Bob Dole, Iowa's 'third senator,' remembered as a 'trusted mentor,' 'friend'

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Bob Dole became so well known to Iowans after crisscrossing the state during three presidential campaigns that he was sometimes referred to as Iowa's "third senator."

Dole, 98, died early Sunday morning in his sleep.

A U.S. senator for Kansas from 1969 to 1996, Dole campaigned for president in 1980, 1988 and 1996, and was best known for the 1996 campaign, when he won the Republican nomination but lost in the general election to incumbent Bill Clinton.

Because of Iowa's close proximity to Kansas, the states' shared agricultural interests and the countless hands Dole shook in every county in Iowa over those three campaigns, Dole became known almost as well to Iowans as to his constituents in the Sunflower State.

More: Bob Dole spent 60 years in the political spotlight. His rise to national prominence started in small-town Kansas.

David Oman, a former press secretary and chief of staff for former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, said Iowa politicians and even Des Moines Register reporters jokingly used the "Iowa's third senator" phrase because of the amount of time he spent in the state.

"We saw him back here that often," Oman said. "The flip of that was that, after running in three caucuses and winning two of them, Dole liked to come out here and proclaim himself 'The president of Iowa.'"

Dole mentored U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley after Grassley was elected to the Senate in 1980, Oman said. Historically, Grassley avoided endorsing candidates before the Iowa caucuses, but there were two exceptions, and one involved Dole. In 1996, Grassley and then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad endorsed Dole over Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm and Arlen Specter. The other time was in 2000, when Grassley endorsed George W. Bush before the caucuses.

In a statement, Grassley extended his condolences to Dole's wife, Elizabeth, and the rest of his family.

“Bob Dole was a faithful representative to the people of Kansas and a great civic leader for all Americans," Grassley said. "He was also a loyal friend and trusted mentor. He set a standard of leadership through selflessness and mutual respect that all public servants should strive to match. A senator, soldier and statesman, Barbara and I are proud to call him friend."

Dole was athletic early in his life, playing football and basketball and running track at the University of Kansas. In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve Corps and left for active duty in June 1943, during World War II. He deployed to Italy in 1944.

Dole was gravely wounded in Italy in 1945 while trying to rescue another soldier. Twice he had life-threatening infections, and he never fully regained the use of his right arm. When he got into politics, he made a habit of carrying a pen in his right hand to prevent people from trying to shake it.

Dole was instrumental in pushing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 through Congress. During Dole's first speech to Congress on April 14, 1969, he told colleagues, "handicapped Americans face exclusions not from the front of the bus, but from even getting on the bus." At a time when few people talked about severe mental health disorders, Dole also told Congress that thousands of children and adults suffered mental or emotional disorders that hindered their abilities to learn and cope with their families, jobs and communities.

More: Bob Dole's constant pen in hand was a reminder of World War II wounds

"Too many handicapped persons lead lives of loneliness and despair," Dole said in the speech. "Too many feel and too many are cut off from our work-oriented society; too many cannot fill empty hours in a satisfying and constructive manner. The leisure most of us crave can and has become a curse to many of our nation's handicapped."

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat and the author and chief sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act,, said Dole's support for the act was his "most significant" contribution to Congress.

"He never wavered in his support for breaking down barriers to persons with disabilities," Harkin said in a statement. "He was one of the most significant members of the 'Greatest Generation.’ I will miss him.”

Former U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Bob Dole, left, and former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, right, in this undated photo.
Former U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Bob Dole, left, and former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, right, in this undated photo.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered all flags in Iowa to be lowered to half-staff from Monday to sunset on Thursday to honor Dole. President Joe Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at all federal buildings, naval stations and at the White House through Thursday.

Other members of Iowa's congressional delegation also expressed condolences in statements Sunday. U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks said Dole was a "true American icon" and war hero who served the country for decades. U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra said Dole was a "true patriot and American hero."

U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson said she was saddened to hear Dole had died.

"He was a dedicated public servant & true statesman who cared deeply about our country," Hinson wrote on Twitter. "He improved countless lives across the world during his years of selfless service. Praying for the Dole family during this difficult time."

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst said Dole was "an honorable statesman and American hero who had an unwavering commitment to this country and those who’ve fought to protect us in uniform."

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, left, campaigns with Bob Dole at a Dole for President rally at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Feb. 11, 1996.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, left, campaigns with Bob Dole at a Dole for President rally at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Feb. 11, 1996.

Oman said his favorite tale about Dole came from 1976, when both Ray and Dole were on the short list to be President Gerald Ford's running mate.

When Ray was told by Ford he would not be Ford's vice presidential nominee, Ray said he was relieved. Ford picked Dole instead. A week later, Dole came to the Iowa State Fair. Dole gave a speech, Oman said, and Ray and Dole ate ice cream cones together. That day cemented the friendship between Ray and Dole, Oman said.

"It was a sun-kissed beautiful warm Iowa August day," Oman said affectionately. "Dole was still on a high from getting on the ticket the week before. It was that placement on the ticket that I'm sure whetted his appetite to run for the White House."

Ford and Dole lost the 1976 election to Democrat Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. In 1980, Dole ran in the first Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, and Dole would go on to participate in Republican caucus debates hosted by the Des Moines Register in 1980, 1988 and 1996. The Register's editorial board endorsed in the Iowa caucuses for the first time in 1988, and Dole earned the nod on the Republican side. Until that time, the Register's editorial board thought that as an independent newspaper the paper should refrain from getting mixed up in the internal affairs of both parties as they chose their candidates.

More: What was Bob Dole famous for? Here's his most influential moments.

Dole won the caucuses, but lost the Republican nomination to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Eight years later, Dole again earned the Register's endorsement, this time en route to winning the Republican nomination for president.

'We recommended Dole for the Republican nomination in 1988, noting that he was a mixture of 'mainstream conservatism and Main Street pragmatism,'' the endorsement said.

"I think a newspaper is a mirror or reflection of the thoughtful attitudes of its readership, and Iowans understand Bob Dole is the right leader for America," said Dole's then-1996 campaign director, Darrell Kearney, according to UPI.

But Dole lost the 1996 general election by more than 8 million votes and an electoral college score of 379 to 159 to Clinton.

Philip Joens covers breaking news for The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-443-3347 at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Bob Dole, Iowa's 'third senator,' remembered for many visits to state

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