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Bob Dole Looks Back

The former senator talks history and politics, and recalls a joke that never fails

World War II in Europe ended just three weeks after you were severely wounded in Italy. You must have wondered why it couldn't have ended a little earlier.

Right. We were supposed to start our push to get the Germans out of Italy and then when President Roosevelt died, we were in tears. We were all young kids. They had to delay our takeoff one day. I've often wondered if we had done it the day we should have, maybe that would have made a difference. But things happen, and you just turn the page and move along.

Have you visited Po Valley, where you were injured?

Several times. In fact, they have a plaque on a tree over there that says this is where Lt. Robert Dole was wounded.

What lessons about life did you learn from your wartime experiences?

Dr. Hampar Kelikian, an Armenian, operated on me half a dozen times and wouldn't let me pay him. He said, "I'll get my money from the next rich client I have." But he told me, "You've got to make the most of what you have left. You just can't sell pencils on a street corner." I couldn't use my arm very well so I decided I'd use my head. I went back to school and became a lawyer.

How do you describe World War II to young people who know little about it?

Four hundred thousand Americans gave their lives, and hundreds of thousands were seriously wounded. Because of that, we're a free country. I wish they'd teach a little more history so young people understand the sacrifices made by their forebearers that gave them the possibilities they have today.

Bob Dole, AARP Bulletin, Retrospective

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At 91, the former senator goes to his Washington law office nearly every day and visits the World War II Memorial every week.

Tom Brokaw has described your generation as the "greatest generation." What do you think of that term?

We've passed it on to the people who fought in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. We were honored to be called the "greatest generation," but we're now the disappearing generation. We're all in our late 80s and early 90s; some are over 100.

Why do you still go to the World War II Memorial every Saturday?

I've always loved veterans and did a lot of work in Congress on veterans' issues. Having played a major role in raising $170 million for the memorial, I go down and take pictures, visit with the veterans. I meet a lot of great men and women.

How well does the nation treat its veterans?

Overall, very well. There have been some trouble spots, but of the thousands of World War II veterans I've met, I could count on one hand the complaints I've had about the VA. My wife [Elizabeth] has gotten involved in this area. She has a foundation for caregivers.

Was part of her motivation seeing families of patients at Walter Reed while you were hospitalized there a few years ago?

She would come to visit me and then she would visit with mothers who were there. She used to take them to dinner just to give them a little relief away from the hospital. The next step was, how do you care for these people after they leave the hospital? They can't do it 24/7 forever.

What has been the biggest change in presidential politics since you were the Republican nominee in 1996?

Money. Now they talk about raising $1 billion to run for president. It's unreal. We need to do something to stop all this money in politics. I've always believed when people give big money, they — maybe silently — expect something in return.

Do you think you could have been the nominee if money had played such an important role back then?

A: I don't think so. And I might not be conservative enough to be the nominee today.

How important is it to have a sense of humor when you're in politics?

It's nice to use humor to let people relax and say, "Oh, this guy is human." I've compiled a couple of books on political humor. I sent copies to Ted Cruz. I thought it might help him a little, not that he's my candidate.

Do you have one piece of political humor that's your favorite?

You're speaking at an event and get up and say, "Can you hear me in the back?" A guy says, "No." And a lady upfront says, "I can. I'll trade places with you." That always gets a laugh.