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

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

With the news that former U.S. Sen Bob Dole has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, luminaries across the state and country lined up to offer well wishes to a man who has been an icon in Republican politics for decades.

Dole's legacy in Kansas rings differently than it does nationally, where his 1996 presidential run looms largest. But Kansans of both parties note his 35 years in Washington shaped the state and its politics in a lasting and permanent way.

More:Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, Republican elder statesman, announced he has advanced lung cancer

Some moments, however, stand out more than others. His influence brought investment and national attention to Kansas and its institutions. Friends and colleagues point to his legislative work, most notably his help in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1989, as bipartisan and a contrast to current gridlock in the capital.

And others simply point to his service, both in the military and in Washington, as unmatched in the state's political history.

More:Here's what Kansans had to say after Bob Dole's lung cancer announcement

After World War II wounds, fight for veterans continued back home

Bob Dole in M-1 Steel Helmet during his service in WWII in 1942.

Former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts said that Dole was well prepared for his cancer treatments, pointing to his military service during World War II

"The man who has faced health challenges since he was wounded on the battlefields in Italy is no less determined to get well now," Roberts said in a statement

Dole earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor after he and his unit came under heavy artillery and aerial fire in the Italian countryside. 

More:Bob Dole's constant pen in hand a reminder of WWII wounds

Steve Morris, a former Kansas Senate president and a longtime friend of Dole, noted that his commitment to veterans continued even after he went to Washington.

Dole was a key advocate for the creation of the National World War II Memorial, work that culminated in the memorial's opening in 2004 on the National Mall.

Bob Dole attends the dedication ceremony of the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Morris recalled Dole said he refused to allow his right arm to be amputated when he eventually received treatment for his injuries. 

"They told (Dole) they were going to have to take his arm and he said, 'No you're not,' " Morris said. "He said, 'I came in with two arms and two legs and I'm leaving with two arms and two legs.' "

More:Photos: Bob Dole, former presidential candidate, US senator and Kansas political icon

His injuries permanently affected his right arm, causing him to hold a pencil or pen during campaign stops to deter eager constituents from attempting to shake his hand.

Dole had continued to meet groups of veterans traveling to Washington, D.C., Morris said, even in recent years, as he grew older and encountered health problems.

"Every time an honor flight came in he would go out to the World War II Memorial and meet with those people, even though he was in a wheelchair and it was tough for him to do," he said. "He is just a very gracious person."

Bipartisan work capped by Americans with Disabilities Act

Sen. Bob Dole and former President Richard Nixon greet disabled children in 1991.

Dole's legislative work didn't always make him friends.

"There were times that I disagreed," said Nancy Kassebaum Baker, who served alongside him in representing Kansas for 18 years. "But mostly we worked things out or he had the votes to accomplish what he wanted."

But Dole earned praise for his bipartisan work, with many pointing to the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act as perhaps the foremost example of that legacy.

While U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was the sponsor of the ADA, he noted that Dole's work while serving as Senate minority leader was instrumental in getting the landmark legislation passed.

In a 2008 interview for the University of Kansas' Dole History Project, Harkin said the activism just made sense: Dole's first floor speech when he arrived in the Senate in 1968 was on expanding disability rights.

His leadership extended to shepherding legislation expanding support for closed captioning on television and culminated in the ADA, which prohibits discrimination based on a person's disability.

"Through all this, Sen. Dole was always very keen, very active in this area of disability policy," Harkin said. "Then everything just sort of came together in ’89 and ’90, after many years of working on it." 

Baker said there were times when Dole had to broker deals even within his own caucus but noted he kept a steady hand in doing so.

He would then make routine overtures to the Democratic side of the aisle to "try and accomplish successful efforts in the long run that would require compromises on both sides."

"And that day seems like it has gone by," she said. "I don't see it being done as a result of (the country) being so divided. I think it lacks the respect for the institution in which you serve, which Bob had."

Bob Dole's clout brought world leaders to Kansas

Sen. Bob Dole and Boris Yeltsin tour a Kansas family farm in 1992.

Dole's legacy touched all corners of the world, most notably the former Soviet bloc, where he engaged in diplomatic overtures in the post-Cold War era. To this day there is a street in Pristina, Kosovo, named after Dole — a continent and a world away from his hometown of Russell, Kansas.

Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University said Dole played a key role in "representing American values internationally and in terms of what the country stood for."

"I mean, talk about a legacy," Beatty said. "It shows the impact he had not just on Kansas and the United States but on the world as well."

Sam Brownback, who succeeded Dole in the U.S. Senate and later served as governor from 2010 to 2017, said it was striking that Dole would use his global stature to shine a spotlight on his home state.

He pointed to a trip from then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who visited the state in 1992, bringing scores of international media members with him.

Those journalists would return to Kansas each time Dole announced a run for president, Brownback said.

"He always wanted to show off to world leaders middle America," Brownback said. "So he would bring key world leaders to Kansas with him. It was a very enjoyable moment in the spotlight for us."

And there are more tangible effects of Dole's power in the state. Morris used the example of the federal investment Dole was able to bring to the state's universities, among other institutions.

"Kansas was very fortunate to have him in Congress and the Senate as long as we had him," he said. "Kansas had a fair amount of clout because of him."

Kansans say Bob Dole's personality didn't shine in presidential bids

U.S. Sen. Bob Dole appears at a campaign event March 8, 1988, in Kansas City.

Dole launched multiple presidential bids in 1980 and 1988 before winning the Republican nomination to challenge President Bill Clinton in 1996.

While Dole's popularity never waned in Kansas, the presidential bid did ruffle a few feathers in the state, Brownback said.

But Morris said it was disappointing that many Americans didn't see the same version of Dole that Kansans saw, with many criticizing his failed bid as not showing enough character or humor, something compounded by the fact that he was, at the time, the oldest politician to run as a major-party nominee.

"I think if people could have known the real Bob Dole it could have made a huge difference," Morris said.

Baker underscored that the defeat "was a disappointment to Bob at that time" and Morris echoed that, saying he often blamed House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a 1995 budget stalemate for poisoning the political well.

But an appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" shortly after his loss to Clinton showed Dole's sense of humor about his campaign.

"Bob, what have you been doing lately?″ Letterman asked.

"Apparently not enough,″ Dole quipped, adding that the defeat had allowed him to act more like himself again.

2016 RNC appearance underscores Bob Dole's role in Republican Party

Bob Dole at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.

Dole rankled some when he became the only former presidential candidate to appear at the 2016 Republican National Convention, telling reporters that Donald Trump was "going to make a great president."

To Brownback, Dole's loyalty to the party was ironclad. He recalled his mentor being frustrated when moderate Republicans backed Brownback's Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, during the 2012 gubernatorial race.

Dole was a conservative when "it was harder to be a conservative," Brownback said, but noted he would work equally well with different factions of the party.

"He was really a unifying figure and worked a lot at it," he said.

Whether Dole would have a place in the modern Republican Party, molded in the image of former President Donald Trump, is a point of contention.

Brownback said Dole still "resonates" in 2020 but acknowledged there were some in the party who didn't view him as conservative enough, even when he ran for president.

"I remember at times having to stand up and fight for him with conservatives in the party when he was the nominee in 1996 because they said, 'Oh, he's not conservative enough,' " Brownback said. "I said, 'My goodness, this guy is an American patriot. Stand up for him, he is the party nominee and he supports the principles in the Republican Party.' "

Baker said Dole's work and legacy would be more difficult to imagine in modern politics — which makes it all the more striking, she said.

When Dole called her earlier this week to tell her of his diagnosis, Baker told him he was missed in Kansas.

"I said, 'Bob, I wish you would lend your voice. We need it out here,' " she said. 

Topeka Capital Journal reporter Tim Hrenchir contributed to this report.