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Longtime GOP senator and 1996 presidential nominee, Bob Dole, dies at 98

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Seven American presidents served in some way during World War II. Bob Dole fell short of joining them as president but spent a lifetime of public service despite suffering wounds from that war that affected him all his life. He needed years to recover before going to law school and then running for office in his hometown of Russell, Kan. Dole rose to become Senate majority leader and left his imprint on half a century of history before his death at age 98.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Bob Dole was a giant of the Senate - a powerful committee chairman in the early 1980s and then party leader for 11 1/2 years. He was known for passing bills for Republican presidents and stopping them when they came from Democratic presidents. But he also made plenty of bipartisan deals in between.

Ross Baker is a political scientist at Rutgers University.

ROSS BAKER: When you think about the fact that Bob Dole was elected to the House of Representatives the same year that John F. Kennedy was elected president and that he went on, for example, in 1995 to be one of the most important factors in the defeat of Bill Clinton's health insurance plan and then run for president in 1996, you realize that, in a sense, the last four decades of the 20th century were Bob Dole territory.

LIASSON: Dole's legislative career spanned more than 30 years, and he figured in most of the great legislative battles of his era. But his congressional record was more successful than his electoral career. He remains the only person to be nominated for both president and vice president without attaining either office. Along the way, he developed a reputation as a tough partisan - a hatchet man - serving in that role first for President Richard Nixon in the 1960s and later as President Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976.

Here he is in the vice presidential debate of that year, talking about World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB DOLE: All Democrat wars, all in this century - I figured up the other day, if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans - enough to fill the city of Detroit.

LIASSON: And in 1988, during his second try for a presidential nomination, Dole lashed out in anger after a bitter New Hampshire primary loss to the incumbent vice president, George H.W. Bush.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM BROKAW: And, Senator Dole, is there anything you'd like to say to the vice president?

DOLE: Yeah. Stop lying about my record.

LIASSON: Ross Baker says there were always two Bob Doles.

BAKER: There was the Bob Dole who was the harsh Republican rhetorician - the one who in the 1976 vice presidential campaign referred contemptuously to Democrat wars and the one who characterized Jimmy Carter as Southern-fried McGovern, the one with the kind of snide comments - the sort of mean-spirited Bob Dole. On the other hand, there was the man who increasingly became a Republican centrist.

LIASSON: Republican strategist Scott Reed worked with Dole for over 20 years, and he managed his 1996 run for the White House.

SCOTT REED: This was a guy that was a legislative expert - knew how to wait till the end, hold his cards close to his chest and then make the move, which wasn't always the greatest skill when you're running for president.

LIASSON: No one knew this better than Dole himself, having tried to run for president twice while keeping his day job in the Senate. Dole decided in 1996 to step down as majority leader and concentrate on his ultimate ambition. In his farewell speech, he said he was leaving the Senate with nowhere to go but the White House or home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOLE: And I will then stand before you without office or authority - a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man. But I will be the same man I was when I walked into the room, the same man I was yesterday and the day before and a long time ago, when I rose from my hospital bed and was permitted by the grace of God to walk again in the world.

LIASSON: That speech was a rare reference to Dole's grievous war wounds and long convalescence. He never recovered the use of his right arm. Remarkably, Dole was known for being funny and as a connoisseur of political humor - writing a book about it called "Great Presidential Wit."

Former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, who, as Democratic leader, often locked horns with Dole, tells a favorite story about those years.

TOM DASCHLE: However often we met, he always insisted on coming to my office. And I thought he was paying deference to me until one day as I was walking him out of my office and told him how much I appreciated the fact that he kept coming to my office rather than asking me to come to his, he said, well, if I come to your office, I can decide when the meeting's over. That's Bob Dole.

LIASSON: Always deadpan, the Dole humor could also be a little dark. You don't want a bill sitting around too long, he would say; people might read it. On one occasion, when a Republican colleague cast a crucial vote lying on his back on a hospital gurney, Dole said that particular senator, quote, "voted better under sedation."

As often as not, the butt of his jokes was himself. Here he is in 2009 at an event on health care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOLE: I've probably had more health care than anybody - probably anybody in this room. And apparently it's been successful except for the mental part. But...

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: In retirement, he almost made a second career of poking fun at himself. Dole had a cameo on "The Simpsons" and appeared in a commercial with Britney Spears. Another commercial he made for Viagra was so famous that he made another one spoofing it for Pepsi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOLE: That's why I'm eager to tell you about a product that put real joy back in my life. It helps me feel youthful, vigorous and, most importantly, vital again. What is this amazing product? My faithful little blue friend, an ice-cold Pepsi-Cola.

LIASSON: And in his post-Senate years, he worked again with Tom Daschle - this time on the same side - at a law firm and at a bipartisan policy center they founded. Daschle reflects on the career that took Dole a long way from its beginnings as a partisan bomb-thrower.

DASCHLE: Bob Dole's professional career gradually morphed into something far more substantive and far more complex. He has said on more than one occasion that the most successful moments of his career had to do with times when he reached across the aisle with Democratic senators and other leaders.

LIASSON: That was former Senator Tom Daschle remembering his longtime adversary and colleague Bob Dole.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK TRUFFAZ QUARTET'S "LES GENS DU VOYAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.