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Politics

Bob Dole, a Republican politician shaped by his Kansas roots

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Former Republican senator and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole of Kansas has died. He was 98 years old. Bob Dole was a giant of the U.S. Senate, where he rose to become majority leader and was one of the longest-serving Republican Party leaders in the chamber's history. And Dole worked closely with Republican presidents, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H. W. Bush, to move their agendas through Congress.

Bob Dole was also one of the last living political leaders in America to have seen combat in World War II. The wounds from that conflict helped shape the future senator, but as Frank Morris of member station KCRW reports, so did Dole's deep ties to his hometown of Russell, Kan.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Bob Dole was born here in Russell, Kan., July 22, 1923.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR BELL CHIMING)

ALDEAN BANKER: Hi.

MORRIS: At the Historical Society in Russell, about half the displays are devoted to Bob Dole.

BANKER: He was a handsome guy - wasn't he? - very handsome.

MORRIS: Aldean Banker shows off a life-sized photo of a strapping teenage Bob Dole - big muscular kid, star athlete, recruited to play basketball at the University of Kansas. He was the first in his family to go to college but quit to go to war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come on, you bunch of ridge runners. Get the lead out.

MORRIS: Dole volunteered to lead an attack on a machine gun position in Italy and was very nearly killed doing it. Hit in the shoulder and right arm, he found himself paralyzed, face down on the battlefield. Dole narrowly survived, enduring years of surgeries, leaving him with permanent disabilities.

BANKER: Anybody who has gone through what he's gone through would have maybe given up. And he did not do that.

MORRIS: Back in Russell, Dole tried to strengthen his shattered body, working out with homemade weights on pulleys. Townsfolk stuffed donations in a cigar box at the drugstore to help offset medical bills.

BANKER: I think he was overwhelmed by the support that he got from the city. And he never forgot that.

MORRIS: Russell voters helped send Dole to Congress in 1960. Eight years later, he moved up to the Senate, where he served for almost 28 years. Gerald Ford tapped Dole to be his presidential running mate in 1976. And right after the convention, Dole went straight back to Russell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB DOLE: But I want to reemphasize, as I did before, if I have done anything, it's because of people I have known up and down Main Street. And I can recall the time when I needed help, the people of Russell helped. And I think...

MORRIS: Dole broke down on stage. It took 39 seconds to regain his composure. Dole and Ford lost that election, but Bill Lacy, who directs the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas, says Dole emerged a less partisan politician.

BILL LACY: To kind of divide his career into, you know, maybe two parts, the early career and the leadership career and the get-things-done career.

MORRIS: Dole worked across the aisle with liberal Democrats, revitalizing the food stamp program and helping to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And Dole, whose war wounds left his right arm virtually useless and his left arm numb, became a major advocate for the disabled.

And you can see, feel and hear the tangible results of that work every day, all across the country.

MIKE OXFORD: Yeah. No, Bob Dole got this for us.

MORRIS: Mike Oxford, a veteran and disability rights advocate, navigates downtown Topeka, Kan., in a motorized wheelchair.

OXFORD: So we see the grade of this curb cut being very shallow.

MORRIS: Dole helped win business support for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

OXFORD: Thank you, Bob Dole, for helping get people out of institutions - thousands, tens of thousands.

MORRIS: Bob Dole resigned from the Senate to run for president in 1996, but not before giving an emotional speech, praising Democrats in compromise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOLE: I always thought that differences were a healthy thing. And that's why we're all so healthy, because we have a lot of differences in this chamber. I've never seen a healthier group in my life.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: A few months later, Dole accepted the Republican nomination for president with yet another nod to Kansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOLE: And the first thing you learn on the prairie is the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land. And under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small. And if he thinks otherwise, he is wrong.

MORRIS: Bob Dole never stopped working. He became a D.C. lobbyist after losing the '96 election. He never stopped cracking jokes about himself, and he never stopped speaking wistfully about growing up in Russell, Kan. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.