Born in Kansas in 1923, Bob Dole began his political career by serving as a member of the Kansas state legislature (1951–53), and later served four terms as prosecuting attorney for Russell County. From 1961 to 1969, Dole served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1969 to 1996, he served in the U.S. Senate, where he earned titles as minority leader and majority leader. After defeat as Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976, Dole ran for president in 1996, but lost to President Bill Clinton, who won election to a second term. Since leaving politics, Dole has written several books, practiced law and made numerous appearances as a spokesperson for consumer products.
Robert Joseph "Bob" Dole was born on July 22, 1923, in Russell, Kansas. Doran, Dole's father, ran a stand that sold eggs and cream. Dole's mother, Bina, sold Singer sewing machines and vacuum cleaners as a traveling saleswoman. Dole had one brother, Kenny, and two sisters, Gloria and Norma Jean.
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the Doles had to struggle to make ends meet. The family moved into the basement of their home and rented out the upstairs to oilfield workers. Dole's parents instilled in him their values of hard work and sacrifice, and both of those would play a large role in Dole's later life. His parents also gave him a strong religious upbringing. Dole once explained, "As a young man in a small town, my parents taught me to put my trust in God, not government, and never confuse the two."
As a youth, Dole was a member of the Boy Scouts and also played sports, winning spots on several all-conference teams. He worked as a paperboy and as a soda jerk at the local Dawson's Drugstore. The drugstore's owner remembered Dole as a "good worker." After completing high school in 1941, Dole attended the University of Kansas, where, inspired by the doctors that he had met while working at the drugstore, he enrolled in the premedical program.
Bob Dole's college career was soon interrupted by the United States' entry into World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and was summoned to active duty in early 1943. Upon completing training programs in the United States, Dole became a combat infantry officer and was sent to Italy in 1944 to serve in a relatively safe area near Rome. The next year, Dole was transferred to a post near the Po Valley, in northern Italy. That region still held a German machine gun nest, and, despite Dole's relatively small amount of combat experience, he was ordered to lead an assault against it. The day of the assault was, as Dole put it, "the day that changed my life."
During the attack, an Army radioman went down under German fire. In his attempt to rescue the man, Dole himself was severely wounded. According to examinations by medics following the battle, Dole had sustained the following injuries: a shattered right shoulder, fractured vertebrae in his neck and spine, paralysis from the neck down, metal shrapnel throughout his body and a damaged kidney. The medics examining Dole thought him unlikely to survive.
After several surgeries and extensive rehabilitation, Bob Dole not only lived, but made a better recovery than had ever been expected. The only lingering physical limitations for Dole are his paralyzed right arm and hand, and during public appearances he often keeps a pen in his right hand to make it appear less unusual. The Russell community showed him a great amount of support during his recovery, and as a memento of that support, Dole still keeps a cigar box where donations toward his medical costs were collected. For his service in the military, Dole was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. During his recovery, Dole also met his first wife, Phyllis Holden, who worked as a nurse in a Michigan hospital where Dole spent time. They married in June 1948.
After more than three years of recovery, Bob Dole took advantage of the G.I. Bill, which provided veterans with financial assistance for education. First, he attended the University of Arizona to study liberal arts. After a year there, he returned to Kansas to study law at Washburn Municipal College in Topeka. While attending college, Dole was encouraged to enter into politics. Dole ran as a Republican candidate for the Kansas state legislature (despite the fact that both of his parents were registered Democrats) and won. Something of a moderate at that time, Dole might have been influenced in his party affiliation by advice from Republican leader John Woelk, who said, "If you really want to do something in politics in Kansas, you'd better declare yourself a Republican." In 1952, Dole received his undergraduate and law degrees, was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in his hometown of Russell.
The early 1950s marked the beginning of Dole's prestigious career as a public official, which lasted for five decades. Dole held the aforementioned state legislature seat until 1953. After his term ended, he took up the position of county attorney of Russell County. In 1961, he was encouraged to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that was about to be vacated by a retiring incumbent. Because Dole had little name recognition outside of his home county, his campaign featured such gimmicks as a female singing group called Dolls for Dole, the handing out of hundreds of cups of free Dole brand juice and a coffin with a Frankenstein dummy in it bearing the sign, "You have nothing to fear with Dole." He also had his daughter, Robin (born in 1954), wear a banner saying, "I'm for Daddy—Are You?".
Dole won the Republican nomination, and went on to easily win the election over his Democratic opponent. Bob Dole won re-election to Congress twice more and, during this period, earned a reputation as a conservative willing to champion unpopular beliefs. One of these unpopular positions was supporting Barry Goldwater for president in 1964—a move that nearly lost him his second congressional term.
At the end of his third term in Congress, Dole decided to try for a position of more influence in the U.S. government. A longtime U.S. senator from Kansas told Dole that he was retiring and that Dole should not hesitate to begin campaigning for the seat. Dole did this with the same vigor and determination with which he had run for his seat in the House years before. Again, his work was rewarded with a resounding win. Dole was elected senator the same year that Richard Nixon was elected president: 1968. Dole became an advocate for Nixon against Democratic criticisms, and the Nixon administration took notice. Nixon became an adviser to Dole and helped him be named Republican National Chairman in 1971.
Early the following year, Dole finalized a divorce with his first wife. His dedication to politics and work had taken its toll on his marriage and family life: over the course of an entire year, he had eaten only two meals with his wife and daughter. Despite Dole's long absences, his former wife said she was "pretty stunned" when her husband of more than 23 years first told her that he wished to end their marriage. The year they were divorced, Dole met Elizabeth Hanford, who became his second wife in 1975. The couple remains married today.
Dole served in the Senate until 1996, winning re-elections in 1974, 1980, 1986 and 1992. During this time, he chaired many committees and established a conservative voting record as well as a reputation as a "hatchet man." This description refers to Dole's notoriety for speaking out adamantly against policies or proposals he thought unwise. This quality was an important factor in his being chosen as Gerald Ford's running mate in the 1976 presidential election. During the election, though, Dole was widely criticized for a comment he made about World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War being "Democrat wars." It is possible that this comment was one reason the campaign failed; Democrat Jimmy Carter was ultimately elected president.
However, Bob Dole's White House hopes were not dashed with the failed 1976 campaign. Next time, though, Dole intended to run for the presidency himself. He entered the Republican primary in 1980 and again in 1988. He lost both years, despite serving as acting Senate majority leader from 1985 to 1987, and as minority leader from 1987 to 1995. While again holding the position of majority leader in 1996, Dole finally won the Republican primary and was pitted against Democrat Bill Clinton, who was running for his second term as president.
But Dole's campaign resembled the Ford run in at least one major way: Dole was often criticized for being his own worst enemy. He lost the election to Clinton, and, having resigned from the Senate after winning the primary to focus fully on running for the presidency, left the life of an elected official for good.
In the years after his presidential run, Bob Dole dedicated his time and energy to his law firm, political activism, speaking engagements and philanthropic endeavors. He also starred in a widely seen commercial for Viagra. His wife, Elizabeth, also a former Republican senator, lost her seat in the 2008 elections. Dole still holds the record for longest-serving Republican leader.
While not in office, Dole has kept his hand in politics in recent years. He endorsed Mitt Romney for president in 2012 presidential campaign. He had a health crisis that November and spent some time in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Dole lobbied his former colleagues from his hospital bed, trying to get them to vote for the Convention of Persons with Disabilities legislation. After his release, he continued his efforts to win support for the bill, but it didn't garner enough votes to pass.
In 2013, Dole once again stepped into the political fray, when he publicly backed Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's choice for secretary of defense, during his confirmation hearings. In a statement published in the International Business Times, Dole said, "Hagel's wisdom and courage make him uniquely qualified to be secretary of defense and lead the men and women of our armed forces. Chuck Hagel will be an exceptional leader at an important time."
Since his retirement from politics, Bob Dole has also authored or co-authored numerous books, including the memoir One Soldier's Story.
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