Sen. Bob Dole with Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan

Senator Bob Dole, Longtime Friend and Supporter of Armenian Community, Dies


WASHINGTON (Combined Sources) — Bob Dole, the plain-spoken son of the prairie who overcame Dust Bowl deprivation in Kansas and grievous battle wounds in Italy to become the Senate majority leader and the last of the World War II generation to win his party’s nomination for president, died on Sunday, December 5. He was 98.

His death was announced by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

It did not say where he died. He had announced in February that he had Stage IV lung cancer and that he was beginning treatment.

It was that grievous injury during World War II which changed his life and certainly his relationship with and championship of the Armenian-American community and recognition for the Armenian Genocide.

His surgeon, Dr. Hampar Kelikian, did more than try to mend the broken parts of Dole’s body when the future Senate majority leader returned from World War II, a decorated battleground hero who’d been strafed by German bullets in Italy. Over the course of a remarkable three-and-a-half-decade friendship, Kelikian became a guiding light, a “second father” as Dole puts it, an inspiration and a teacher. “You have to live with what you have left,” Kelikian told Dole. “You can’t dwell on what you’ve lost.”

“Pretty good advice,” Dole, said last year.

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During Dole’s frequent stays at Kelikian’s home in Chicago, the doctor shared his tragic family history amid the horrors that began in 1915. Dole learned that three of Kelikian’s sisters had been burned to death during the genocidal rampage, and Kelikian had been forced to leave his homeland.

Kelikian, an innovative orthopedist had offered to treat him and other veterans for free — in gratitude to a country that had given him a new life, and to honor the doctor’s brother who had been killed fighting for the United States in Italy during World War II. Dole, then 23, remembers arriving to find Kelikian waiting to greet him. Kelikian had achieved prominence after emigrating at age 21 and earning a medical degree at the University of Chicago without having graduated from high school. Yet the doctor made him feel like he was the most important patient in the hospital, Dole said in an interview.

Dole with Dr. Kelikian

Though he was more than 20 years Dole’s senior, Kelikian insisted on calling him “Captain,” a moniker he kept using as their relationship morphed from doctor-patient to the deepest of friendships. In their talks, Kelikian told Dole he would never become a doctor, which had been an aspiration, and he’d never shoot baskets. But still there was hope for something better.

Kelikian’s handwritten notes, provided by his daughter, lay out a medical long shot: “Surgery June 3, 1947. Arthroplasty of shoulder.” “Surgery August 12, 1947. Resection of humeral head.” The surgeries, which removed and sought to repair damaged parts of Dole’s right shoulder, were just the first of seven. The procedures couldn’t fix him completely, but they did allow his mostly immobilized right arm to hang in a somewhat normal position at his side.

Those recollections were prominent in Dole’s mind as he set on a quest years later, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to force the United States government to officially acknowledge what so many historians consider indisputable: that a genocide had taken place. While he was in office, Dole was never able to achieve that goal, blocked by Senate colleagues and a White House loathe to anger Turkey, which continues to deny that there was a genocide.

But Dole had planted a seed. And so it was with a quiet joy that he recently got the news that President Biden — a Democrat and foe on many things, but an ally in the Armenian-genocide debate while they served together in the Senate — had accomplished what Dole waited so long to see: Biden formally recognized the mass killings of Armenians as a genocide, making him the first U.S. president to acknowledge this reality since Ronald Reagan, who’d used the term fleetingly. Biden’s announcement came on a day of great significance: April 24, the same date historians have pegged as the start of the genocide.

Topics: Obituary

A Republican, Dole was one of the most durable political figures in the last decades of the last century. He was nominated for vice president in 1976 and then for president a full 20 years later. He spent a quarter-century in the Senate, where he was his party’s longest-serving leader until Mitch McConnell of Kentucky surpassed that record in June 2018.

President Biden called Mr. Dole “an American statesman like few in our history. A war hero and among the greatest of the Greatest Generation.” He added, “To me, he was also a friend whom I could look to for trusted guidance, or a humorous line at just the right moment to settle frayed nerves.”

In one of his last public appearances, in December 2018, he joined the line at the Capitol Rotunda where the body of former President George H.W. Bush, an erstwhile political rival and fellow veteran, lay in state. As an aide helped him up from his wheelchair, Mr. Dole, using his left hand because his right had been rendered useless by the war, saluted the flag-draped coffin of the last president to have served in World War II.

He was national Republican chairman under President Richard M. Nixon in the early 1970s; the running mate to President Gerald R. Ford in 1976; chairman of the Senate Finance Committee during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s; and presidential standard-bearer during Newt Gingrich’s “revolution” of the mid-1990s, when the Republicans captured the House for the first time in 40 years and upended the power dynamic on Capitol Hill.

More recently, Dole, almost alone among his party’s old guard, endorsed Donald J. Trump for president in 2016, after his preferred candidates had fallen by the wayside. On the eve of his 93rd birthday, he was the only previous Republican presidential nominee to appear at the party’s convention in Cleveland, where Trump was nominated.

Dole himself ran three times for the White House and finally won the nomination in 1996, only to lose to President Bill Clinton after a historically disastrous campaign. He had given up his secure post in the Senate to pursue the presidency, although, as he acknowledged, he was more suited to the Senate.

As the Republican leader, he helped broker compromises that shaped much of the nation’s domestic and foreign policies.

He was most proud of helping to rescue Social Security in 1983, of pushing the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and of mustering a majority of reluctant Republicans to support Mr. Clinton’s unpopular plan to send American troops to Bosnia in 1995. (Mr. Dole was not wild about the deployment either, but he long believed that a president, of either party, should be supported once he decided something as important as committing troops abroad.)

skilled legislative mechanic, Dole understood what every senator wanted and what each could live with, and he enjoyed the art of political bartering.

He was so at home in the Senate’s marble corridors that during his last campaign, in 1996, he constantly had to remind voters that he was “not born in a blue suit” — Dole shorthand for saying that he had a life before arriving in Washington in 1961. In fact, he had been shaped profoundly by the twin experiences of growing up poor in Depression-era Kansas and enduring the shattering wounds of war.

Mr. Dole began his political career as a conservative and evolved into a pragmatist, even forging relationships with prominent liberals. With George S. McGovern of South Dakota, he expanded the food stamp program, and with Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, he made school lunches a federal entitlement. Kansas farmers applauded both efforts.

He was such a good deal-maker that his own convictions were not always apparent. By the end of his long career, Dole had cast more than 12,000 votes, having stood on both sides of many issues.

He opposed many of the Great Society programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson, but he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Avoiding budget deficits had been his North Star, given his hardscrabble youth. Sometimes he supported tax increases, which led Mr. Gingrich to brand him “the tax collector for the welfare state.” But in 1995, he tried to recast himself as a tax-cutter, memorably telling party leaders, “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that’s what you want.” He then signed a pledge not to raise taxes as president, a pledge he had previously rejected.

“It adds a certain poignancy,” Richard Norton Smith, the former director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, said in an interview in 2009, “that he found himself chasing the caboose of movement conservatism at the height of his career.”

But away from Capitol Hill, Mr. Dole was a fish out of water. His insider skills as a tactician and deal closer did not translate to the presidential campaign trail.

During the 1996 race, he was faulted as having no overarching vision — for his campaign or for the country. He chafed at handlers who tried to package him, and he never adapted to the scripted politics of the television age. During speeches, he often lapsed into legislative lingo and referred to himself in the third person. He was detached as a candidate, more wry commentator than engaged participant.

After that final quest for the presidency, Mr. Dole became a lobbyist for the powerhouse international law firm Alston & Bird. Despite his standing as a well-connected Washington insider, he cultivated a new persona, one unexpected for a man of Dole’s dark visage and mordant wit: that of self-deprecating loser.

“Playing up the image of the downtrodden also-ran was great fun,” he wrote in his 2005 book, One Soldier’s Story: A Memoir. He starred in Super Bowl commercials for Visa (“I just can’t win”) in 1997 and for Pepsi in 2001 and later made a cameo in a Pepsi ad featuring Britney Spears. He spoofed previous ads he had made for the male potency drug Viagra, for which he had become a spokesman after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer.

“Once you lose,” he told the New York Times, “people like you.”

From left, Kevork Marashlian, Sen. Bob Dole and Dr. Noubar Afeyan at the Genocide Centennial in Washington, during which Dole received an award.

Armenian Connections

“Senator Dole played an enormous role in the lives of all Armenians, and we are grateful for his continuous efforts throughout his political career to help Armenians around the world. We appreciate his partnership with the Armenian Assembly of America throughout the decades, from his support of our internship program, to our collaborative efforts as we sought U.S. affirmation of the Armenian Genocide,” said Assembly Co-Chairs Anthony Barsamian and Van Krikorian.

In 2015, the year of the Genocide centennial, the National Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Centennial (NCAGC) honored Senator Bob Dole earlier this month with the organization’s Survivor’s Gratitude Award in the category of Hero of Responsibility and Principle for his tireless efforts in raising attention to the Armenian Genocide and its victims.

“I am both honored and humbled to receive this award from the NCAGC,” said Dole. “But we must not forget that there is still much to be done to globally recognize what occurred a century ago. Only by acknowledging and accepting the past for what it is — however painful — can the world truly begin to work to heal and ensure a future free from genocide.”

Dole’s award was transported to the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics where it will reside.

In addition, in 2019 Armenia’s President Armen Sarkissian signed a decree earlier in July 2019 awarding Dole with an Order of Honor for his contribution to the development and reinforcement of Armenian-American friendly ties.

In 2018, the Robert and Elizabeth Dole Archive and Special Collections at the Dole Institute of Politics in Kansas awarded two grants related to the Armenian Genocide, one an archival fellowship to author Michael Bobelian and a travel grant to Professor Julien Zarifian.

As the Archival Fellow, Bobelian worked with Dole Archives staff to create a web-based learning module with primary sources documenting the US response to the World War I-era Armenian Genocide and former US Sen. Bob Dole’s advocacy on behalf of Armenians and Armenian Americans.

“Dole was the unparalleled champion,” Peter Mirijanian, an Armenian American political and business consultant in Washington, said. “It would have been much more difficult to get recognition of the genocide without him. He kept it alive.”

(Articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post were used in compiling this report.)

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