Bob Dole willed himself to walk again after paralyzing war wounds, ran for Congress with a right arm too damaged to shake hands, and rose through the Senate ranks to become a long-serving Republican leader and tough and tireless champion of his party.
He embodied flinty determination to succeed.
Yet Dole, who died Sunday at age 98, was most famous for the times he came up short.
He was the vice presidential running mate in President Gerald Ford’s post-Watergate loss and he sought the presidency himself three times. He came closest in his final race, securing the 1996 Republican nomination only to be steamrolled by President Bill Clinton’s reelection machine.
Dole later said he had come to appreciate the defeats as well as the victories: “They are parts of the same picture — the picture of a full life.”
Representing Kansas in Congress for nearly 36 years, Dole was known on Capitol Hill as a shrewd and pragmatic legislator, trusted to broker compromises across party lines. He wielded tremendous influence on tax policy, farm and nutrition programs, and rights for the disabled.
Colleagues also admired his deadpan wit. Dole wasn’t a big talker; he was most comfortable communicating through a string of zingers and pointed asides.
Those qualities rarely came across on the national political stage, however.
Early on, Democrats dubbed him the GOP’s “hatchet man,” and Dole seemed born to play the part. His voice was gravelly, his face stony, his delivery prairie-flat, even when delivering a quip. He could seem hard-bitten, or bitter, or just plain mean when he lashed out at political opponents.
With each presidential quest Dole tried anew to soften his public persona. He could never pull it off — at least, not until he was out of politics for good.