WASHINGTON — Bob Dole lay in state at the US Capitol, as the president and others gathered Thursday to pay tribute to an “American giant” who served the country in war and in politics with pragmatism, self-deprecating wit and a bygone era’s sense of common civility.
President Joe Biden entered the Capitol and a military escort carried Dole’s casket draped with the American flag into to the Rotunda. Biden is expected to offer remarks at the morning ceremony with invited guests and congressional leaders for the former Republican senator and presidential contender. Dole, who served nearly 36 years in Congress, died Sunday at the age of 98.
“For those like me who had the honor of calling him a friend, Bob Dole was an American giant,” President Joe Biden said in a Wednesday speech in Kansas City, Missouri.
Biden, a Democrat, called Dole “a man of extraordinary courage, both physical and moral courage.”
“A war hero, who sacrificed beyond measure,” Biden said. “Who nearly gave his life for our country in World War II. Among the greatest of the great generation.”
The service underway will be the first of several in Washington commemorating Dole’s life and legacy. Thursday’s event at the Capitol and Friday’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral are closed to the public. But Dole’s funeral will be livestreamed at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, and his motorcade is expected to stop by later at an event with actor Tom Hanks honoring his life and military service before the casket travels to his Kansas hometown and the state capital.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Dole was a “patriot from the start” and an “exemplary person to serve with in Congress.”
“He served at a time when there was mutual respect, even though disagreement on many issues, across the aisle, across the Capitol,” Pelosi said Wednesday. “I found him to be a man of his word. Everybody did.”
Black draperies hung on doorways under the Capitol dome in preparation for the service. About 100 chairs were set up, socially distanced for COVID-19 protocols. A lectern was positioned in a way that the statue of another Kansas stateman, Dwight Eisenhower, will likely be seen in the background behind the day’s speakers.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, now the longest-serving Republican Senate leader, said Dole idolized Eisenhower, calling the former president and general a hero who embodied “the finest qualities of the American people.”
“We can say with certainty that Eisenhower isn’t the only Kansan who meets those standards,” McConnell said in a speech earlier this week.
McConnell had raised concerns that an event planner for the memorial service, Tim Unes, had been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol about his role planning that day for Donald Trump, the former president, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the private conversation. Trump had urged his followers to head to the Capitol to fight the certification of Biden’s election victory.
Dole family spokesperson Steve Schwab said in a statement Thursday that Unes’ role had been terminated.
Schwab said Unes, a former Dole campaign staffer, had “volunteered his time to serve on the advance team for this week’s memorial events.” Schwab said Dole’s wife, Elizabeth Dole, “was previously unaware” of Unes’ participation and once he made her aware she “terminated his volunteer role.”
Unes did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The story was first reported by The New York Times.
Born a child of the Dust Bowl in Russell, Kansas, Bob Dole suffered paralyzing and near-fatal wounds after being shot in World War II that sent him home with a severely damaged right arm that he could not use to shake hands. Instead, Dole held a pen in it and reached out with his left as a way to put greeters at ease.
After earning a law degree, he worked as county attorney and served as a Kansas state legislator before running for Congress in 1960, joining the House for eight years then going on to win the Senate seat. He was the GOP’s presidential nominee in 1996, his third and final campaign for president — a race he never won.
Dole’s quick wit was on display after losing the presidential contest to incumbent Democrat Bill Clinton, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom days before the 1997 inauguration.
McConnell said when it was time for Dole’s remarks, he stood at the podium and began: “I, Robert J. Dole … do solemnly swear … oh, sorry, wrong speech!”
But that humor was rarely seen on the campaign trail or in his public pronouncements, where it could have helped him win more votes.
Instead, Dole was seen as a GOP “hatchet man,” a mentee of Richard Nixon and chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate era. He went on to become the sharp-tongued vice presidential running mate to Gerald Ford, another lost race.
But it was Dole’s long career in the Senate where he grew to see the value of reaching across the aisle to Democrats and secured his more lasting achievements — most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act that to this day ensures a level of accessibility as a civil right.
At times, Dole bucked his own party, particularly on a landmark tax bill, and helped create the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.
The former senator announced in February 2021 a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. Biden visited Dole at his home at the Watergate complex.
A few hours before the memorial was set to begin, Capitol Police locked down part of the Capitol complex after a staffer walked into an office building with a gun in his bag. The man was arrested on a charge of carrying a pistol without a license.