BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
A lot has been written about larger than life Sen. Bob Dole since his passing on December 5 at the ripe old age of 98. He was a soldier, Kansas State Representative for two years, member of the U.S. House of Representatives for eight years, U.S. Senator for 27 years, three-term Senate Majority Leader for 11 years, Republican vice presidential nominee in 1976, and presidential nominee in 1996. He was a decorated war hero and champion of the Armenian Cause.
His life took a tragic turn after he got critically wounded in Italy during World War II while serving in the U.S. Army, crippling his shoulder and right arm. Armenian orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Hampar Kelikian, was able to save Dole’s wounded arm, after seven surgeries which the miraculous doctor performed free of charge.
More importantly than treating him physically, Dr. Kelikian boosted the self-confidence of the future Senate leader to focus on what he was left with rather than complaining about what he had lost. This was an important lesson that Bob Dole kept in mind the rest of his life.
Dr. Kelikian was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. He shared with his patient, Bob Dole, the hellish experience of the Armenian Genocide, during which he lost several members of his family and barely survived himself. Those horrible stories left their indelible mark on young Dole who never forgot the Armenian tragedy. When he rose to the highest ranks of power, he did his best to bring a degree of justice to the long-suffering Armenian nation by trying to get the United States acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.
Dole’s valiant efforts in the Senate on behalf of the Armenian people were thwarted by the Clinton Administration and Sen. Robert Byrd (Democrat-West Virginia). However, 30 years later, the publicity generated by Sen. Dole’s persistent dedication to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide paid off.
Fortunately, Bob Dole lived long enough to see the fruits of his untiring efforts, when Pres. Joe Biden, Bob Dole’s close friend and political rival, issued a Statement on April 24, 2021 recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Dole sent a personal note to Pres. Biden thanking him for his acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide.
I would like to share with readers my recollections of accompanying Sen. Dole on a fact-finding trip to Armenia, October 13-15, 1997, to assess Kirk Kerkorian’s planned multi-million dollar humanitarian projects through his Lincy Foundation. The delegation included Alice Kelikian, the daughter of Dr. Kelikian, Armenia’s Ambassador Rouben Shugarian, Chairman of Lincy Jim Aljian and his wife Marjorie, two of Senator’s aides, and Sue Temkin, a tax attorney from Dole’s Washington law firm. We travelled on board Kerkorian’s private jet. I travelled with the delegation in my capacity as the person in charge of the Lincy projects in Armenia.
In a gesture reserved to visiting heads of state, then Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan and several high-ranking officials came to the Yerevan airport to welcome Sen. Dole to Armenia. Also present at the airport was the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Peter Tomsen. Although Pres. Levon Ter-Petrossian was out of the country on a visit to France, he spoke with Sen. Dole by telephone.
Sen. Dole, as a hero to the Armenian nation, was received enthusiastically both by the public and officials. During the couple of days we were in Armenia, we met with the Prime Minister, Chairman of the Central Bank, Minister of Trade and Industry, Deputy Minister of Economy and Finance, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (their respective ministers were with the President in France), Chairman of Parliament and his two deputies, Chairmen of all parliamentary committees, local businessmen and bankers. Sen. Dole also met with leaders of three opposition parties and held a press conference.
We visited the U.S. Embassy, where we were briefed by the Ambassador, Commercial Attaché, and representative of USAID. We also met with Catholicos of All-Armenians Karekin I at the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin. We toured a state-of-the-art clothing factory owned by a businesswoman who had 500 employees. Finally, we visited the Children’s Cardiac Center where Dr. Hrayr Hovaguimian, an Armenian-American, was the chief surgeon.
Sen. Dole was deeply touched during his visit to the 70 young children at the Nork Orphanage. When he learned that the staff of the orphanage had not received their salaries for several months, he graciously offered to provide their back pay.
Another moving experience was Sen. Dole’s visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial Monument and Museum where he laid a wreath. He and Alice Kelikian planted a tree in memory of Dr. Hampar Kelikian.
This was Sen. Dole’s second trip to Armenia. He and his wife Elizabeth visited Armenia in 1989, following the December 1988 earthquake. In 2019, the Republic of Armenia bestowed the prestigious “Order of Honor” on Sen. Dole.
Sen. Dole was still active at the age of 97. On September 15, 2020, Sen. Dole and his lobbying firm, Alston & Bird, signed a contract with the Armenian government to “monitor current events relevant to US-Armenia relations and provide strategic counsel with respect to improvement of that relationship.” Sen. Dole wrote: “These services may include outreach to United States Government officials as well as Members of Congress and their staffs.” The contract was for one month at a cost of $10,000.
The Armenian nation will long remember this great man who never forgot the Armenian surgeon who restored his health and did his best to bring acknowledgment to the Armenian Genocide.