Op-Ed: Bob Dole, stateman, politician, soldier and citizen

“The proudest moment in my life, I’ll remember most is the sight of all the wheelchairs on the White House lawn, when President Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law.” – Bob Dole

Fairy tales show children how to behave growing up and how to get along with others. They learn good societal behavior from adult role models. As adults, we need heroic role models as well. Heroes reveal qualities we need for communion with others. They educate by example, give us hope when we are down, show us a better way. Above all, heroes teach us how to become better citizens.

Last week, America lost one its most “uncelebrated” heroes, long-time statesmen, politician, soldier and most importantly, citizen, Bob Dole, at age 98. A disabled veteran, state and federal senator, and Republican nominee for president in 1996, he served America faithfully for almost eight decades. Bob Dole was a citizen who did all of the things a good citizen should do for his country and more.

Capitol Hill icon and former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., is best remembered as the Republican Leader of the Senate for 11 years, and three terms as Senate Majority Leader. His colleagues remember him as a leader who stood by his principles and his party. He was a man who never abandoned his convictions, yet was able to “cross the aisle” and broker major accomplishments when others refused to budge.

Bob Dole’s passion for public service began when he was attending the University of Kansas on an athletic scholarship taking pre-med classes. He played basketball, football and he was a track star also. But during his second year in college, with America at war, Dole abruptly quit school to join the army and fight in WWII. And this decision changed the direction of his life and future forever.

Serving as a lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division, in April 1945, while engaged in combat near Bologna, Italy, Dole was seriously wounded by a German shell that shattered his collarbone and spine. Dole recalled, “I was face down in the dirt, and thought my arms and legs were missing.”

Dole nearly died from his injuries. It took three years of surgeries and physical therapy for him to be able to dress, eat or even walk. He lost the use of his right arm and hand and his left hand was totally numb. He received two Purple Hearts and the Star Of Valor for attempting to save a fellow soldier.

Bob Dole spent a career in public service when others would have felt that they had done enough. Determined to complete college and return to public service, he earned an undergraduate and a graduate degree in law. And in 1950, Dole was elected to serve in the Kansas State Legislature.

“I lived by this theory, if I can’t use my hands, well, I better learn to use my head.” – Bob Dole

Dole was elected to Congress in 1969 and served for 36 years. He was the GOP Senate Leader for 11 years and three years as Senate Majority Leader. Dole said he reminded himself everyday that his job was, “Not to vote no against all the hard things and then vote yes for all the easy things. Too many politicians do that. Then they go out and make speeches about how tough they are.”

As President Gerald’s Ford vice presidential running mate in 1976 after they lost to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, Dole analyzed their presidential campaign this way: “President Ford was supposed to take the high road, and I was supposed to go after the jugular. Well, I did. I went after my own.”

At age 73, in May 1996, Dole resigned as Senate Majority Leader to run for president. Dole faced questions about his age, and his potential inability to serve a full term due to his war injuries. When he fell off the stage and into the dirt in Chino, California, he was ridiculed by media and Bill Clinton supporters.

With his poll numbers slipping, Dole launched a round-the-clock marathon of events over the final 96-hour stretch before Election Day 1996. When one reporter asked him if he had enough clean clothes to continue at that pace, Dole quipped back, “We’re going to stop at an underwear factory.”

While media paints a colorful picture of Dole’s career as a tough deal maker and failed presidential candidate, few mention why he chose to continue to work in public service after the end of WWII.

Dole seldom mentioned his war injuries while in office. But they drove his passion to improve the lives of other veterans and the disabled, and to keep alive the memories of those who died for us.

In that first Senate address, Dole told the story of a paraplegic who was referred to the state-federal vocational rehabilitation office, which enabled him to get a job, and a new home. He told Congress, “This took place because the federal government initiated vital, vocational rehabilitation programs.”

This set the tone for Bob Dole’s “real agenda” for his remaining years in Congress and long after.

To people with disabilities, Dole was a bona fide hero. Dole’s effort to secure bipartisan support for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act is his greatest achievement. He convinced John McCain and Orrin Hatch and liberal Democrats, Ted Kennedy and Tom Harkin, to cosponsor the bill as well. He worked tirelessly to pass the bill, which President George H. W. Bush signed into law.

“I found out if you have a disability people look at you differently without your uniform.” – Bob Dole

Journalist Richard Cramer wrote, “People had problems when Reagan was elected and needed government help. During the Reagan years, Bob Dole was responsible for the 1981 tax cuts, the rescue of Social Security and helped Americans with many key issues during the Reagan years.”

Dole played a pivotal role in creating the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He told opponents: “To those who would worry about cost, I suggest they go back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery!” President Reagan signed the bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983.

In 2012, Dole returned to Washington in support of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Dole created the Dole Foundation for the employment of people with disabilities.

Dole was the driving force behind the construction of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. In 2004, in failing health, from his wheel chair, he stood up speaking to tens of thousands of 80 and 90 year old veterans: “Physical and moral courage makes heroes out of all of us boys.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell told Congress, “While Dole championed Republican ideals; he remained committed to caring for the vulnerable, from veterans to people with disabilities.”

The virtues that led Bob Dole to raise his right hand, enlist in the Army, and fight until he could not raise that hand again are the same values that compelled him to raise his left hand for every cause he believed in while in Congress and after leaving government, during sickness and health. He will be remembered as a true public servant and American hero.

“Americans of every generation have laid down their lives for people they never knew or will ever see again. That’s America!” – Bob Dole

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