Bob Dole, WWII hero and veteran US lawmaker, dies at 98

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Bob Dole, who battled back from being severely wounded in World War II to become a five-term US senator and the Republican Party’s 1996 presidential nominee, died on Sunday (Dec 5) at the age of 98.

Flags were ordered to fly at half-staff at the US Capitol as tributes poured in for the veteran US politician, including from former vice president Mike Pence who paid respect to an “extraordinary life of service.” “It is with heavy hearts we announce that Senator Robert Joseph Dole died early this morning in his sleep,” the foundation named after his wife, Elizabeth Dole, tweeted. “He had served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years.”

No details were initially provided, but the long-time senator had disclosed in February that he was being treated for stage four lung cancer.

Dole captured the Republican White House nomination on his third attempt in 1996, but went to on lose the race to Democrat Bill Clinton – 20 years after losing the 1976 election as Gerald Ford’s running mate.

A conservative Republican who campaigned for reining in government, Dole also had a pragmatic streak and sponsored bipartisan legislation during his 35 years in Congress.

Born July 22, 1923, Robert Joseph Dole grew up in the prairie town of Russell, Kansas, and presented himself as a plain-spoken, unpretentious man of action, rather than one of lofty ideals and soaring rhetoric. His father, Doran, ran a creamery and later the local grain elevator. His mother, Bina, sold sewing machines door-to-door.

While attending the University of Kansas, Dole played football and basketball and ran track. He enlisted as an officer in the US Army and in April 1945 was badly wounded in the back and right arm by machine gun fire during fighting against German troops in Italy.

He was hospitalised for more than three years, and the wounds left him with a shrivelled right arm. Self-conscious about the injury, Dole would frequently hold a pen in his right hand to keep people from shaking it. He was awarded two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star for valour.

Dole’s injuries forced him to scrap plans to attend medical school, and he switched to law school. He served as a county prosecutor and in the Kansas state legislature before winning election to the US House of Representatives in 1960.

Dole won election to the US Senate in 1968 and was re-elected in 1974, 1980, 1986 and 1992, serving both as Senate majority and minority leader over the years.

In 1976, Dole was tapped by Ford to be his vice presidential candidate but the Republican ticket lost to Democrats Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

Dole made a notable slip when he charged during a debate with Mondale that 1.6 million Americans had died in “Democrat wars” during the 20th century. He was forced to acknowledge that no one party was responsible for US wars.

1996 Republican nominee

Dole sought the Republican nomination himself in 1980 but lost out to Ronald Reagan, who would go on to serve two terms in the White House.

Dole made another bid for the Republican nomination in 1988 but was defeated by George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, who attacked him for refusing to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. When he finally won the Republican nomination, in 1996, he was at age 73 the oldest ever first-time nominee for the White House.

He was soundly defeated, however, after an uninspiring campaign, with Clinton capturing 379 electoral votes to Dole’s 159.

While fiercely partisan, Dole was also known for a pragmatic approach to lawmaking and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour, by Clinton in 1997. He played a key role in the expansion of the food stamp programme in the 1970s, the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

‘I put on a happy face’

After his 1996 defeat, Dole kept a foot in the capital as a lawyer with a Washington firm and was tapped by president George W. Bush in 2007 to help investigate problems at the Walter Reed Army medical facility. He also served as the chairman of a campaign to raise funding for a national World War II memorial.

After his retirement from politics, Dole appeared on talk shows and starred in commercials for products ranging from Pepsi to Visa credit cards. He was comfortable making fun of himself, including his habit of referring to himself in the third person, and raised eyebrows with an advertisement about erectile dysfunction – a commercial sponsored by Viagra maker Pfizer.

Dole told The Washington Post in 1997 that he was happy with his life, despite his presidential setbacks. “Some people may have expected me to be depressed or bitter or whatever you are after you lose,” he said. “But I put on a happy face and had a good time.”

Dole’s marriage to Phyllis Holden, an occupational therapist he met in the late 1940s while undergoing treatment for his war wounds, ended in divorce in 1972. The couple had one daughter, Robin.

In 1975, he married Mary Elizabeth Hanford, a skilled politician in her own right who held Cabinet posts in two Republican administrations and won election to the Senate from North Carolina.

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