Robert Joseph Dole Biography
Loved as a man of the people and a leader of Americans of every stripe, Bob Dole lived the American dream. If the last century was the American Century, Bob Dole’s life personified it. He emerged from humble beginnings in Kansas to become a war hero, a giant of the U.S. Senate and the Republican nominee for President.
Robert Joseph Dole was born July 22, 1923, the second of four children born to Doran and Bina Dole of Russell, Kansas, a small town on the plains of western Kansas. Like so many Kansans of the time, the Doles lived precariously amid the Dust Bowl and Depression of the 1930’s. A $300 loan from a Russell banker enabled Bob to enroll at the University of Kansas in September 1941. Thereafter he scrambled to support himself while pursuing his studies and lettering in football, basketball and track.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Dole left the University of Kansas to join the Army’s Enlisted Reserve Corps. Called to active duty in June of 1943, he entered officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Georgia. Soon he was on board a troop ship headed for Italy. In February 1945, Second Lieutenant Dole was sent to fill a vacancy in Company I Third Battalion, Tenth Mountain Division. This famed Division was tasked with dislodging German troops from deeply entrenched positions in the Apennine Mountains north of Bologna.
On the morning of April 14,1945, Dole led his platoon up the heavily mined slopes of Hill #913. While retrieving the lifeless form of his platoon’s radio man, Dole was severely wounded by enemy fire. His right arm was shredded, and his collarbone crushed. Paralyzed from the neck down, Dole lay where he fell for ten hours, until he could be evacuated to a field hospital in Pistoia, Italy. Ahead of him stretched 39 months of hospitalization, progress and setback, characteristically borne with intense determination and self-deprecating humor. Dole drew inspiration from the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song he played endlessly. It would become a personal anthem. He was hospitalized with two veterans who would become close friends and colleagues in the Senate, Daniel Inouye (HI-D) and Phil Hart (MI-D).
Unable to use his right arm and barely able to walk, Dole was treated by chief orthopedic surgeon and lieutenant colonel at the 297th General Hospital, Hampar Kelikian, an Armenian immigrant resettled in Chicago, Dr. Kelikian offered his services to badly wounded servicemen at no charge, his way of repaying his adopted country for the blessings of freedom. After a grueling series of innovative surgeries, Dole recovered the use of his left arm, though not his right. This life changing surgery left Dole with an unlimited admiration for “Dr. K.” To help defer related expenses, the people of Russell, Kansas established the Bob Dole Fund. Friends and neighbors placed whatever they could give in an old cigar box located at Dawson’s drugstore. The cigar box remained a treasured possession throughout his life.
Returning to Kansas to recuperate, Dole married his physical therapist, Phyllis Holden, in 1948. While still a student at Washburn Law School in Topeka, he was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 1950. Rather than seek re-election, he returned to Russell, entered private law practice and was elected District Attorney. In 1954, the Doles welcomed the birth of their daughter, Robin. In 1972, he and Phyllis divorced.
Dole won his first congressional race in 1960. Over the next eight years, he established a reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative who also supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Years later he would count among his proudest achievements serving as floor manager in the Senate for legislation authorizing the birthdate of the Reverend Martin Luther King as a national holiday. Dole was instrumental in Representative Gerald Ford’s election as House Minority Leader early in 1965. At the same time, he established an enduring relationship with future president Richard Nixon.
In 1968, Dole was elected to the U.S. Senate, succeeding Frank Carlson (KS-R). His support of President Nixon earned him the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, during which time he traveled 500,000 miles on behalf of candidates, but his independence and sharp wit did little to endear him to Nixon’s senior staff. He was replaced, following the 1972 election, by George H.W. Bush. Ironically, fallout from the Watergate scandal and President Ford’s controversial pardon of his disgraced predecessor nearly cost Dole his Senate seat in 1974.
On December 6, 1975, Dole married Elizabeth Hanford, a member of the Federal Trade Commission and former deputy to President Nixon’s Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs, Virginia Knauer. Mrs. Dole would go on to enjoy a distinguished career as Assistant to the President for Public Liaison and Secretary of Transportation for President Reagan, Secretary of Labor under President George H.W. Bush, President of the American Red Cross, and U.S. Senator from her home state of North Carolina. She established and heads the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to raise awareness of the enormous contributions and challenges of the 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers – young spouses, mothers, dads, and other loved ones caring for America’s wounded warriors at home. The Foundation provides solutions and services for these hidden heroes by leading a powerful coalition spanning the public and private sectors, nonprofit organizations and the faith community.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford selected Bob Dole to be his Vice-Presidential running mate. Immediately after the GOP convention in Kansas City, the new ticket made its first joint appearance at an emotional homecoming in Dole’s beloved Russell. Although the Ford-Dole ticket closed a massive gap of over thirty points in public opinion polls, it narrowly lost in November to former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN).
With Ronald Reagan’s landslide presidential victory in 1980, Dole, for the first time, was part of a Senate majority. As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he helped shape and enact the Reagan program of tax and spending cuts. His Senate colleague, Don Nickles (R-OK), later pointed out that when Dole became chairman, tax rates were as high as 70 percent. By the time he finished his work, they had been reduced to 28 percent. And the economy responded with record growth through the rest of the 1980s.
Senator Dole was an early and fervent opponent of deficit spending in the Congress, warning of the dangers of accumulating deficits on the floor of the U.S. Senate and in his Senate and presidential campaigns. In 1982, when America faced massive inflation producing deficits, Senator Dole, working with his friend, Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), developed and fought for enactment of historic deficit reduction and the passage of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act. Enactment of this legislation allowed Chairman Volker to reduce interest rates and again led to a period of economic prosperity. Dole won praise for his leadership on behalf of debt reduction and his mastery of tax reform, as well as foreign affairs and agricultural issues. Known as a champion of farmers and ranchers, he served 27 years on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.
The Patent and Trademark Act Amendments of 1980—commonly known as the Bayh-Dole Act—gave universities, nonprofits and small businesses the ability to retain ownership of patents on inventions resulting from their federally funded research. Heralded by The Economist magazine as “possibly the most inspired piece of legislation to be enacted in America over the past half century,” Bayh-Dole created a highly efficient route through which valuable research could be translated into actual use by patients and consumers. The field of medicine was truly revolutionized through Bayh-Dole.
After a national commission had failed to reach agreement, working in partnership with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (NY-D), Dole crafted landmark legislation in 1983 to preserve the Social Security System from bankruptcy. This remains the last overhaul of the program, preserving it for decades. A master of legislative cooperation, Dole worked to fashion many landmark pieces of legislation. For example, long concerned about the plight of those experiencing hunger in America and worldwide, he partnered with his longtime friend and colleague on the Agriculture Committee, George McGovern (SD-D), to create the Food Stamp program and the International Food Aid Program. Continuing his lifelong efforts to combat hunger wherever it exists, Dole joined Senator McGovern to promote a global school lunch program and other hunger and nutrition initiatives. In 2008, Dole was co-recipient, along with McGovern, of the World Food Prize. Their efforts were recognized again in 2013 when Dole and McGovern were co-recipients of the newly named McGovern/Dole Leadership Award.
Senator Dole was a passionate advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities throughout his public service and his personal life. Caring for the disabled was the subject of his maiden speech in the Senate. He partnered with Senator Nancy Kassebaum (KS-R) and Tom Harkin (IA-D) to secure enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 providing millions of Americans with public access and employment opportunities that were previously foreclosed. He also worked to ensure that those disabled who sought to return to the workforce continued to qualify for Medicaid, so that they received the health care they needed to be productive members of society. Dole has fought long and hard for Senate ratification of the International Treaty for People with Disabilities. The purpose was clearly to apply America’s great leadership in ensuring that the values and enormous assistance provided through The Americans with Disabilities Act were expanded worldwide.
Senator Dole also sponsored numerous legislative initiatives benefiting America’s veterans, such as the Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act and the Veterans Health Care Administrative Flexibility Act.
“Dole’s strong commitment to fairness and opportunities for women,” according to Senator Olympia Snowe, “was an integral part of who Bob Dole was—the Retirement Equity Act of 1983, his Sexual Assault Prevention Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and his authorship of the Glass Ceiling Commission. This first Federal commission created the most comprehensive report on how business could make full use of America’s human capital.”
In 1984, Dole succeeded his friend Howard Baker (TN-R), as Senate Majority Leader. Elected six times by his colleagues, Dole would serve as Republican leader (Majority and Minority Leader) for twelve years, under three Presidents: Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton. He was the longest serving Republican Leader until June 12, 2018 when Senator Mitch McConnell took the title. According to Congressional Quarterly, Senator Dole “proved a point that badly needed proving at the time: the Senate could be led.” Ronald Reagan agreed. “His title of Leader is not just a job title, it’s a description of the man,” President Reagan said. He was renowned for his ability to produce results through bipartisan efforts, like the creation of Hospice. His fingerprints were on almost every major legislative initiative during his tenure as Republican leader.
During this period, Dole also made history by appointing Jo Ann Coe to serve as the first female Secretary of the Senate, while Sheila Burke broke the glass ceiling as his Chief of Staff. His respect for Senate employees led to his being named repeatedly as the nicest of the 100 Senators. Finally, in 2018, Dole was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. This award was a result of legislation, cosponsored by all 100 members of the Senate and passed in the House of Representatives and then signed into law by President Donald Trump. It noted that “throughout his life-long service to the country, Bob Dole has embodied the American spirit of leadership and determination, and serves as one of the most prolific role models both in and outside of politics.”
Having conducted a brief, unsuccessful campaign for president in 1980, Dole geared up for a more serious run in 1988. As Vice President Bush’s principal opponent, Dole won the Iowa caucuses, but lost to Bush in a fiercely contested New Hampshire primary when he refused to sign the infamous “No-New-Taxes Pledge” because of his concern about deficit spending. In time, the two men developed a strong working relationship and friendship, with President Bush later calling Dole “a great Republican Leader, as great as any in the past.”
In 1996, it would be Dole’s turn. Nominated to run against a popular President, Bill Clinton, Dole presented himself as “the most optimistic man in America.” Having resigned his seat in the Senate and his position as Majority Leader in order to devote his full energies to the campaign, Dole gradually narrowed the incumbent’s large lead, but on November 5, 1996, he came up short. A few weeks later President Clinton awarded Dole the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his contributions to the nation.
Dole, who for years came to work with his miniature schnauzer, Leader, championed humane legislation, advocated for animals in crisis, and brought critical attention to important animal welfare issues. In 1984, he was presented with the ASPCA Award for Humane Excellence for his consistent commitment to protecting animals in research and other vulnerable animals. After leaving the Senate, he remained active in animal welfare causes, while doting on his beloved miniature schnauzers, Blazer, Leader III and Walter.
Dole was now more visible than ever—a much sought-after advisor, advocate, political commentator, Super Bowl pitchman, and best-selling author. Millions of television viewers were introduced to his legendary sense of humor through his post-election appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Senator Dole remained an outspoken champion on behalf of America’s veterans, people with disabilities, and millions living in hunger, both at home and abroad. For years, he quietly visited patients in veterans’ hospitals across America. As Special Counsel to two law firms in Washington, he provided advice on how Washington really works. For six years beginning in 1997, he was associated with Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand. He joined Alston & Bird in 2003.
In 2009, Dole partnered with three other former Senate Majority Leaders—Tom Daschle (SD-D), George Mitchell (ME-D) and Howard Baker (TN-R) —to create the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. Together they developed the Leader’s Health Care Project, a series of recommendations on reform of America’s health care system.
Shortly after the 1996 presidential election, University of Kansas (KU) Chancellor Robert Hemenway approached Senator Dole with a request that he entrust his papers, accrued over 35 years of Congressional service, to KU. Eager to build upon the research potential of this collection, the University envisioned a public policy institute that would actively engage the public, while enabling students of all ages to discover how they might best serve their neighbors and their nation.
Senator Dole agreed, after first making it clear that he wanted no personal monument. Rather, he favored creation of a non-partisan forum, dedicated to public service, training for leadership and the concept of politics as an honorable profession. Today, aligned with his wishes, the Dole Institute of Politics promotes political and civic involvement, especially among young people; encourages civil discussion on important issues; and provides opportunities for interaction with presidents, other political leaders and policy makers, campaign organizers and more. Senator Elizabeth Dole’s papers are also being housed at the Dole Institute of Politics.
Nothing he did in later life gave Dole more satisfaction than his leadership role in realizing the long-deferred dream of a National World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall. For the better part of a decade, he spearheaded with Fred Smith of FedEx and the help of many, a massive $185 million fund-raising effort to underwrite the Memorial’s design, construction, and maintenance. By the time of its dedication in June 2004, Senator Dole had become, for many Americans, the face, voice and personification of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” This extraordinary effort was recognized by the U.S. Senate and resulted in a plaque, placed next to the Memorial, recognizing his leadership and enormous contributions. In subsequent years, Dole continued his involvement, as Honorary Advisor to Honor Flight Network, which flies World War II and other veterans to Washington who, for financial or medical reasons, would not otherwise be able to experience their Memorial. Over the years, Dole and his wife Elizabeth personally welcomed thousands of veterans as they arrived at the World War II Memorial. In June 2009, Bob and Elizabeth accepted President Obama’s invitation to accompany him to Normandy for ceremonies marking the 65th Anniversary of D-Day.
In 2015, Senator Dole accepted the position of finance chairman of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission to honor forever another humble son of Kansas, WWII’s Supreme Allied Commander and the 34th President of the United States. In recognition of Dole’s leading role in bringing much-needed momentum to the campaign, President Donald Trump appointed Dole to the commission in 2019. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial was officially dedicated along the National Mall the following year.
Throughout his career, Dole campaigned tirelessly for candidates at every level of government. Following the attacks of September 11th, Dole joined forces with former rival Bill Clinton to co-chair the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund. He also served as Honorary co-chair of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, part of President George W. Bush’s USA Freedom Corps.
In 2007, Dole co-chaired with Secretary Donna Shalala, the President’s Commission on the Care of America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, established in the wake of revelations about inadequate care afforded to some Iraqi war veterans. The Commission offered groundbreaking recommendations on the management of care for our wounded and injured service members.
Dole’s best-selling World War II memoir, One Soldier’s Story, chronicles his harrowing experience on and off the battlefield. It was written to provide the lessons learned through his struggle to survive and to inspire today’s disabled veterans with the knowledge that they, too, can live productive and fulfilling lives. He also authored the books Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House, Great Presidential Wit: I Wish I Was In The Book, and Unlimited Partners, an autobiography co-written with his wife, Elizabeth.
At ages 90 and 91, Dole made eleven trips to Kansas. The purpose of these visits was to thank voters in all 105 counties for giving him the privilege of serving eight years in the House of Representatives and 28 years in the U.S. Senate.
In 2019, General Mark Milley, then Chief of Staff of the Army, launched an effort to promote Senator Dole from Captain to the honorary rank of Colonel in the U.S. Army. The Senate voted for the promotion unanimously. It was passed by the House of Representatives and signed into law by President Trump. General Milley, speaking at the promotion ceremony, highlighted the fact that only three individuals in American history had received such an honor—George Washington, Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame, and Bob Dole.
Renowned as a man of complete integrity and trustworthiness, Bob Dole’s word was his bond. He privately established many charitable endeavors, including Washburn Law School Scholarships for People with Disabilities; Fort Hays State University Scholarships in memory of his sisters; and the Bina and Doran Dole Scholarship Fund for Russell, Kansas area students with disabilities.
Dole is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, his daughter, Robin Carol Dole, nine nieces and nephews and their families.