Robert Dole, Republican senator, 1923-2021

If anybody embodied the politics of Washington in the last half of the 20th century — the good, the bad and the ugly — then surely it was Robert Dole, the former Republican senator from Kansas, who has died at the age of 98.

He was his party’s candidate for president in 1996, for vice-president 20 years earlier and ran for the nomination twice in between, losing all four bids for national office. In compensation, he was twice the majority leader in the Senate and for eight years ran the minority, as well as chairing the chamber’s finance committee. His hand was visible in countless pieces of legislation, not least for the poor and disabled. The second world war memorial on the National Mall would not have been built without his efforts.

He also had undoubtedly the sharpest tongue in the nation’s capital, an amalgam of the acerbic and the truly funny. In 1976, he assailed the “Democrat wars” of the 20th century, depriving the opposition party of its two-letter suffix; today, Republicans refer to it only as he did then. Much later, when asked to comment on former speaker Newt Gingrich’s lament that he did not understand why he attracted such “instant dislike”, Dole quipped: “It saves time.”

For all his reputation for unbridled partisanship, as a Vietnam war hawk and in his savage opposition to the Clinton administration’s healthcare reforms, he more often than not represented what is now an extinct species — the moderate Midwestern Republican. He supported most of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and built friendships across the political aisle, a necessary attribute to the cut-and-thrust of legislative negotiations that were his preferred milieu. Proof of that was the visit to his home by President Joe Biden, a Senate colleague for over 30 years, on the day after he had announced he had advanced cancer. Little of that spirit exists today.

Robert Joseph Dole was born in Russell, Kansas, on July 22 1923 and, though living mostly in Washington, maintained until he died the house in which he grew up as his primary residence. His father ran a creamery but the family went through hard times during the Depression. He was a star basketball and football player at the University of Kansas before the war called him into service. In 1945, serving as an army 2nd lieutenant, he was severely wounded by German machine gun fire outside Bologna, rendering his right arm virtually useless ever after.

Dole recuperates from shrapnel injuries received while serving in Italy during the second world war in April 1945 © US Army/AP

Having completed his education at the University of Arizona and George Washington University Law School in the capital, in 1952 he entered the Kansas state legislature and served as Russell County attorney for eight years. That led to a House seat in 1960 and the Senate eight years later.

Following vice-president Nelson Rockefeller’s withdrawal from consideration, Gerald Ford picked Dole as running mate for the 1976 campaign, in which he stacked up unfavourably against the genial and experienced Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s number two. The “Democrat wars” remark in their debate attracted widespread criticism. He ran for the nomination in his own right four years later but withdrew early after poor primary results.

He ran harder in 1988 but a similar burst of temper did not help. Asked on TV if he had anything to say to George HW Bush, vice-president, who had just won the New Hampshire primary with Dole finishing third, he snarled: “Tell him to stop lying about my record.” Though he won some later Midwestern primaries, he was never in with a chance.

In 1996, he started out as a frontrunner in a variegated Republican field including, to his right, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas; Pat Buchanan, the polemicist; and Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher; and, to his left, Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, who also grew up in Russell. Buchanan pulled an upset victory in the opening New Hampshire primary but after a long, and financially debilitating, campaign, Dole prevailed, picking Jack Kemp, the congressman and former football star, as his running mate. At 73, he was then the oldest man nominated as a candidate for a first-term president.

But it was always an uphill struggle against Bill Clinton, the incumbent, whose popularity was rising on the back of vigorous economic growth, not to mention the candidacy of Ross Perot, the populist billionaire, though he was to do less than half as well as he had four years earlier. In desperation, Dole resigned from the Senate to concentrate on the campaign, but Clinton successfully tied him to Gingrich, whose shutdown of the federal government in late 1995 was widely unpopular. At no stage did the gap between them close and Clinton won the national vote by 49-40 per cent, with Perot winning just over 8 per cent.

Then a Republican presidential candidate, Dole waves as he boards his campaign’s minibus on February 3, 1988 after finishing a stump speech in Belmond, small northern Iowa Town © Mike Sprague/AFP/Getty

He kept busy in retirement, as a television commentator, writing books and again working with his old Senate opponent George McGovern, on child malnutrition issues. But his coda on the Senate floor in late 2012 was a sad commentary on how times had changed. He was wheeled in to show symbolic support for the UN convention for the disabled but the Senate voted against ratification on the grounds that it might infringe American sovereignty.

Dole was married twice, first to Phyllis Holden, with whom he had a daughter and from whom he was divorced in 1972 (she died in 2008). In 1975, he married Elizabeth “Liddy” Hanford, a considerable political figure in her own right, later transport and labour secretary in the Reagan and first Bush administrations respectively and Republican senator for North Carolina from 2003-08. Like her husband, she briefly ran for the Republican nomination in 2000. They formed the quintessential Washington insider power couple and she survives him.

Her foundation announced that Dole had died early Sunday in his sleep, noting that he had “served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years”.

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