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Profiles in Leadership: Robert Joseph Dole

December 7, 2021


America continues to lose members of what has been called “the Greatest Generation.” Raised during the depression and molded by war, they defined what makes America great. One such American was Robert “Bob” Dole. Journalist Gerald F. Seib (@GeraldFSeib) sums up Dole’s remarkable life this way: “Bob Dole went from the plains of Kansas to the battlefields of Italy, where he was left for dead with grievous wounds, before a dogged recovery enabled him to become a widely respected leader of the Senate and Republican nominee for both president and vice president.”[1] No man’s life, however, can be summed up in a single sentence — certainly not Bob Dole’s life.


First and foremost, he was a man of the plains. Born in Russell, Kansas, on 22 July 1923, he was both bright and athletic. As a young adult, he attended the University of Kansas, where he played both basketball and football. He also joined the Army Reserve. Before he was able to graduate from college, he was called to active duty. Never a man to take the easy route, he signed up with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and he eventually found himself fighting in Italy. In 1945, during his unit’s attempt to overrun a German stronghold, he demonstrated the mettle that would define his life. In an attempt to rescue an injured radioman, the future senator was grievously wounded in his right arm. Blood clots and infections, suffered during an agonizing recovery, eventually left him without the use of that arm. For his wartime actions, he received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star Medal.


Following the war, the handsome, but physically-restricted, young Dole entered politics, winning a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives in 1950. Eventually, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and eventually became an influential Senator. Widely respected, President Gerald Ford asked him to be his running mate in a losing campaign against Jimmy Carter. Journalist Katharine Q. Seelye (@kseelye) writes, “A Republican, Mr. Dole was one of the most durable political figures in the last decades of the last century. He was nominated for vice president in 1976 and then for president a full 20 years later. He spent a quarter-century in the Senate, where he was his party’s longest-serving leader until Mitch McConnell of Kentucky surpassed that record in June 2018.”[2]


Despite his fierce loyalty to the Republican Party, he knew how to navigate bipartisan politics. Among the comments President Joe Biden made following Senator Dole’s death were these:


In the Senate, though we often disagreed, he never hesitated to work with me or other Democrats when it mattered most. He and Ted Kennedy came together to turn Bob’s lifelong cause into the Americans with Disabilities Act — granting tens of millions of Americans lives of greater dignity. On the Social Security Commission, he led a bipartisan effort with Pat Moynihan to ensure that every American could grow old with their basic dignity intact. When he managed the bill to create a federal holiday in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. — a bill that many in his own caucus opposed — I will never forget what he said to our colleagues: ‘No first-class democracy can treat people like second-class citizens.’ Another bipartisan effort, the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, provided school meals and food for nursing mothers and young children. It saved the lives of countless young people who would otherwise have died in infancy — and brought dignity to tens of millions of families at home and abroad. This work, for Bob, was about more than passing laws. It was written on his heart.”


The President declared, “Bob was an American statesman like few in our history. A war hero and among the greatest of the Greatest Generation. And to me, he was also a friend whom I could look to for trusted guidance, or a humorous line at just the right moment to settle frayed nerves. I will miss my friend.” The feeling of friendship and respect was mutual. Despite supporting President Trump for re-election, Dole insisted, “[President Biden is] a great, kind, upstanding, decent person.”


Although his friends knew his softer side, in public Senator Dole more often than not assumed a more hard-nosed persona. During 1976 campaign, President Ford told him, “You’re going to be the tough guy.”[4] It was a role he dutifully carried out. During a Vice Presidential debate, the candidate for the Democrats, Senator Walter F. Mondale, declared, “I think Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight.”[5] Years later, he indicated that he regretted taking on the tough guy role. He said, “I went for the jugular — my own.” That comment, like so many other comments, demonstrated the human and humorous side of the political tough guy. Journalist James Gerstenzang (@jimgerstenzang) reports, “After he lost the 1996 presidential race, he feigned indifference to the result: ‘I slept like a baby,’” he said, then adding: ‘Woke up crying every two hours.’”[6]


Gerstenzang adds that what Dole’s colleagues will always remember about him was his ability to get things done. Gerstenzang quotes comments made by Kenneth M. Duberstein, who served first as the Reagan White House’s chief congressional liaison and later as Reagan’s chief of staff. In those positions, Duberstein worked closely with the senator and he stated, “Dole was a wizard at putting together coalitions. It was always the art of the possible with Bob Dole.”


Since first joining the Army Reserve in his early twenties, Bob Dole repeatedly swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. It was an oath he took seriously and one he kept until the very end. Concerning Trump’s false claims about having won the election, Dole commented, “He lost the election, and I regret that he did, but they did. He had Rudy Giuliani running all over the country, claiming fraud. He never had one bit of fraud in all those lawsuits he filed and statements he made.”[7] In a posthumously published op-ed piece, Senator Dole expressed the dismay he felt as he watched the 6 January 2020 insurrection.[8] He wrote:


I thought about the symbol of our democracy consumed by anger, hatred and violence. There has been a lot of talk about what it will take to heal our country. We have heard many of our leaders profess ‘bipartisanship.’ But we must remember that bipartisanship is the minimum we should expect from ourselves. America has never achieved greatness when Republicans and Democrats simply manage to work together or tolerate each other. We have overcome our biggest challenges only when we focused on our shared values and experiences. These common ties form much stronger bonds than political parties. I cannot pretend that I have not been a loyal champion for my party, but I always served my country best when I did so first and foremost as an American. … When we prioritize principles over party and humanity over personal legacy, we accomplish far more as a nation. By leading with a shared faith in each other, we become America at its best: a beacon of hope, a source of comfort in crisis, a shield against those who threaten freedom. Our nation’s recent political challenges remind us that our standing as the leader of the free world is not simply destiny. It is a deliberate choice that every generation must make and work toward. We cannot do it divided. I do have hope that our country will rediscover its greatness. … I will count on tomorrow’s leaders to stand up for what is right for America. With full optimism and faith in our nation’s humanity, I know they will.


With the passing of Bob Dole, America has lost a great leader — a man of unquestioned integrity and character. Rest in peace, Senator.



[1] Gerald F. Seib, “Bob Dole, Longtime Senator and Republican Leader, Dies at 98,” The Wall Street Journal, 5 December 2021.
[2] Katharine Q. Seelye, “Bob Dole, Old Soldier and Stalwart of the Senate, Dies at 98,” The New York Times, 5 December 2021.
[3] President Joe Biden, “Statement of President Joe Biden on the Passing of Senator Bob Dole,” The White House, 5 December 2021.
[4] James Gerstenzang, “Robert J. Dole, longtime GOP leader who sought presidency 3 times, dies at 98,” The Washington Post, 5 December 2021.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Susan Page, “At 98 and facing cancer, Bob Dole reckons with legacy of Trump and ponders future of GOP,” USA Today, 22 July 2021.
[8] Bob Dole, “Bob Dole: America needs unity to rediscover its greatness,” The Washington Post, 6 December 2021.

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