When Sen. Bob Dole was courting Elizabeth Hanford, he traveled to Salisbury to meet her parents.
One morning he appeared in the kitchen with a towel draped over his shoulder so he could show her the scars from his grievous war wounds.
“Mrs. Hanford,” Dole told his future mother-in-law, “I think you ought to see my problem.”
“That’s not a problem,’’ she told him. “That’s a badge of honor.”
Now 94 and in declining health, Dole received another badge of honor recently from President Donald Trump – the Congressional Gold Medal for his service in World War II, as Senate majority leader and as a three-time presidential candidate.
The medal is the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress and has been awarded to figures including Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, and to North Carolinians Billy and Ruth Graham and Gen. Hugh Shelton.
In my nearly 45 years of writing about politics, I often covered Dole, both as The News & Observer’s Washington correspondent and on the campaign trail.
Dole represented Kansas, but he functioned almost as North Carolina’s third senator at times, looking out for state interests such as the federal tobacco program. It is, after all, the home state of his wife, Elizabeth, also known as Liddy.
Dole was an athlete at the University of Kansas and was interested in becoming a doctor when World War II broke out. There were just three weeks left in the war when Dole, a second lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division, was part of a push to take a ridge of hills near the Village of Castel d’Aiano in Italy’s Po Valley.
The Americans ran into heavy German machine gun fire and landmines. Dole first retrieved what turned out to be the lifeless body of his radio man. As he scrambled again out of a foxhole, Dole was hit, most likely by an exploding shell. It smashed his right shoulder and scattered metal fragments, crushed his collarbone, punctured a lung, damaged his vertebrae and left him paralyzed from the neck down.
For weeks he couldn’t move his legs or arms. For nearly a year he couldn’t feed himself. He spent two and half years at an army medical center. Dole went through seven operations, never regaining the use of his right hand.
He was always grateful to the people in the community who collected dimes and dollars in a cigar box in a store window to pay for his medical treatment.
The people of Kansas always admired the grit and the wise-cracking spirit of Dole, sending him to the U.S. House and to the Senate for 35 years.
Dole was a Republican conservative who could be bare-knuckled in his politics and a fierce defender of President Richard Nixon. He was the only past presidential candidate to endorse Trump in 2016.
There was sometimes a Nixonian edge to Dole’s politics – a man from the Great Plains who never quite trusted the liberal Eastern elites.
But he was also part of the post-war generation that worked with and socialized with people of different political views in the Rotary Club or on the board of deacons. Part of it was a shared experience. He had recovered in the VA hospital with two fellow veterans who would later become Democratic Senate colleagues – Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Philip Hart of Michigan.
People wanted to be around Dole, one of the few genuine wits in American politics.
Observing a reunion of former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Nixon, Dole remarked: “There they are: Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Evil.”
After losing his own bid for the presidency, Dole said he slept like a baby. “Every two hours I woke up and cried.”
Dole worked with Democrats to put together bi-partisan compromises on Social Security, civil rights and programs such as food stamps and school lunches. He was floor manager for the Martin Luther King holiday and was instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Dole was a compassionate conservative long before the term caught on,” historian Richard Norton Smith, a veteran Dole speech writer, told Politico. “As county attorney, he signed welfare payments for his grandparents, decent, hardworking people victimized by forces beyond their control. Dole never mistook poverty for a lack of character. Because he experienced dust storms and Depression-era hardship, and later World War II and the Cold War, he didn’t deny the existence of society, or confuse collective pursuits with collectivism.”
Dole always defined himself as a conservative Republican, no hyphenation needed thank you very much. He also believed in a Grand Old Party that was a big tent.
In accepting the presidential nomination in 1996 in San Diego, Dole said: “If there is anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to every race and religion, then let me recommend to 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.”
As his career wound down, Dole spent a lot of time in North Carolina supporting his wife’s career – her short 2000 presidential run and her two Senate campaigns in 2002 and 2008.
If you have been active in North Carolina Republican politics in recent decades, there is a very good chance you have met one of the Senate’s giants.
At the ceremony this month, Dole said much of his best thinking was done from his west-facing office in the Capitol, where he could look down the mall past the Washington Monument.
“Leadership,” he said in remarks read by Elizabeth Dole, “begins with the long view.”
Rob Christensen can be reached at email@example.com or at 919-829-4532.