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Robert J. Dole

Robert J. Dole

Robert J. Dole (born 1923) of Kansas represented that state in the Senate from 1968 until 1996. He served as Republican National Committee chair under President Richard Nixon and was Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976. As Senate majority leader during the second administration of President Ronald Reagan and again from 1994 to 1996, Dole was an articulate spokesperson for Republican policies. Dole won the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, but lost the general election to the incumbent president, Bill Clinton.

Born in a one bedroom home in the small Kansas town of Russell on July 22, 1923, Robert J. Dole knew the hard scrabble life of Plains states' folks at first hand. Doran, his father, ran a grain elevator while his mother, Tina (Talbott), sold sewing machines. Dole and his three siblings grew up in a larger, more comfortable home than he had been born in, but his parents rented the upper floor to earn extra income.

His childhood was the commonplace one of a farmtown boy: Methodist church meetings, Boy Scouts, public schools, a strict loving home life, and a penchant for work. An honor secondary school student, Dole was extremely ambitious, at one time entertaining the dream of medical school. He had a passion for sports and won letters in running, football, and basketball. At the University of Kansas (Lawrence) he enrolled in a pre-med course and continued his athletics, becoming a star quarter-miler.

Life Threatened in War

In 1943, Dole's studies were interrupted by World War II and he began training in various military specialties at schools around the country, completing his training as an infantry second lieutenant at Fort Benning (Georgia) Officer Candidate School. Assigned as a platoon leader to the 10th Mountain Division in Italy in early 1945, he saw action against German units in March. A month later—on April 14, 1945—he received a wound which kept him hospitalized for more than three years and left him with a permanently disabled right arm.

For a while there was no guarantee he would live, since the shell hit his shoulder and spine, paralyzing all his limbs. When the European war ended less than four weeks after he was injured, Dole's private war with deadly infection, experimental drugs, grueling therapy, and many operations had just begun. These tested his spirit and courage deeply and sharpened two qualities which characterized him later: optimism and tenacity.

In 1948, while in the hospital, he met and married Phyllis Holden, by whom he had his only child, Robin. Phyllis was a physical therapist who aided him in his return to school. He took up his education again, this time at Washburn University (Topeka) where he earned bachelor's and law degrees.

Political Career Led to Washington

Dole discarded medicine as a career in favor of politics, and even before he had earned his law degree he ran for and won a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. After a single term as state lawmaker (1951-1953), Dole ran for Russell County prosecutor, a post he held for seven years until his successful 1960 race for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Dole served as a member of the six-person Kansas House delegation for one term, survived the 1960 reapportionment—which cost the state one seat—in his second race, and was re-elected twice more. During his eight years as a House member (1961-1969) Dole came across as a combative, rural-oriented, conservative Republican opposed on principle to much of the Great Society's program. In 1964, for example, he voted to prohibit the Supreme Court from interfering in reapportionment cases involving state legislatures, voted against the Economic Opportunity Act, and opposed the Urban Mass Transportation Act. He did support the Civil Rights Act of that year, however, and backed similar legislation throughout his career. In 1968 he took advantage of the retirement of a Republican incumbent and won the nomination as the Republican Party's candidate for the Senate. In the general election he defeated moderate Democrat William Robinson decisively, winning more than 60 percent of the popular vote.

Dole emerged in the Senate of the 91st Congress (1969-1971) as a powerful national figure. Service on the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee gave him the opportunity to keep fences mended at home. He also gave a good deal of time on party matters, devoting himself to the Nixon Administration's efforts to build a new national Republican coalition. Resented by some party liberals, he nevertheless became Nixon's choice for chair of the Republican National Committee and won high praise from the president for his part in the stunning victory of 1972.

Untouched by Watergate, Dole continued his growth in the Senate, winning a second term in 1974 and climbing the seniority ladder. His conservative voting record helped him win the nomination as President Gerald Ford's vice presidential candidate at the Kansas City (Missouri) Republican convention in August, 1976. The selection was viewed as a means of placating party conservatives, angry over Ford's choice of Nelson Rockefeller as his first vice president. Dole won the support of Western and Midwestern voters but was widely criticized as Ford's "hatchet man." He and Governor Jimmy Carter's vice presidential candidate, Senator Walter Mondale, participated in the explosive and precedent-setting first vice presidential debate at Houston, Texas, in October. Both Dole and Mondale emerged from the 1976 election as national figures. Dole returned to the Senate floor, Mondale mounted to the chair of president of the Senate.

Dole's life's work was also his hobby and all consuming interest: he lived politics every working hour. Meanwhile, he had experienced upheaval in his personal life. His marriage to Phyllis Holden ended in divorce in 1972, and three years later, on December 6, 1975, he married a brilliant Harvard-educated activist lawyer named Elizabeth (Liddy) Hanford. The couple became one of Washington's most powerful teams as Senator Dole won election as majority leader of the Republican-controlled Senate in January 1985; Elizabeth Dole had already been confirmed as President Reagan's Secretary of Transportation. Among numerous other posts, she also served as Secretary of Labor and director of the American Red Cross. She also assisted her husband in creating the Dole Foundation, which raised millions of dollars to assist disabled Americans.

Recurring Candidate for the Presidency

Dole made a very brief run for the presidential nomination in 1980, but he was overwhelmed by Ronald Reagan. His disappointment over his early poor showing was tempered somewhat by the fact that the Republicans gained control of the Senate as well as the Presidency. Dole became chair of the Finance Committee with an important role in ushering President Reagan's economic policies through Congress. He became majority leader of the Senate in late 1984 and helped craft a comprehensive deficit reduction bill in 1985.

In November of 1986, the Democrats regained the Senate, and Dole was demoted to leading the minority party. As the two terms of the Reagan Administration drew to a close, Dole decided once again to seek the presidency, this time with more organization, stature, and money than he had had in 1980. He battled early and often with George Bush, Reagan's vice president, who ultimately won the 1988 Republican nomination and the election.

Dole seemed to receive a new lease on life when Democratic candidate Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. With the Presidency no longer in Republican hands, Dole became the nation's head Republican. Early in the Clinton Administration, Dole became a fixture on television news shows, positioning himself as the chief spokesperson against the president's policies. He led Senate Republicans in filibusters against Clinton's legislation, and he forced Clinton to scale back an economic stimulus bill the President tried to steer through Congress early in the Administration. Already in 1993, Dole was visiting the early presidential primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

In 1994, Republicans won the House for the first time in four decades, and they regained control of the Senate where Dole once again became majority leader. As the Republicans worked to fulfill the "Contract with America" with which they had won in '94, Dole planned his third attempt for presidential office.

Loses to Bill Clinton in 1996

The first primaries early in 1996 went badly. Candidate Steve Forbes made Dole the target of some $25 million in negative advertising, and Dole lost races to Forbes and Patrick Buchanan. With the Republican party establishment rallying to his defense, Dole locked up the nomination in March. He initially tried to remain majority leader while campaigning for the presidency. However, the Democrats frustrated his legislative efforts so successfully that he was forced to leave the Senate. In June of 1996, he ended his 35-year congressional career by resigning both as Senator from Kansas as well as majority leader.

Dole spent the next four months crisscrossing the country on the campaign trail. Even before the contest was over, many Republicans criticized Dole for doing a poor job of delivering the party's messages. Polls showed that the two televised presidential candidates debates in October helped Clinton and hurt Dole. In election day exit polls, seven out of ten voters said they did not believe Dole's promise to cut taxes by fifteen percent, the key theme of his campaign. It traditionally has been difficult to defeat an incumbent president during times of peace and economic prosperity. However, a New York Times analysis concluded that Dole's "third run for the presidency was plagued by missteps, indecision, and strategic blunders so fundamental that they bordered on amateurish."

Clinton won handily in an election marked by the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. Clinton took 49 percent of those voting and carried 31 states. Dole received 41 percent of the popular vote and won 19 states. (Reform Party candidate Ross Perot took another eight percent of the vote.) Yet the election was hardly a rout for the Republicans. The GOP maintained majority control of both the House and Senate and elected a majority of the nation's governors.

After the election, the Doles remained in Washington, D. C., where Elizabeth Dole served as president of the American Red Cross. Robert Dole joined the law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand. A major lobbying concern, Verner Liipfert represented foreign nations as well as some of the largest business corporations in the U.S. and abroad. Dole became the senior Republican among the firm's lobbyists, whose roster included three former Democratic governors and two former Democratic senators.

Altogether—including their earnings from pensions, product endorsements, speaking fees and Elizabeth Dole's Red Cross salary—the Doles enjoyed an income well in excess of $1 million in 1997. No longer under intense public scrutiny, the former Senator traded in his 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity on a brand new Cadillac. Dole also advanced the $300,000 House Speaker Newt Gingrich owed as a penalty for violating ethics rules, giving Gingrich eight years to pay at 10 percent interest.

Further Reading

Bob Dole is referred to in the memoirs of the principal figures of his day. Former President Gerald Ford's autobiography, A Time to Heal (1979), for example, has insightful observations on Dole's part in the 1976 campaign. Martin Schram's Running for President 1976 (1977) treats the same subject in less detail.

Cramer, Richard, Bob Dole (Random House, 1995). Dole, Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Unlimited Partners: Our American Story (Simon & Schuster, 1996). Dole, Bob and Jack Kemp, Trusting the People: The Dole-Kemp Plan to Free the Economy & Create a Better America (HarperCollins, 1996). Hilton, Stanley, Senator for Sale (Saint Martin's, 1996). Margolis, Jon, The Quotable Bob Dole: Witty, Wise & Otherwise (Avon Books, 1996). McCurry, Michael and John Buckley, "Inside Story," New Yorker, November 18, 1996, pages 44-60. "Masters of the Message," Time, November 18, 1996, pages 76-96. □

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