Bob Dole had a political career of near misses, but it was the near-death experience in World War II that defines him more than any — as the political world mourned the loss of the “war hero” who died at 98 in his sleep Sunday morning.
Ultimately, he fell just short of what he once joked in 2014 was part of his life’s goal.
“That I lived to be 200, or at least 100,” Dole said then at age 91, “and that I have never forgotten where I was from.”
He almost never got close.
Army 2nd Lt. Dole was leading an assault against a German machine gun nest in Italy when enemy fire tore through his spine and right arm. He nearly died, spending three years enduring multiple operations and painful physical therapy.
He had to relearn how to walk and bathe and write, this time with an awkward left-hand scrawl. He never recovered use of his right hand and arm or the feeling in his left thumb and forefinger, making it difficult to button a shirt or cut his meat.
“Bob Dole was an American war hero and true patriot for our nation,” former President Donald Trump wrote in a statement Sunday from his Save America PAC, remembering Dole, who said earlier this year he was “still a Trumper” and was known as a sharp-tongue politician long before Trump became one himself.
“He served the Great State of Kansas with honor and the Republican Party was made stronger by his service. Our nation mourns his passing, and our prayers are with Elizabeth and his wonderful family,” Trump’s statement read.
Dole was only slowed by losing on the presidential ticket of President Gerald Ford’s post-Watergate reelection run and coming up short in three subsequent campaigns for president — the most crushing being a rout by President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection.
In typical Dole fashion, he found a way to gain strength from debilitating war injuries and soul-crushing defeats.
“They are parts of the same picture — the picture of a full life,” Dole said of his presidential losses.
He learned how to gain strength from misfortune, earning a law degree from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, in 1952, en route to representing his state in Washington, D.C., for nearly 36 years.
“I do try harder,” he once said. “If I didn’t, I’d be sitting in a rest home, in a rocker, drawing disability.”
Dole willed himself to walk again after paralyzing war wounds. He ran for Congress with a right arm too damaged to shake hands, instead, clutching a pen in his right hand to avoid embarrassing those who sought to shake it and reaching out with his left.
Despite being sharp-tongued on the right in Congress, he still earned the respect of his colleagues on the left.
“Bob Dole was a man to be admired by Americans,” President Joe Biden wrote in a statement Sunday. “He had an unerring sense of integrity and honor. May God bless him, and may our nation draw upon his legacy of decency, dignity, good humor, and patriotism for all time.”
Colleagues also admired his deadpan wit. Dole wasn’t a big talker; he was most comfortable communicating through a string of zingers and pointed asides.
Early on, Democrats dubbed him the GOP’s “hatchet man,” and Dole seemed born to play the part. His voice was gravelly, his face stony, his delivery prairie-flat, even when delivering a quip. He could seem hard-bitten, or bitter, or just plain mean when he lashed out at political opponents.
“Sen. Bob 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,” former President Barack Obama tweeted. “Our thoughts are with Elizabeth and the Dole family.”
Dole parodied himself on “Saturday Night Live,” wrote two collections of political humor, and made a surprising commercial for the anti-impotence drug Viagra, at a time when sexual troubles were not so openly discussed.
Dole later said people were always coming up to tell him they would have voted for him in 1996, if only he had been so free and funny in his presidential campaign.
“You’ve got to be very careful with humor,” he said. “It’s got to be self-deprecating or it can be terminal, fatal, if you’re out there just slashing away at someone else, and I’ve sort of learned that over the years.”
Dole announced this past February that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and he died in his sleep Sunday morning.
“Bob Dole dedicated his entire life to serving the American people, from his heroism in World War II to the 35 years he spent in Congress,” former President Clinton said in a statement. “After all he gave in the war, he didn’t have to give more. But he did. His example should inspire people today and for generations to come.”
Material from The Associated Press was used throughout this remembrance.