Bob Dole, Sharp-Witted Senator Who Survived World War II Wounds, Dies at 98

December 6, 2021Hannah Ray Lambert
bob dole

Bob Dole, a World War II veteran who forged a decadeslong career as one of the nation’s most influential policymakers, died Dec. 5, 2021, at the age of 98. Photo courtesy of Dole Institute of Politics.

Bob Dole, a World War II veteran who overcame life-altering war wounds and went on to serve in the US Senate and run for the presidency, died early Sunday morning, Dec. 5, at the age of 98.

“America has lost one of its heroes; our family has lost its rock,” the Dole family wrote in a statement. “We will smile as we recall his gifted sense of humor. We will take comfort from the extraordinary moments of our lifetimes together.”

During his 36-year career in Washington, Dole became one of the most influential Republican lawmakers, garnering as much attention for his sharp wit and often self-deprecating sense of humor as for his work on tax policy, foreign affairs, and enshrining the rights of Americans with disabilities. Sidewalk ramps, sign language interpreters at official events, and rules banning employers from discriminating against people with disabilities are some of the most prominent hallmarks of Dole’s decades on Capitol Hill.

Robert Joseph Dole was born July 22, 1923, in the small town of Russell, Kansas. His family struggled through the Depression, so broke that they lived in the basement and rented out the rest of their house.

bob dole
Bob Dole, left, pictured with his childhood friend, Bub Dawson, in 1944. On the right, Dole is wearing his brown dress uniform in a 1944 color portrait. Photos courtesy of the Department of Defense and the Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections, composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

When World War II broke out, Dole was a 6-foot-2-inch basketball, football, and track athlete at the University of Kansas. He enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps in 1942 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the 10th Mountain Division two years later.

While in combat on April 14, 1945, near Castel D’Aiano, Italy, Dole left his foxhole to drag a fatally wounded radioman to cover. German machine-gun fire ripped through Dole’s upper back and right arm. Paralyzed, Dole fell and remained down for 10 hours until he could be evacuated to a field hospital. He barely survived the wounds and spent three years enduring multiple surgeries that used muscle from his thigh to reconnect his right arm to where his shoulder used to be, leaving his right arm more than 2 inches shorter than his left.

Although Dole received two Purple Hearts and a Brown Star for his service, he never recovered the use of his right hand. Part of his left hand also remained numb for the rest of his life. The former three-sport athlete was crushed by his injuries but went on to earn a law degree and, in 1950, was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives.

Dole won a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1960, then moved to the Senate in 1968 where he remained until 1996. Dole was the vice presidential candidate in 1976 on the losing ticket with President Gerald Ford. Thrice Dole tried to become president, the last time in 1996 when he won the Republican nomination but watched as the American public re-elected President Bill Clinton.

bob dole
Bob Dole stands at a podium in 1995 while campaigning for president. Photo courtesy of the Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections.

Dole made a habit of working across the aisle, teaming up with Democrats to create the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, expand the food stamp program, and bolster Social Security. In 1990, while serving as Senate majority leader, Dole helped spur the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

He also spoke publicly about his disabilities — making no secret of the fact that he allowed an extra 50 minutes to get dressed each morning and would do anything to avoid clothes with buttons — in hopes of inspiring people with disabilities as well as those with the power to make the world more accessible to them.

“It’s your ability that counts, not your disability,” Dole told The New York Times in 1996.

After leaving politics, Dole became a TV spokesman for commercial products, even lending his star power to talk about erectile dysfunction in a Pfizer ad for Viagra. He later appeared in a Pepsi commercial that poked fun at his ED advertisement. Over video of seagulls and crashing waves, Dole told audiences across America about his “faithful little blue friend — an ice-cold Pepsi-Cola.”

He also served as the national chairman for the World War II Memorial campaign to raise money for the national memorial, and attended events for veterans and people with disabilities.

bob dole
Former Sen. Bob Dole stands at attention along with his wife, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, left, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley during the playing of the national anthem at Dole’s honorary promotion ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington, May 16, 2019. Dole, who was medically discharged as a captain after being severely wounded in World War II, was promoted to colonel. DOD photo by Sean Kimmons.

Dole was the last World War II veteran to have been the presidential nominee for a major party, according to the Defense Department. But in his memoir One Soldier’s Story, Dole wrote that WWII veterans were not unique in their service to the nation.

“It’s said often that my generation is the greatest generation,” he wrote. “That’s not a title we claimed for ourselves. Truth be told, we were ordinary Americans fated to confront extraordinary tests. Every generation of young men and women who dare to face the realities of war — fighting for freedom, defending our country, with a willingness to lay their lives on the line — is the greatest generation.”

Dole announced in February that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He is survived by his wife and former senator from North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole, as well as his daughter, Robin Dole.

President Joe Biden announced that all flags shall be flown at half-staff at all public buildings and military posts until sunset on Thursday in honor of Dole, and released a statement in which he called Dole a dear friend and an “American statesman like few in our history.”

Read Next: Max Cleland, Senator Who Lost Both Legs and an Arm in Vietnam, Dies at 79

Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

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