the spot, that he was a Republican. For him, the arithmetic of politics was always more potent than the chemistry of politics.

In Washington he was a plodder and a plotter, eventually winning notice and repeatedly winning reelection. After he succeeded Howard H. Baker Jr. as Republican leader in 1985, his stature in the Senate was unapproachable. Indeed, the Senate — its pace, its folkways — gave order to Mr. Dole’s life. He was a master of legislation in an era of sound bites, a master of the compromise in an era when that art was often derided.

He never escaped his 1976 gaffe, in the vice presidential debate, the most visible national stage he had occupied until then, when he referred to “Democrat wars’’; nor his 1988 outburst on live television, hours after losing the New Hampshire primary, when he accused Bush of lying about his record. But Mr. Dole — who so relished the fray — oftentimes was able to glide above the fray, often with a seen-it-all-before serenity that comforted his Republican colleagues and disoriented his Democratic rivals.

“He was a ferocious partisan,’’ former senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a fellow injured war veteran but one who often opposed Mr. Dole’s initiatives, said. “But if he thought something was in the best interests of the country, he’d be for it.’’

He was harsh, but soft. He was, with liberal Democratic Senator George S. McGovern of South Dakota, one of the principal authors of nutrition programs for the poor. He felt the pain — though the phrase would never pass his lips — of the poor, the old, the sick.

He was known for the sarcastic aside but, in the halls of the Capitol, he was also remembered for the gentle gesture. Congressional workers — not members of the two chambers, not legislative assistants, but the people who operated the elevators and worked in the snack bars — consistently regarded him as their favorite senator. He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity and, a prostate-cancer victim himself, would sometimes sit in his office as the dark thickened around Washington and call men around the country who themselves faced prostate surgery — or death.

An improbable sequel to his struggle with cancer was Mr. Dole’s decisions to appear in television commercials for the erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra. Mr. Dole said he did the ads in an effort to further frank conversation about the disease and its effects.

Mr. Dole relished the battle in the Senate. Indeed, one of his principal disadvantages as a presidential campaigner was his tie to the Senate chamber, and throughout his national campaigns he was steeped in the vocabulary and view of the lawmaker. Bob Dole’s world was formed in Kansas, upended in Italy, but ultimately shaped by Washington.

He was also shaped by women: by his mother, who gave him his sense of humor; by his sisters, who encouraged him when, in the dark days of the war injury, there was no reason for encouragement; by his daughter, Robin, a Washington lobbyist and friend in adulthood; and by the two women he married.

Mr. Dole met his wife of 23 years, Phyllis, at an army hospital dance and they married three months later in New Hampshire. “I remember when we were first married, I used to make shoulder pads to go under his shirts because one shoulder is shorter than the other,’’ she said. “He had to get his suits tailored to fit him. I cut up meat for him. I understood him physically and emotionally. He had to push awfully hard to come back from his injuries, and that is just part of him now. He worked very hard to overcome all of that.’’

By 1971, Mr. Dole was living in the basement of their Virginia home, while his wife and daughter lived upstairs. One day, Mr. Dole came up from the basement with an announcement. “I want out,’’ he said.

Later he married Elizabeth Hanford, a pioneering Republican woman who served as secretary of labor and transportation and as president of the American Red Cross, but who was best known as the other half of Washington’s ultimate power couple. At a Capitol hearing, Mr. Dole once joked that he regretted that he had only one wife to give to his country’s infrastructure. In truth, he took enormous pride in his wife’s achievements and she in his; in the late days of the 1988 presidential race, Mrs. Dole was more reluctant to concede than was Mr. Dole.

Mr. Dole was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by his former adversary, President Clinton.CHUCK KENNEDY/KRT/PressLink/file

Though he gave a gracious speech conceding the presidential race to Clinton in 1996, he never was comfortable with concession. Mr. Dole was a soldier, and at heart he was a fighter. His fight ended over the weekend. He was not, in death or in life, one of Washington’s, or America’s, unknown soldiers.