Bob Dole, Kansas political icon, dies at 98 after battle with lung cancer

Former U.S. senator hailed as America hero and statesman

By: and - December 5, 2021 11:11 am
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, a former U.S. senator from Kansas, is preparing to undergo treatment Monday for lung cancer. (Pool photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole died Sunday at age 98 after battling lung cancer. (Pool photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

TOPEKA — Kansas political icon Bob Dole, who represented the state for decades in Washington, D.C., and was the Republican nominee for president in 1996, died Sunday morning at age 98.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation announced his death. He said in February he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

“It is with heavy hearts we announce that Senator Robert Joseph Dole died early this morning in his sleep,” the foundation said in a statement. “At his death, at age 98, he had served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years.”

President Joe Biden, who served with Dole in the Senate, praised the Kansas Republican as a personal friend and “American statesman like few in our history.” Biden ordered flags lowered to half-staff in honor of Dole until Dec. 9. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly likewise issued an order to lower flags.

“He had an unerring sense of integrity and honor,” Biden said. “May God bless him, and may our nation draw upon his legacy of decency, dignity, good humor, and patriotism for all time.”

Dole was a small-town athlete and gritty World War II veteran who molded himself into one of Kansas’ most distinctive politicians. He served briefly in the Kansas Legislature before launching a career in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate running from 1969 to 1996. He was the GOP leader of the Senate for the last 11 years in elective politics.

He stepped away from that political role after winning the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1996. He previously was the vice presidential nominee, running with President Gerald Ford.

Former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, the Kansas Republican who served alongside Dole for nearly two decades, said his death marked the loss of “a friend who was a great, great leader for Kansas.”

Baker said it bothered Dole that the country has become so divided. She said some of the major pieces of legislation that Dole helped to pass depended on his ability to work across the aisle.

“He knew it did make a difference in how efficient, effective and meaningful our government could be and should be,” Baker said. “So he will remain an example of what’s best in our political lives, of our state and our country.”

Over the past year, Baker said, the two had talked about their time together in the Senate, where she served from 1978 until 1997. The two didn’t always agree.

“I used to tell him I knew I was a thorn in his side on occasion,” Baker said. “The difference then and how it is today is respect. You might not agree on that particular issue in the moment, but you respected the person you were working with or working against. I have the highest respect for Bob, because deep down, he could be hurt, many times, but he always had a sense of humor.”

During decades of campaigns, he flashed sensitivity and charm. He was a pragmatist in terms of public policy who bristled at the tea party conservatives. He was a solid Republican, but didn’t view bipartisanship as a weakness.

“His biography speaks for itself,” former U.S. Sen. John Danforth of Missouri said during the 2008 GOP national convention. “He was very, very, very good at getting things done. The most frequent Bob Dole line was, ‘Have you got it worked out yet?’ ”

Dole was married to Elizabeth Dole, who also served in the U.S. Senate and was secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

His life in politics followed service in the U.S. Army and sustaining of crippling injuries during combat in Italy. In April 1945, while engaged in fighting in mountains near Bologna, Dole was struck by fragments of a German shell. His injuries were to his spine, upper back, right arm and collarbone.

“I lay face down in the dirt,” Dole said. “I could not see or move my arms. I thought they were missing.”

He slowly recovered in hospitals, but he had limited movement of his right arm. He would carry a pen in his right hand and shake hands with his left.

Dole received two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor. He was a fervent advocate for people with disabilities and of military veterans. He went on to serve as national chairman of the campaign to raise money for building the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

He was born in Russell, Kansas, where his father earned money by running a small creamery. He enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1941. He participated in KU football, basketball and track. His studies at KU were interrupted by the war. Once his health allowed it, Dole enrolled at the University of Arizona. He later transferring to Washburn University in Topeka, where he received undergraduate and law degrees.

The Robert Dole Institute of Politics, established in 2003 at KU, maintains a mission of bringing bipartisanship back to national politics.

In 1997, Dole received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. He was presented the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989 by President Ronald Reagan.

This developing story will be updated.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.

Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.