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Bob Dole, the longtime lawmaker who overcame life-threatening injuries during World War II to become a shepherd of the Republican Party, died in his sleep Sunday at the age of 98.
Dole’s death was confirmed by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation in a statement Sunday.
“It is with heavy hearts we announce that Senator Robert Joseph Dole died early this morning in his sleep,” the foundation said. “At his death, at age 98, he had served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years.”
His family also released a statement about Dole’s death Sunday, saying that they have lost their rock, adding that they shared Dole with Americans “from every walk of life” over the decades.
“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.”
It is with heavy hearts we announce that Senator Robert Joseph Dole died early this morning in his sleep. At his death, at age 98, he had served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years. More information coming soon. #RememberingBobDole pic.twitter.com/57NtGfqtmL
In February, Dole revealed that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and said he was starting treatment.
President Joe Biden reflected on his decades-long friendship with Dole, who he worked with on opposite sides of the Senate floor throughout their careers. In a statement Sunday afternoon, Biden described Dole as a man with “an unerring sense of integrity and honor.”
“Bob was an American statesman like few in our history. A war hero and among the greatest of the Greatest Generation,” Biden said. “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.”
Dole was among one of the first people he spoke to outside of the White House administration after being sworn in as president earlier this year, Biden said. The two also spoke following Dole’s cancer diagnosis, Biden saying he wanted to offer the same support Dole offered him after Biden’s late son, Beau, was diagnosed.
“Like all true friendships, regardless of how much time has passed, we picked up right where we left off, as though it were only yesterday that we were sharing a laugh in the Senate dining room or debating the great issues of the day, often against each other, on the Senate floor,” Biden said. “I saw in his eyes the same light, bravery, and determination I’ve seen so many times before.”
A former Senate majority leader and the 1996 Republican nominee for president, the native of Russell, Kansas, represented an earlier version of the GOP that had come through the Great Depression and did not shy away from a muscular use of government at home and abroad. He championed expanding the federal food stamp program, bringing awareness to disabilities, and sending U.S. troops to foreign conflicts.
He was one of the oldest first-time presidential nominees at age 73, but even after retiring from politics after losing the race to President Bill Clinton, Dole didn’t shy away from the limelight. He took on a new career starring in television commercials for Viagra, Visa and other brands. He also kept his commitment to fellow war veterans, spending Saturdays well into his 90s greeting veterans who flew to Washington, courtesy of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit that arranges such flights for veterans.
Clinton tweeted following Dole’s death on Sunday, offering a tribute to his former presidential opponent who had “dedicated his entire life to serving the American people.”
“After all he gave in the war, he didn’t have to give more. But he did,” Clinton said. “His example should inspire people today and for generations to come.”
Despite failing in his quest for the presidency, Dole had an impressive run in politics. He was the top-ranking Republican in the Senate for nearly 11 years (a record until Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., beat it); he was President Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976; and in January 2018, he received a Congressional Gold Medal, making him only the eighth senator to be so honored.
“I want to thank all those who’ve said such kind words about me,” Dole said when he received the award, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress. Then he joked: “They’re probably not true, but they were nice.”
Dole came from humble beginnings. He was born Robert Joseph Dole on July 22, 1923, in Russell; his father sold dairy products and his mother was a traveling saleswoman, selling sewing machines and other products.
Dole grew up wanting to become a doctor. That changed after World War II, which nearly killed him and left him permanently disabled, earning him two Purple Hearts and two awards of the Bronze Star.
Dole registered for the Army in 1942 and was a second lieutenant when he was sent to Italy in 1944. The following year, while attempting to rescue an army radioman, Dole got caught in a German machine gun attack that cost him a kidney, shattered his right shoulder and damaged his neck and spine, leaving him temporarily paralyzed from the neck down.
In a letter to his parents at the time, the Army wrote, “At the present time it would appear that his recovery is somewhat questionable.” But Dole beat the odds, and after years of treatment, had regained much of his movement.
His arms never fully recovered — his left remained partially numb for the rest of his life, and he never got back the use of his right arm.
In political and other public appearances in his later years, Dole would often spend hours gripping a pen or some other object in his right hand to signal that he couldn’t shake hands on that side and to keep his fingers from splaying.
The injuries had a lasting effect. He told The New York Times five decades after the attack that he allowed 50 extra minutes in the morning to get dressed, and that he tried to avoid any clothing with buttons.
Dole first entered politics when he returned to school in Kansas after the war in the 1950s, winning a seat for the Kansas state Legislature as a Republican. He received a law degree and became county attorney for Russell County, before a successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960. He went on to become elected a senator and served in the Senate from 1969 until 1996; he was also the Republican national chairman in 1971.
As his political career was taking off, his first marriage fell apart. Dole and his wife, Phyllis Holden, with whom he had one daughter, Robin, were divorced. He married his second wife, Elizabeth Hanford, in 1975; Elizabeth Dole later was elected a senator in North Carolina, in 2002.
Bob Dole’s politics were characterized by a commitment to the disadvantaged, whether it was spearheading the passage of the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act or combating hunger and poverty.
But he butted heads with other politicians, most notably in 1976 when, as then-President Ford’s running mate, he blamed the casualties of more than 1.6 million American soldiers on “Democrat wars” during a vice presidential debate and in 1988, while running for president, told then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, his Republican presidential primary opponent and a fellow veteran, on live television to “stop lying about my record,” then called Bush a “qualified loser.”
The rivalry between the two was long-lasting, but, ultimately, forgiven. After Bush’s death in 2018, in one of the most striking moments when the former president was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, Dole was helped up from his wheelchair by an aide to shakily stand before Bush’s casket. With tears filling his eyes, Dole silently raised his left hand in salute to the flag-draped casket before sitting back down.
After retiring from politics, Dole continued to work for the international law firm Alston & Bird. He met with veterans at the National World War II Memorial, which he had led a campaign for that brought in more than $170 million before it opened in 2004. And he spoke out about men’s health issues, including his own prostate cancer diagnosis, in a Viagra commercial in 1998 (doubts over whether that was the right choice were quelled by women who came up to him in airports to “say, simply, ‘Thank you, Senator,'” he later wrote).
Though his time in the Senate did not overlap with Dole’s, former President Barack Obama said that he was grateful to have been able to get to know him before his death. He offered his condolences to Dole’s family, adding that he and his wife, Michelle, were saddened by the news Sunday.
“Senator Dole was a war hero, a political leader, and a statesman – with a career and demeanor harkening back to a day when members of the Greatest Generation abided by a certain code, putting country over party,” Obama said. “His sharp wit was matched only by his integrity, and he lived his life in a way that made it clear just how proud he was to be an American, and how committed he was to making this country was everything he knew it could be.”
Former President Donald Trump also offered a brief statement Sunday, calling Dole a “true patriot” and American war hero.
“He served the Great State of Kansas with honor and the Republican Party was made stronger by his service,” Trump said. “Our Nation mourns his passing, and our prayers are with Elizabeth and his wonderful family.”
Dole reflected on life following his failed 1996 presidential bid in an op-ed article in The Washington Post in 2012.
“Sure, losing an election hurts, but I’ve experienced worse. And at an age when every day is precious, brooding over what might have been is self-defeating,” he wrote.
Answering letters from veterans and meeting them in person gave him more satisfaction than anything else, he added.
“In their company, I am reminded of just how much life there is after presidential politics,” he wrote. “The greatest of life’s blessings cannot be counted in electoral votes.”
Elizabeth Chuck is a reporter for NBC News who focuses on health and mental health, particularly issues that affect women and children.
Doha Madani is a breaking news reporter for NBC News. Pronouns: she/her.
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