Bob Dole, the war hero who became the Republican leader in the Senate and his party’s nominee for president of the United States, died at age 98, his family said Sunday.
Mr. Dole, who in February announced he was battling stage 4 lung cancer, had been ailing for some time. Still, his longevity and accomplished career were near miracles given the grievous wounds he suffered on a northern Italian hillside in April 1945.
His history as a veteran defined his later years. Mr. Dole became a spokesman and figurehead of ̈the “Greatest Generation,” and he greeted untold hundreds of veterans at the World War II Memorial.
“I think more than anything he just wanted to make them feel special,” said Tim Holbert, the executive director of the American Veterans Center. “That will be my lasting memory of Bob Dole: him sitting there on a Saturday, not with the cameras or the media around, just him out there on a Saturday in Washington, greeting veterans, every one, as they came off the buses.”
Mr. Dole’s colleagues of all political stripes expressed outpourings of grief over his death and gratitude for his life as the news spread. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden spoke with Mr. Dole’s wife, Elizabeth Dole, by phone, the White House said.
“Bob Dole was a man to be admired by Americans,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “He had an unerring sense of integrity and honor. May God bless him, and may our nation draw upon his legacy of decency, dignity, good humor, and patriotism for all time.”
Former President Donald Trump said Mr. Dole served Kansas with honor and noted that “the Republican Party was made stronger by his service.”
“Our nation mourns his passing, and our prayers are with Elizabeth and his wonderful family,” Mr. Trump said.
Former President George W. Bush remembered Mr. Dole as a man who represented the “finest of American values” and whose friendship benefited the entire Bush family, including his presidential father, the late George H.W. Bush.
“I will always remember Bob’s salute to my late dad at the Capitol, and now we Bushes salute Bob and give thanks for his life of principled service,” Mr. Bush said.
The Honor Flight Network, which arranges and finances trips for veterans of all wars to come to the capital, had a long partnership with Mr. Dole. Its leaders said his presence and image will be impossible to replicate.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” said Honor Flight President David Nichols. “There were a lot of people involved in getting things like Honor Flight, and even the monument itself wouldn’t exist without his dedication. He was the point man.”
Mr. Dole would shrug off Honor Flight officials and medical advisers who urged him to cut short his hours greeting veterans. He insisted on remaining until the last busload of the day arrived.
“He’d joke with the Navy guys, tell them, ‘Ah, you guys had it made,’ and they loved him,” Mr. Nichols said. “Bob Dole would be out there all day and every day if he could, regardless of the weather or what anybody tried to tell him.”
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans also said its founding would have been unlikely without the strong support of Mr. Dole and his fellow veterans in the Senate: Daniel Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, and Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican.
The museum presented Mr. Dole with its highest honor, the American Spirit Award, in 2005 and gave its Silver Service Medallion to Mr. Dole in absentia at its 2013 Victory Ball.
“Bob Dole exemplified the American Spirit,” said Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, the National WWII Museum president and CEO emeritus. “He understood the need for a national museum that would preserve the memory of the veterans who fought and died for freedom in World War II and stood against the fascist regimes that threatened democracy at home and abroad.”
Before advancing toward Germany near the end of World War II, Mr. Dole became a lifelong Jayhawker. He was recruited to Kansas University by the legendary basketball coach Phog Allen.
Mr. Dole earned undergraduate and law degrees at Washburn University after the war, but the Dole Institute of Politics is on the campus in Lawrence, Kansas.
While in Lawrence, Mr. Dole played multiple sports before enlisting in the Army in 1942 and eventually being assigned to the 10th Mountain Division. His was among the units advancing up the Italian spine against heavy resistance while the Allies closed in on Nazi Germany.
In April 1945, one month before the war ended in Europe, Mr. Dole’s unit was in Castel d’Aiano southwest of Bologna. Moving across a field raked by German machine gun fire, Mr. Dole pulled a radioman into a foxhole and, seconds later, felt bullets rip into his back and right shoulder. His wounds were so severe that his comrades gave him little odds of survival.
Instead, they gave him as much morphine as possible, smeared an ¨M¨ on his forehead with his own blood to indicate another dose would kill him, and left him for medics. Mr. Dole lay on the battlefield in that crippled, painful and dazed state for hours before he was evacuated.
His recuperation took years and seven surgeries, and he would never again be able to tie his own shoes. He famously gripped a pen in his right hand for the rest of his career to stabilize that side of his body.
Nevertheless, with his two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with “V” for combat valor, a depressed Mr. Dole summoned the will to move on, learned to write with his left hand and launched his successful career in elected office.
First elected to the House of Representatives from Kansas in 1961, Mr. Dole moved on to the Senate in 1969. He held that seat with leadership positions until 1996.
“He was really the leader of the GOP in the U.S. for decades, almost from the moment Nixon fell out of favor, and he represented a kind of no-nonsense Republicanism,” said Douglas Brinkley, an author and American historian at Rice University. “As a World War II veteran, he represented the soldiers of America, and that was a gigantic credential in politics.”
Indeed, his veteran status was one element that led President Ford to pick Mr. Dole as his running mate in 1976. The Republican ticket lost that November to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Nevertheless, military experience of some sort was essentially required for a politician seeking the White House from Dwight D. Eisenhower until Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, Mr. Brinkley said.
“And just like Ike, Mr. Dole was a Kansan and a fiscal conservative, but not an isolationist,” Mr. Brinkley said.
Mr. Dole’s distinguished military record failed to push him across the primary finish line as he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president several times. He became the party’s standard-bearer in 1996, only to lose to Mr. Clinton’s reelection bid.
In the months leading up to his eventual defeat, Mr. Dole stepped down as the Republican leader in the Senate. He returned to private life and was showered with honors in his later years.
In 1997, Mr. Dole was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his public service. He joined Mr. Clinton to co-chair a scholarship fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2018.
In October 2015, at age 92, Mr. Dole returned to visit the once-savage battlegrounds of Italy with his wife, Elizabeth.
Mrs. Dole, a senator from North Carolina from 2003 to 2009, married Mr. Dole in 1975. Mr. Dole was married to Phyllis Holden from 1948 until their divorce in 1972.
“Bob Dole stayed relevant his entire life,” Mr. Brinkley said. “He was the epitome of Midwestern Republicanism in American history.”
Mr. Dole is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and a daughter from his first marriage, Robin.
• Ryan Lovelace contributed to this report.