6 minute read

Robert Joseph Dole

Robert Joseph "Bob" Dole overcame childhood poverty and a wartime injury that left him partially paralyzed to become one of the most powerful players in national politics. The Republican majority leader from Kansas often won praise from Republicans and Democrats alike for finding a middle course through difficult issues. His long career in national politics put him at the center of major legislative debates; and whether in budgetary, social, or foreign policy matters, he often bridged party differences. These battles made him not only a skilled negotiator but, by the 1990s, the most powerful leader in his party. His politics were generally characterized by economic conservatism, support for CIVIL RIGHTS, and moderation on social issues. In addition to being a vice presidential candidate in 1976, Dole mounted three presidential campaigns, in 1980, 1988, and 1996.

The values of Dole's working-class family informed his upbringing. He was born on July 22, 1923, in Russell, Kansas, the son of an egg and cream station owner, Doran Ray Dole, and a traveling sewing machine saleswoman, Bina Talbot Dole. An athletic young man, Dole excelled in football, basketball, and track. He worked at several jobs and wanted to be a doctor. At age 18, he enrolled in the pre-med program at the University of Kansas. Drafted two years later, in 1943, he found himself fighting in Italy. WORLD WAR II had almost ended in April 1945 when a shell hit him on the battlefield, smashing his neck, shoulder, and spine. Doctors thought he would be crippled. But Dole's persistence through three years of operations and therapy brought an amazing recovery. His only permanent disabilities are a lack of control of his right arm and hand, and partial loss of control of his left.

The 25-year-old survivor was transformed. With new earnestness, he finished his under-graduate studies at the University of Arizona and earned a law degree with honors from Washburn University of Topeka.


Law quickly led to politics. Dole served one term in the Kansas Legislature in 1951, and for the remainder of the decade worked as a prosecutor in his local county. He entered national politics in 1960 with election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he won reelection

Bob Dole.

every two years through 1968. Dole advocated fiscal conservatism while supporting limited WELFARE spending. He voted against the GREAT SOCIETY programs of President LYNDON B. JOHNSON, but he supported aid to hungry and DISABLED PERSONS and to farmers. He strongly backed civil rights legislation, a position from which he never wavered throughout his career. His model in politics—and the figure who ultimately became his mentor—was RICHARD M. NIXON, a friend since the 1950s. Dole's election to the U.S. Senate in 1968 gave President Nixon a vociferous supporter, and earned Dole the post of Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman in 1971.

The 1970s and 1980s brought Dole prominence in national politics. One reason for this was his marriage in 1975 to Elizabeth Hanford, an accomplished Harvard graduate who later held the posts of secretary of transportation and secretary of labor. Dole's chairmanship of the RNC also brought dividends. In 1976, President GERALD R. FORD chose Dole as his vice presidential running mate in an unsuccessful bid for reelection. The 1976 race whetted Dole's appetite for more, and he mounted his own campaign for president in 1980, losing out to RONALD REAGAN.

In 1984, Dole was elevated to Senate majority leader. Although his function in this role was to deliver party loyalty on votes in the Senate, he also became a strong supporter of President Reagan. During the IRAN-CONTRA scandal, Dole took a leading role in damage control. He made public reassurances and traveled the United States to rally support for the president.

Dole made another bid for president after Reagan's departure in 1988. This unsuccessful struggle for the Republican nomination against Vice President GEORGE H. W. BUSH revealed what many critics had long seen as a mixed blessing in Dole: his acerbic tongue. This had appeared as an issue as early as 1976, when, while campaigning as Gerald Ford's running mate, Dole had ridiculed Democratic candidate JIMMY CARTER as "Southern Fried McGovern." In 1988, again while campaigning, he lashed out at George H. W. Bush on national TV, saying

Bush had lied about him. The attack on Bush raised some speculation about whether Dole could control his temper.

In 1996, Dole's third run for the White House was characterized by a rightward shift. Soon after declaring his candidacy, he attacked Hollywood for making movies that "revel in mindless violence and loveless sex." Dole called for making English the nation's official language, returned the campaign contribution of a gay Republican organization (later calling the move a mistake), and quit attending a United Methodist church that conservative critics had denounced as excessively liberal.

More crucially, perhaps, Dole's ideas on economics now resembled those that he had found untenable in President Reagan. The senator who had won bipartisan praise for a 1982 tax compromise now told voters, "We can cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time." And less apparent was his trademark willingness to compromise: throughout late 1995 and early 1996, Dole and House Majority Leader NEWT GINGRICH (R-Ga.) engaged in a budget deadlock with President BILL CLINTON that forced a shutdown of the federal government. He lost the 1996 election to Clinton.

Although he retired from elective politics in 1996, Dole remained active. In 1997, President Clinton awarded Dole the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. That same year, Dole was appointed chair of the International Commission on Missing Persons, an organization established to help find information on the fates of thousands of persons missing in the former Yugoslavia; and chair of the National World War II Memorial, the first national memorial dedicated to those who served in World War II. He also helped establish the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. In 1998, he campaigned in 37 states for Republican candidates; in 2000, he was active in GEORGE W. BUSH's campaign for the presidency; and in 2002, he worked on the successful senatorial campaign of his wife Elizabeth.

After the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, Dole joined with Clinton, his former political rival, as co-chair of a scholarship fund that raised money to provide education assistance to the families of persons killed or wounded in the terrorist attacks. In 2003, Dole began a series of appearances with Clinton on the CBS news show Sixty Minutes. The format of the segment, two-minute debates on highly topical subjects, was based on the show's highly popular Point/Counterpoint segments that aired in the 1970s. Noting that both his wife and President Clinton's wife were freshman senators, Dole quipped that they had permission to do the show, "We both cleared it with our wives so we won't get into trouble."


Bob Dole website. Available online at <www.bobdole.org> (accessed July 1, 2003).

Moraes, Lisa. 2003. "Clinton and Dole Agree to Disagree Weekly on 'Sixty Minutes'." Washington Post (March 6).

The Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. Available online at <www.ku.edu/~dole> (accessed July 1, 2003).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Directed Verdict to Do Not Attempt Resuscitation order (DNAR order)