Bob Dole, Overcoming Adversity Every Day (Part II)
This is the second part of our profile on Sen. Bob Dole, focused on his incredible service to the United States of America. If you missed the first part, click here to read it now.
Dole ran for office for the first time in 1950 and was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives, serving a two-year term. After graduating from law school at Washburn University in Topeka, he was admitted to the bar and commenced the practice of law in his hometown of Russell in 1952.
Dole serving as country attorney in Russel, KS. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
That same year, Dole became the County Attorney of Russell County, serving in that position for eight years. In 1960, Dole was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Kansas’ 6th Congressional District, located in central Kansas. In 1962, his district was merged with the 3rd District in western Kansas to form the 1st Congressional District, a huge 60-county district that soon became known as the “Big First.” Dole was re-elected that year and twice thereafter without serious difficulty.
Dole meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
Rep. Dole (far right) meets with President John F. Kennedy and others in the White House. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
Dole (far left) meets with President LB Johnson and others. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
Dole meets with President Gerald Ford in the White House. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
Dole meets President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
In 1968, Dole defeated Kansas Governor William H. Avery for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate to succeed retiring Senator Frank Carlson, subsequently being elected. Dole was re-elected in 1974, 1980, 1986, and 1992, before resigning on June 11, 1996 to focus on his Presidential campaign.
Sen. Dole debates Congressman Roy in Kansas. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
Dole only faced one truly enthusiastic and well-financed challenger – in 1974 by Congressman Bill Roy. Much of Roy’s popularity was in response to the fallout from Watergate. Dole would win re-election in 1974 by only a few thousand votes, a tight race for any elected position. While in the Senate, Dole served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1971 until 1973, the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee from 1975 to 1978, and the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee from 1979 to 1980.
A Day in the Life of Senator Bob Dole
When he was Senator, Bob Dole overcame his disability to serve our country on a daily basis – at home, at the Senate, and in the public eye. This is an account from that time period.
Dole wakes up each day holding the sawed-off top of a wooden crutch, a gauze-covered block. He grips it through the night to keep his right hand from cramping. He rolls off his bad arm, which he usually sleeps on, and starts to get ready, allowing 50 extra minutes for complications.
His clothes are laid out the evening before, the buttons pre-buttoned to save time, except for the stubborn top one. That was Dole’s daughter’s job growing up. Robin Dole helped her father close his starchy collar. Cuff links relieve him of two extra buttons. For years, Dole resisted using a buttonhook; he wanted to do things himself. He couldn’t feel the buttons, so he fastened them by sight and never in the dark. Breaking a nail was a minor catastrophe.
“I used to use Velcro on my shirts,” says Dole, “and I wore these stupid ties that sort of hooked on. They looked like they felt: second-class.”
He prefers ties of a thin material; they’re easier to knot with one hand. He slips on loafers to avoid lacing, and snaps a shoulder pad into his undershirt to buttress his shattered frame. Elizabeth Hanford Dole buys her husband’s suits at Brooks Brothers, where tailors alter the sleeves to their unequal lengths.
“He doesn’t ever ask for any help,” Elizabeth says. “He doesn’t think about asking.” She does some little things anyway, like peeling his fruit, or opening milk containers and childproof bottles before she puts them away. “I’ll open orange juice cartons or I’ll hear him struggling to get that little tab out.”
Dole leaves the house with his suit jacket over his arm, so he doesn’t have to wrestle it on and then off again when he arrives at the Senate. He’ll tuck a couple of bills into his shirt pocket; no wallet to fumble with. He carries change in his left pants pocket, although he can’t feel the difference between the coins. If it’s raining, he’ll take an umbrella that opens and closes with a button.
As Senate majority leader, Dole has a driver. But he can drive an automatic, and even taught Robin to drive in their old Ford Falcon, which had a knob on its steering wheel to help him. For a birthday present, Elizabeth bought her husband power windows, replacing the hand-crank ones in his ’87 Chevy Celebrity. Dole’s main anxiety about driving, one that haunted him in the ’70s as he crossed desolate stretches of Kansas while campaigning by himself: What if the car gets a flat?
At the office, Dole’s phone is fitted with a shoulder cradle so he can talk while scribbling notes with his left hand. Mostly, he stores notes in his head. Dole’s friend Tom Korologos recalls an hour-long session with Richard M. Nixon, where the former president ran down a list of ideas. Korologos took several pages of notes; Dole pointed to his temple and said, “I got it in here.”
At the Senate, puzzled staffers sometimes pass around his scrawled messages to decipher. He prefers check-box memos that ask for yes/no replies. His writing travels at a slant down the page. His signature on a standard form letter passes through the “Sincerely yours,” through the white space and comes out the bottom, beneath the typed “Bob Dole.” For Republican National Committee fund-raising fliers and press releases, the printers cut out his signature and paste it on in the right direction.
“My handwriting isn’t too good,” Dole usually says under his breath when someone asks for an autograph. Mike Glassner, a senior adviser, is always there with a book or clipboard for the candidate to lean on. Dole calls Glassner his “portable office”; staffers call him “Dole’s right arm.”
Campaigning serves up another set of challenges. The most elementary political gestures are difficult for him: picking up babies, signing autographs, shaking hands. Dole deliberately keeps his right arm bent so the disparity in length isn’t obvious. Advance men stick to his right side, and he holds his trademark pen, to prevent people from grabbing his hand. Dole pivots clockwise preemptively, a quarter-turn toward an approaching person. (He once told Korologos that Nixon was the only man in Washington who thought to offer Dole his left hand.)
At rallies, Dole applauds by knuckling his right fist into his left palm. Aides sheathe the pages of his speeches in plastic so they turn easily. Sometimes when he speaks outdoors, Elizabeth worries that the pages will blow away: “How do you hold a speech down and turn the page?”
Reporters on the campaign plane have noted that by evening the candidate’s bad arm seems to ache, he lifts it up and kneads it. When asked about it, Dole says flatly: “It’s just a little uncomfortable, I hardly notice it. It’s not the kind of pain you have to take aspirin for or anything. A little pain in my right arm from time to time. Cold weather doesn’t help.” Which is why, whenever it’s warm, Dole holds meetings on his office terrace, and why he loves sunning at his vacation home in Florida.
When Dole isn’t working, he likes to exercise on his treadmill, wearing Nikes with Velcro straps and shorts with an elastic waistband. When he’s photographed on the treadmill, he wears a long-sleeve dress shirt to cover his wasted arm. Elizabeth bought him a rowing machine for Christmas; the straight-back pulling motion is one of the few his arm can negotiate. He also likes to read, although leafing through a hardcover book with one hand is clumsy; paperbacks are easier.
He rarely dines out. Many nights, the Doles eat Chinese takeout on trays in front of the television set. He uses his fork as a knife. Foods that do not require cutting are his favorites: ice cream, sandwiches, cinnamon buns, soup and a shrimp jambalaya that Elizabeth cooks.
At public events, a staff aide asks the chef to cut Dole’s meat in the kitchen, or a friend cuts his own steak, breaks a hard roll into bite-size pieces and then swaps plates. During his early campaigns, Dole developed a habit of leaving the dais and mixing with people out front, to avoid the embarrassment of asking someone to cut his food. Buffet lines are tricky and tuxedos stump him altogether.
“I can’t get the little tie on, the last step when you got to put the little thing in that little thing,” Dole says, and for the first time, frustration creeps into his voice. He is talking about a hook and eye. “I’ve hailed down waiters going by, or maids in hotel rooms, people on the elevator.”
Over the years, there have been a few excruciating incidents, like the time Dole stumbled while boarding the Senate subway. He was holding papers in his left arm, and he couldn’t break the fall. Dole smacked the concrete hard, bruising himself. His right arm began twitching uncontrollably. He grimaced and said, “It’s okay.” A man reached down to help him up, Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.).
A hundred times a day, in big and little ways, Dole is reminded of his limitations. Aside from his injuries, he has lost his prostate gland to cancer. Yet he says, “Compared to people with real disabilities, I think I’m very lucky.” And the dozens of friends, relatives and colleagues interviewed for this article say the same thing: They notice his abilities, not his disabilities.
“You tend to forget he might have a disability,” says Walt Riker, Dole’s former press secretary. Riker still wears black loafers out of affection for his old boss, and walks around gripping a pen in his right fist.
Riker recalls that on his first trip with the senator, they stopped at an airport cafeteria, where Dole bought a sweet roll wrapped in cellophane. “He said, `Hey, will you open this for me?’ and it shocked me,” says Riker. “When you’re around Bob Dole, he’s so dynamic and a tremendous physical force, to be suddenly opening a sweet roll for him was stunning.”
All day, Dole speeds around to make up for lost time, the extra minutes he’s wasted just putting on a shirt. His tie may stay cinched up because it’s hard to readjust, and he may be drinking cranberry juice instead of coffee because he lost a kidney in the war, but he’s there, around the conference table, pressing his colleagues at 2 a.m.
“The bottom line is,” says Riker, “we should all be so disabled as Bob Dole.”
When the Republicans took control of the Senate after the 1980 elections, Dole became chairman of the Finance Committee in 1981, serving until 1985. From 1985, when Howard Baker of Tennessee retired, until his resignation from the Senate, Dole was the leader of the Senate Republicans, serving as Majority Leader from 1985 until 1987 and again from 1995 to 1996. Dole served as Minority Leader from 1987 to 1995. Following the advice of conservative William Kristol, Dole flatly rejected the health care plan of Bill Clinton, remarking, “There is no crisis in health care.”
Dole had a moderate voting record and was widely considered to be one of the few Kansas Republicans who could bridge the gap between the moderate and conservative wings of the Kansas Republican Party. As a Congressman in the early ’60s, he supported the major civil rights bills, finding favor with moderates that supported the movement. When Johnson proposed the Great Society in 1964–65, Dole voted against some War on Poverty measures like public-housing subsidies and Medicare, establishing fiscal policy limits that appealed to conservatives. Dole’s first speech in the Senate in 1969 was a plea for federal aid for the handicapped. Later, as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, Dole joined liberal Senator George McGovern to lower eligibility requirements for federal food stamps, a liberal goal that was supported by Kansas farmers.
Teeth marks nick Bob Dole’s famous black pen. He holds it between his teeth while he shifts and tugs his suit jacket on, preparing to leave his Senate office. He maneuvers un-self-consciously, making small, friendly talk.
The Purple Heart pin he wears every day is tacked to his lapel. A $20 bill shows through his crisp white shirt pocket. His black loafers shine, his socks are pulled high and tight. The black comb he carries in his back pocket has done its job. Though Dole has often talked about wishing he were “whole again,” the man looks tanned, tall and handsome.
Yes, it takes Dole longer to do things, “but my mind’s good, my eyes are good, ears are good. . . . ” He is taking another inventory of sorts. “Did 3 1/2 miles on the treadmill yesterday and burned up about 500 calories. Trouble is you get hungry and you go down and eat a piece of candy; I had a piece of chocolate, that’s a hundred calories.”
In the room next door, neat, thin stacks of paper lie on his desk. His most treasured object, the Santa Fe cigar box that once sat on top of the lipstick showcase at Dawson’s Drugstore in Russell, now rests in his bottom right desk drawer, next to a box of tissues. Inside, are names and pledges. From a woman named Edith Ruppenthal, dated July 29, 1947: “I am herewith enclosing a small contribution — $1.00 of which is being sent by my friend, Mrs. Courtney, who heard me tell of Bob’s terrible misfortune.”
Buried under the slips is the fateful telegram: “THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON 2 LT DOLE ROBERT J WAS SERIOUSLY WOUNDED IN ITALY 14 APRIL 1945 . . .”
“When you join that group,” Dole says, “you say, `Why me?’ But after you’ve been there awhile, you have to decide what you’re going to do with your life.”
Dole’s hawkishness on the Vietnam War and on crime issues kept him in good standing with the right wing. When they heard Nixon might make Dole chairman of the Republican National Committee, half the Republican Senators protested, especially moderates who feared Dole would direct party assets to conservatives. They were wrong, as Dole in fact offered something to all Republican factions.
In 1976, Dole ran unsuccessfully for Vice President on a ticket headed by President Gerald Ford. Incumbent Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had withdrawn from consideration the previous fall, and Dole was chosen.
Dole ran for the 1980 Republican Presidential nomination, eventually won by Ronald Reagan. Despite Dole’s fame from the ’76 campaign, it was apparent that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were favorites early in the primaries. Dole would withdraw his nomination on March 15, 1980.
Dole made a more serious bid in 1988, formally announcing his candidacy in Russell, Kansas, on November 9, 1987. At the ceremony, Dole was presented with the cigar box that had been used to collect donations for his war-related medical expenses. The box contained $100,000 in campaign donations. Dole started out strong by solidly defeating then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucus. Bush finished third, behind television evangelist Pat Robertson. However, Bush recovered in time to defeat Dole in the New Hampshire primary a week later. The New Hampshire contest between the two was particularly hard-fought, although both candidates differed little on the issues.
Despite two big wins in South Dakota and Minnesota a week after New Hampshire, Dole was not able to recover. While he managed to raise almost as much money as the Bush campaign, the Dole campaign spent its money more aggressively in the early stages, and was vastly outspent in the contests held after IA, NH, MN, and SD. Despite a key Dole endorsement by Senator Strom Thurmond, one of many Republican senators who supported their leader, Dole was defeated by Bush again in South Carolina in early March. Several days later, every southern state voted for Bush in a “Super Tuesday” sweep. Another big victory in Illinois persuaded Dole to withdraw from the race. Dole was at the top of Bush’s list for a vice presidential candidate, but Bush later surprised the political establishment by instead choosing Indiana Senator Dan Quayle.
1996 presidential campaign
Dole was the early front runner for the GOP nomination in the 1996 presidential race. He was expected to win the nomination against underdog candidates such as the more conservative Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and more moderate Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. However, populist Pat Buchanan upset Dole in the early New Hampshire primary, with Dole finishing second and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander finishing third. Publisher Steve Forbes also ran and broadcast a stream of negative ads. At least eight candidates ran for the nomination.
It’s Bob Dole, examining his hand. He touches thumb to pinkie. “I have good feeling in this little finger,” he says, patting the end. He jumps to the next finger, the ring finger, testing it for sensation, coaxing it open to the first knuckle. “. . . And about half of this finger. The radial nerve, or something, is damaged.” His palm closes. End of inventory: 1 1/2 good fingers. The rest move freely, but are numb. They feel prickly, like sandpaper scratching cement.
This is Dole’s good hand. The other one, his right hand, is useless.
Fifty years he’s dreamed of repairing himself, and still the right arm hangs limp, emaciated, 2 1/2 inches shorter than the other arm, his fingers molded around a black felt-tip pen all day to keep them from spidering open.
“And of course my hands lost a lot of weight,” the senator says, haltingly. “I never did recover the flesh or the muscle, and it makes them look a little old.”
Sen. Robert J. Dole is not good at self-examination, at least not public self-examination. But the 1996 campaign forced him into unfamiliar territory: himself. Men of Dole’s generation, the war generation, believe in bearing their pain stoically. Theirs was not the era of Oprah. And so most people, even Kansans who have elected Dole nine times to Congress, have been unaware of the extent to which his war wounds limit his actions and hamstring his daily life.
But after three failed national campaigns, he is trying something new, something awkward and risky. He has spent most of his career attempting to prove that his handicap means nothing; now the arm that doesn’t work has a job. Tentatively, Dole has begun granting interviews like this one. He sits still, too still, like a man watching his blood being drawn into a syringe.
Campaign advisers have urged Dole to do this, to promote his human side and to highlight the difference between the Republican war hero wounded by the Germans, and President Clinton, who avoided the Vietnam-era draft. But others warn that the strategy is dangerous: Tying the 72-year-old Dole to World War II dates him, and the atrophied arm could be perceived as the ultimate cynical political prop.
“So it’s very sensitive, you have to be very careful,” Dole says. “I think I don’t have it down the way I want it to.” Dole is gingerly feeling his way, testing for mines.
“I’m not looking for pity, but I want people to know,” he says. His face is open and vulnerable. “Oh, you think about a lot of things you could do: push-ups, wrapping packages, buttoning your own shirt without a buttonhook, all kinds of little things.”
He is not talking to me now, he is talking to the rug. “Riding horses always looked like a lot of fun.” With a withered arm, you could fall on your face.
“Throwing out the opening pitch — I don’t know what I’d do if I get elected.” Dole is speaking with a pinched, embarrassed smile. “Probably throw it underhanded with my left hand.”
Dole eventually won the nomination, becoming the oldest first-time presidential nominee at the age of 73 years, 1 month (Ronald Reagan was 73 years, 6 months in 1984, for his second presidential nomination). In his acceptance speech, he stated “Let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action”, to which incumbent president and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton responded, “We do not need to build a bridge to the past we need to build a bridge to the future.” Dole however had been forced to spend more on the primary than he had planned and until the convention in San Diego faced federal limits on campaign spending. Dole hoped to use his long experience in Senate procedures to maximize publicity from his rare positioning as Senate Majority Leader against an incumbent President but was stymied by Senate Democrats. On June 11, 1996, Dole resigned his seat to focus on the campaign, saying he was either heading for “The White House or home”.
The incumbent, Bill Clinton, had no serious primary opposition. Dole promised a 15% across-the-board reduction in income tax rates and made former Congressman and supply side advocate Jack Kemp his running mate. Dole also found himself criticized from both the left and the right within the Republican Party over the convention platform, one of the major issues being the inclusion of the Human Life Amendment. Bill Clinton framed the narrative against Dole early, painting him as a mere clone of unpopular then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, warning America that Dole would work in concert with the Republican Congress to slash popular social programs, like Medicare and Social Security, dubbed by Clinton as “Dole-Gingrich”. Dole’s tax-cut plan found itself under attack from the White House, who said it would “blow a hole in the deficit” which had been cut nearly in half during his opponent’s term. Dole was defeated by Bill Clinton in the 1996 election. Clinton won in a 379-159 Electoral College landslide, capturing 49.2% of the vote against Dole’s 40.7% and Ross Perot’s 8.4% who drew equally from both candidates.
Dole is the only person in the history of the two major U.S. political parties to have been his party’s nominee for both President and Vice President, but who was never elected to either office.
Dole has worked part-time for a Washington, D.C. law firm, and engaged in a career of writing, consulting, public speaking, and television appearances. This has included becoming a television commercial spokesman for many commercial advertisers.
The Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, housed on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, Kansas, was established to bring bipartisanship back to politics. The Institute, which opened in July 2003 to coincide with Dole’s 80th birthday, has featured such notables as former President Bill Clinton and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Dole has written several books, including one on jokes told by the Presidents of the United States, in which he ranks the presidents according to their level of humor. On January 18, 1989, Dole was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Reagan. Then, on January 17, 1997, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his service in the military and his political career. Dole received the American Patriot Award in 2004 for his lifelong dedication to America and his service in World War II.
Dole’s legacy also includes a commitment helping establish the ADA – American with Disabilities Act – which President George H.W. Bush signed into law in July 1990. Dole was also committed to combating hunger both in the United States and around the globe. In addition to numerous domestic programs, along with former Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota), Dole created an international school lunch program through the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, which helps fight child hunger and poverty by providing nutritious meals to children in schools in developing countries. This program has since led to greatly increased global interest in and support for school-feeding programs — which benefit girls and young women, in particular — and won McGovern and Dole the 2008 World Food Prize.
Dole is special counsel at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Alston & Bird. On April 12, 2005, Dole released his autobiography One Soldier’s Story: A Memoir, which talks of his World War II experiences and his battle to survive his war injuries.
Dole also was responsible for helping raise the funds for the U.S. National World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
On June 28, 2004, Dole was named ‘Shining Star of Perseverance’ by the Assurant Employee Benefits Will Return Council.
On September 18, 2004, Dole offered the inaugural lecture to dedicate the University Of Arkansas Clinton School Of Public Service at which Dole chronicled his life as a public servant as well as discussed the importance of public service in terms of defense, civil rights, the economy, and in daily life.
In 2007, Dole joined fellow former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, and George Mitchell to found the Bipartisan Policy Center, a non-profit think tank that works to develop policies suitable for bipartisan support.
At age 92, Bob Dole embarked on what he terms his final mission – an effort to rescue the controversial and long-delayed memorial to his World War II commander, former Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the 34th President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower.
That same year, President George W. Bush appointed Dole and Donna Shalala co-chairs of a commission to investigate problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Bob Dole has spent almost his entire life serving our country, from the moment that he joined the war effort during World War II to present day. He’s worked with Democrats and Republicans on some of the most important legislation of our lifetimes, including the civil rights movement. And he’s done all this with a paralyzed right arm that would have kept most people from their dreams, much less from helping steer America as one of the most powerful senior Senators that has ever served.
Though I would have loved to see Sen. Dole rise to the office of President of the United States during any one of his presidential bids, I very much appreciate his courage and determination to overcome his own adversity and any opposition year after year. He’s always been a force to be reckoned with.
Left: Kevin Saunders heads up “Athletes for Dole”; Right: A meeting with Sen. Bob Dole.
One of my most cherished memories came from when he announced my appointment to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports into the Congressional record in 1990. He took to the podium and said, “I RISE TODAY TO PAY TRIBUTE TO KEVIN SAUNDERS, A NATIVE KANSAN AND A WORLD CLASS ATHLETE.” He said “world class athlete,” not “world class wheelchair athlete” or “world class disabled athlete.”
He didn’t address my disability, but instead celebrated my ability. That’s the type of man Mr. Dole is and has always been. While his own disability no doubt fueled his desire to support ADA legislation for the betterment of all differently abled people, that genuine care and desire to improve the lives of others has been there all along. He didn’t get the opportunity to become a doctor, as he imagined when he was in high school. The war all but eliminated that possibility. However, it gave us a leader shaped and strengthened by adversity who would be able to contribute so much more through a life of public service.
Mr. Dole, we salute you for your service, your sacrifice and your dedication to America and her people.
Keep Going for the GOLD! Never Give Up!
Kevin Saunders is a World Champion Paralympian, motivational speaker, athlete (with multiple gold medals) and author. Kevin Saunders was the first person with a disability appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness Sports (only 20 people are selected for this nationwide) by the President of the United States. Kevin Saunders was first chosen to be appointed to the prestigious Council by President George H.W. Bush and was the only person reappointed by to this Council by President Bill Clinton and he was reappointed again by President George W. Bush as a constituent expert to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. Learn more about Kevin’s story and accomplishments.
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