Former U.S. senator Robert J. Dole, who overcame the hardships of dust bowl Kansas during the Depression and devastating injuries in World War II to run three times for the presidency and serve more than a decade as the Senate Republican leader, died Dec. 5 at 98.
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation announced the death but did not provide an immediate cause. He announced in February that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
“America has lost one of its heroes; our family has lost its rock. We will smile as we recall his gifted sense of humor. We will take comfort from the extraordinary moments of our lifetimes together,” said a statement on the foundation’s website.
“Bob Dole never forgot where he came from. He embodied the integrity, humor, compassion and unbounded work ethic of the wide open plains of his youth,” the statement said. “He was a powerful voice for pragmatic conservatism, and it was that unique Kansan combination of attributes and values that made him such a giant of the Senate.”
Dole’s life was a trajectory played out against nine decades of America’s political, economic and cultural transformations, from his birth in a one-bedroom house to a career that lasted more than a third of a century under the Capitol dome, where he was presented the Congressional Gold Medal in 2018.
Dole won his first congressional race in 1960. In 1968, Dole was elected to the U.S. Senate on the GOP ticket with President Richard Nixon, who named him chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Arriving in Washington a few months shy of his 38th birthday, a House backbencher from Kansas among the minority Republicans, he methodically climbed the Washington ladder, possessed of a talent for counting votes and finding the sort of consensus rarely achieved today.
An exploding shell in World War II made his right arm unusable, so Dole became a strong advocate for Americans living with disabilities and he sponsored numerous legislative initiatives benefiting America’s veterans.
In an interview with ABILITY Magazine, Dole described the effect of his war injury: “Experiencing a disability yourself, you could almost walk around with a blindfold and pick out the other people with disabilities…. Having a disability changes your whole life, not just your attitude.”
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.
In a 2000 C-Span interview, Dole counted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as one of his proudest achievements.
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 cuts that have resulted in massive income inequality and a nearly $30 trillion national debt.
Even though Dole was a fervent opponent of deficit spending, he contributed to the reckless enactment of numerous tax cuts, saying on June 4, 1996, “I believe we can cut taxes, reform the tax code and balance the budget.”
One of the first pieces of major legislation handled by Dole as Senate Finance Committee chair, was the Economic Recovery Tax Act, proposed by Rep. Jack Kemp and Sen. William Roth, reduced marginal tax rates in the U.S. by 25 percent over three years and drastically cut taxes for wealthy Americans, which Dole supported.
He also helped approve the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which simplified the federal income tax system and significantly lowered corporate tax rates, making America the greatest debtor nation in the world.
Dole supported a Constitutional amendment that failed by one vote but would have required the government to balance the federal budget.
Funeral arrangements for Bob Dole are forthcoming. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions/donations be made to the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics.
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. This has been criticized as “private profit from socialized cost.”
Dole crafted landmark legislation in 1983 to raise FICA taxes and increase the retirement age required to qualify for Social Security benefits.
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.
Dole ran unsuccessfully for the White House in 1980, in 1988 and in 1996, when he advanced to the general election nominated to run against President Bill Clinton.
Millions of television viewers were introduced to his 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.
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.
In 2015, 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. The memorial was officially dedicated along the National Mall in 2020.
Dole is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, his daughter, Robin Carol Dole, nine nieces and nephews and their families.