Bob Dole once said, “When it’s all over, it’s not who you were … it’s whether you made a difference.” In a great many ways, this Republican statesman, who passed away on Sunday, Dec. 5 at the age of 98, made a difference.
Though he is often remembered more for his losses than for his wins, Dole was a man of stature, a man of character, a man of reason, and a man of excellent humor. As if all that weren’t enough, he was also a war hero. His departure should remind Americans that there was a time when Congress wasn’t populated almost exclusively by either partisan extremists or those who put self-interest above all else. How few elected officials in Washington, D.C. today deserve to be called “statesman”? Bob Dole deserved that title.
Though he represented his home state of Kansas in the U.S. Senate for almost four decades and commanded the, at times, grudging respect of his fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Dole will perhaps be remembered most for his crushing defeat in the 1996 presidential election at the hands of then-President Bill Clinton. Dole took his defeats in stride, though – and he had a number of them, in terms of his political fortunes. “I think one of life’s great milestones,” he reflected, “is when a person can look back and be almost as thankful for the setbacks as for the victories.”
After replacing Richard Nixon as president in 1974, Gerald R. Ford secured the GOP nomination in 1976 but lost to Jimmy Carter. Dole was Ford’s running mate. In 1980 and again in 1988, Dole ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination.
Having endured crushing poverty as a child in a rural Kansas battered by Prohibition, the Depression, and the Dust Bowl years, Dole went to war in 1943. He was almost killed by German machine-gun fire, sustaining horrific wounds to his right arm and his spine. He literally had to relearn how to walk and perform simple everyday tasks but never fully recovered the use of his right arm and hand. During his years in the Senate and later in life, he devoted an enormous amount of energy to helping disabled veterans.
He first went to Congress in 1960, as a representative, and entered the Senate in 1968. While serving in the Senate, Dole was tapped by Nixon to lead the Republican National Committee. When the Watergate scandal broke, however, Dole was in the clear. “I was off that night,” he later joked.
Indeed, though he was known at times for verbally flailing his political opponents on occasion, Dole had a quick and razor-sharp wit and authored two collections of political humor. Three days after his trouncing by Clinton, Dole appeared on Dave Letterman’s talk show. When his host jabbed him with the question, “Bob, what have you been doing lately?” the senator replied, “Apparently, not enough.”
Regardless of political agendas, Capitol Hill was a better and more civilized place with the likes of Bob Dole walking the halls of power. He leaves behind his wife, former Senator Elizabeth Dole, and his daughter, Robin Dole. Rest in Peace, Sir.
~ Read more from Graham J. Noble.