Kansas’ Bob Dole remembered at U.S. Capitol ceremony for public service, sense of humor

By: - December 9, 2021 3:06 pm

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole died Sunday at age 98 after battling lung cancer. | Pool photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Sen. Robert J. Dole arrived at the U.S. Capitol for the final time on Thursday, for a Rotunda ceremony in which former colleagues and congressional leaders from both parties honored the life and career of the late Kansas political icon.

President Joe Biden and others remembered Dole — who died Sunday at age 98, after being diagnosed earlier this year with stage 4 lung cancer — as a World War II veteran, a public servant, an acerbic comedian, and an advocate for the disabled.

“He too was a giant of our history. That’s not hyperbole,” said Biden after listing many of the former presidents and other icons memorialized in the U.S. Capitol — including another notable Kansan, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose bronze sculpture is on display in the Rotunda.

Like Washington, Lincoln and those other towering figures, Biden said, Dole was a man “of wit and grace, of principle and persistence, of courage and conviction.”

The ceremony as Dole’s body lay in state — an honor bestowed on former presidents, senators and some military leaders — was witnessed by a limited, bipartisan crowd. Usually, the public also is allowed to pay their respects as well, but a broader viewing was eschewed due to the pandemic.

Still, the audience of invited guests reflected the across-the-aisle respect for Dole: much of the current Senate was seated surrounding his casket, as were a number of U.S. House members and an array of former lawmakers who served with the senator, close aides, and other friends.

First lady Jill Biden also joined her husband, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

Other attendees included the full current congressional delegation from Kansas, as well as former Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Dan Coates (R-Ind.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), according to a list provided to the reporter pool.

His longtime wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Robin, were escorted by service members for the formal arrival of his casket.

Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole rests her head on the casket of her husband and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, where lays in state, on December 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. Dole, a veteran who was severely injured in World War II, was a Republican Senator from Kansas from 1969 to 1996. He ran for president three times and became the Republican nominee for president in 1996. | Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images

Praised for bipartisan approach

Top congressional leaders from both parties offered tributes to the Republican from Russell, Kansas, who served four terms in the House and more than four terms in the Senate, including more than a decade as the Senate Republican leader.

He stepped away from that political role after winning the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1996. He previously was the vice presidential nominee, running with President Gerald Ford in 1976.

In a legislative building grappling with a level of polarization and distrust among lawmakers that has paralyzed progress on many issues, Dole was praised as someone who worked with colleagues from both parties, and on a range of challenges facing struggling Americans.

Biden, a Democrat, said that he and Dole disagreed on some matters, “but not on the fundamental things.”

“We still found a way to work together. We genuinely, we genuinely respected one another as colleagues, as fellow Americans,” Biden said. “It was real. It wasn’t fake. And we became great friends.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lauded his efforts on expanding access to food stamps and his critical efforts in passing the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. Dole suffered combat injuries during World War II that limited the mobility of his right arm for the rest of his life.

“Bob Dole was a champion of those whose lives were marred by struggle, who came not from citadels of privilege, but from humble origins like his own,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

They also remembered Dole’s penchant for humor. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recalled then-Majority Leader Dole quipping that if he “had known we were going to win control of the Senate, we’d have run better candidates.”

Schumer riffed on the oft-cited quote from Dole about the “danger” of standing between Schumer and a reporter: “Don’t worry, Bob. It’s safe to be between me and the cameras today.”

He also described the emotional moment that unfolded when late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye was given the same Capitol honor in 2012. Dole had recuperated from the wounds he suffered in World War II at the same military hospital as Inouye, and when he approached the casket, Dole rose from his wheelchair to offer a salute.

“As Bob approaches the pearly gates, let us take comfort he can reunite with his old friend once again,” Schumer said.

D.C. funeral on Friday, and a return to Kansas

After the words of remembrance, Biden and congressional leaders placed wreaths next to the casket. Biden put his hand on his heart while he stood by the wreath, and grabbed both of Elizabeth Dole’s hands on his way back to his seat.

When she approached the flag-draped casket, Elizabeth Dole briefly put her hand and then her head to the casket.

Dole’s remains will remain overnight in the Rotunda, where other lawmakers and Capitol staffers were allowed to pay respects Thursday afternoon. At one point, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a combat veteran who was wounded during the Iraq War, offered a salute.

On Friday morning, there will be a formal departure ceremony, and then a funeral service at Washington National Cathedral.

His casket is set to arrive in Kansas on Friday evening, followed by a public memorial service and a ceremony at the Kansas statehouse on Saturday.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Michigan Advance. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.