His death was confirmed by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation on Sunday. “It is with heavy hearts we announce that Senator Robert Joseph Dole died early this morning in his sleep. At his death, at age 98, he had served the United States of America faithfully for 79 years,” the foundation said in a statement.
Dole announced in February that he was beginning treatment for stage 4 lung cancer. “While I certainly have some hurdles ahead, I also know that I join millions of Americans who face significant health challenges of their own,” Dole said at the time.
A Kansas-born World War II veteran, Dole entered politics in 1950, winning a seat in his home state’s House of Representatives. Ten years later, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving four terms. In 1969, Dole entered the U.S. Senate, where he’d spend the next 36 years before resigning to focus on his presidential run in 1996.
Dole established himself as a strong moderate voice and champion of pragmatism over the course of his career in the Senate. One of his most successful bipartisan achievements came in 1977, when he teamed up with Democrat George McGovern to expand access to food stamps. He continued working with McGovern to address food security issues long after they were both out of office. Together, they lobbied Congress to establish a fund for international school lunch programs that has gone on to feed tens of millions. In 2013, then-Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend of Dole’s, presented him with the inaugural George McGovern and Bob Dole Leadership Award. “I used to argue about Vietnam all day [with McGovern],” Dole said in accepting the award, “and then in the evening we would talk about food for poor people.”
A year before teaming up with McGovern, Dole joined forces with fellow Republican Gerald Ford, joining the president’s re-election campaign as his vice presidential nominee. They lost the election to Jimmy Carter, but Dole maintained his ambitions for higher office. He tried to mount his own run at the White House four years later, but didn’t make it beyond the earlier stages of the Republican primary. He put together a far more formidable campaign to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988, but in the end lost out to eventual president George H.W. Bush. Though he couldn’t quite make it into the White House, by the late Eighties, Dole had become the most powerful Republican in the Senate. He held the title from 1987 to his resignation in 1996, a period that included two stints as Senate Majority Leader.
Dole’s moderation became a point of contention as he geared up to take another shot at the Republican nomination in 1996. As his competition — most notably House Speaker Newt Gingrich and nativist Pat Buchanan — did its best to move the party further to the right, Dole resisted. When Gingrich shut down the government in the fall of 1995 because he didn’t feel President Bill Clinton’s budget was austere enough, Dole broke with the party on New Year’s Eve by calling for the shutdown to end on the Senate floor. When he won the presidential nomination a few months later, he trashed an acceptance speech written by right-wing ideologue Mark Helprin, rewriting it to take aim at the party hardliners whose uncompromising politics laid the groundwork for Fox News and, ultimately, Trumpism.
“The Republican Party is broad and inclusive,” Dole said at the Republican National Convention. “It represents many streams of opinion and many points of view. But if there’s anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you — tonight this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln. And the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise.”
“In politics honorable compromise is no sin,” Dole added. “It is what protects us from absolutism and intolerance.”
At 73, Dole was vying to become the oldest president-elect in the nation’s history. He was also a huge underdog to Clinton, an incumbent presiding over a roaring economy. Dole’s middle-of-the-road message wasn’t enough to convince voters to change course, and he lost to Clinton in a landslide, bringing in only 40.7 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 49.2.
Dole was long known for his sharp wit and sense of humor, which helped him carve out a space in the popular consciousness following his retirement from politics. He appeared in an ad for Visa in 1997 and, famously, became a spokesman for Viagra a year later. In the early 2000s, he hooked up with Pepsi, lampooning his Viagra partnership with a Super Bowl commercial in 2001, and appearing at the tail end of another Super Bowl ad starring Britney Spears a year later. “Easy, boy,” Dole tells his barking dog after having just watching Spears dance in the name of Pepsi for a minute and a half. Not as cute was Dole’s post-political career as a lobbyist.
Despite Dole’s reputation for moderation, he warmed up to Donald Trump more than other longstanding Republican leaders, formally endorsing him for president after he won the party’s 2016 nomination, and sitting in the Trump family box at the Republican National Convention. During Trump’s bid for a second term, Dole criticized the Commission on Presidential Debates for what he perceived as bias against the president. Dole didn’t, however, go so far as to buy into the party’s fraudulent claim that the election was stolen. “It’s a pretty bitter pill for Trump, but it’s a fact he lost,” he said in December. “It’ll take him a while to accept that.”
Dole was a little more gracious after losing in 1996 than Trump was in 2020. A year after the defeat ended his career in politics, Dole accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Clinton. “I had a dream that I would be, this historical week, receiving something from the president,” he said in accepting the award. “But I thought it would be the front door key.”