WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas has collected accolades aplenty throughout his career, but none will likely be as lasting as a small bronze plaque near the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue.
It's to be placed on the entrance path to the World War II Memorial, one of the capital's most popular shrines since opening seven years go, but which might never have been built without Dole's persistence.
On Tuesday, several former Senate colleagues, including Vice President Joe Biden, gathered beneath a tent in a driving rain across the street from the memorial to honor Dole and dedicate the plaque.
His wife, Elizabeth Dole, a former Republican senator from North Carolina, was there, too, along with other family members, as well as friends and well-wishers from Kansas and the political arena that Dole inhabited for five decades. Tom Brokaw of NBC served as emcee.
"Bob Dole has given much to our country, both on the battlefield and in public office," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Democratic senator from Colorado. "From now on, visitors to this hallowed site will be reminded of the contributions of a truly great American."
When it was Dole's turn to speak, at the end of a long stream of testimonials, the former Republican presidential nominee and Senate leader shifted the praise to the men and women who served during the war, and to the more than 400,000 who never returned.
"I want to most of all thank the citizen-soldiers, the farm and city boys, the factory workers, recent immigrants as diverse as America itself, for all you did to preserve civilization when it was most endangered," he said.
At 87, Dole's health is frail. He spent 11 months last year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering from knee surgery and other ailments. But he still goes to the office, still enjoys talking politics, still answers letters and makes phone calls to families of troops fighting a world away, who want a helping hand or just a sympathetic ear.
And his trademark, self-effacing wit, always as dry as harvested wheat, remains intact, as when Elizabeth Dole offered a touching tribute to her husband.
She extolled his virtues, called him her "own personal Rock of Gibraltar," and said, "I thank God every day for bringing you into my life."
"I want to thank Elizabeth," her husband quipped, "not just for saying such nice things about me after 35 years, but even more for believing them."
It will be 66 years to the day on Thursday that Dole was gravely wounded while fighting in the mountains of Italy in 1945. He was decorated, but the experience and his grueling recovery led him to become an eloquent champion for all veterans.
But time was of the essence to honor the men and women who served in his generation's crucible. They were rapidly disappearing. As of last year, less than 2 million World War II veterans remained out of 16 million who served, and 800 were dying each day.
Retired from politics since his loss in the 1996 presidential race, the memorial became Dole's cause. "His dream," said Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who has known Dole for years. Dole traveled the country to raise money, imploring and cajoling possible donors.
"He spoke with standing and with reverence and people paid attention," said Roberts. "He didn't give up. 'Look," he said. 'Every year there are less of us.'"
Now the memorial has become a gathering place for veterans from across the country. They come in groups, and alone. They stare at the inscriptions of battles, as if seeing long-ago images known only to them. They swap stories, recall old comrades and keep history alive.
"You never, never, never let anything stand in your way," said Biden, who served in the Senate alongside Dole, though on different sides of the aisle, for nearly three decades. "... Bob, God bless you."
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