Bob Dole reflects on Trump, the Republican Party, turning 93 and more

Story highlights

  • Dole would like to see the Republican Party unite around this year's nominee, Donald Trump
  • Dole said he wished his friends were here with him

Cleveland, Ohio (CNN)To celebrate turning 93 on Friday, Bob Dole is planning to have a joint birthday party with his wife, Elizabeth. But he's already warned friends: no gifts.

"At my age, what do I need?" Dole said Tuesday, as he mused that the only thing he likes to splurge on these days is a good Italian cappuccino. "It's so good, the way the Italians make them. So now I'm sort of an addict. I know you probably shouldn't drink coffee, but when you're 93, I think you can drink most anything."
    But as the World War II veteran and ex-senator from Kansas attends the Republican National Convention here in Cleveland this week, he does have a wish. He would like to see the Republican Party -- the party that elected him its presidential nominee in 1996 -- to unite around this year's nominee, Donald Trump.
    Sitting in the VIP box inside of the convention hall Monday night, wearing a "I still like Ike" button on his American flag tie in tribute to former President Dwight Eisenhower, Dole was the only former GOP nominee to attend this year's convention. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush are notably absent from the festivities this week, a striking sign of just how controversial a candidate Trump is.
    In an extended interview with CNN on Tuesday, Dole said he wished his friends were here with him, but he doesn't fault some of them for refusing to come.
    "Trump did say things about Jeb Bush in the primaries that were pretty hurtful. So I can appreciate why some want no part of this convention," said Dole, who endorsed Bush in the primary.
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    And even though he ultimately endorsed Trump, Dole has taken issue with plenty of things that Trump has said and stands for -- speaking out, for example, when the billionaire mocked Arizona Sen. John McCain for being captured as a prisoner-of-war.
    That criticism of his friend stung Dole especially hard. The former Senate majority leader was badly wounded in the war, losing the ability to freely move his right hand and arm. But even at this age, Dole keeps a busy schedule with one ritual taking priority: every Saturday, Dole visits the World War II Memorial in Washington, sitting in his wheelchair to greet his fellow veterans as they come to reminisce about their service decades ago.
    "It's very emotional for some of these men. There are a lot of tears shed when we walk into that memorial and think about their youth and service," Dole said.
    He, too, has been haunted at times, wondering what would have happened if he had not gotten injured.
    "Your life has been changed forever but there's somebody looking out for you upstairs," Dole said. "Despite my disability, I've had a very -- my life has been fulfilled."
    Watching the drama-filled 2016 election unfold before him, Dole has also been alarmed by Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric, including his proposal to deport millions of undocumented workers and a proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. These ideas are in stark contrast to the tone that Dole took in his own convention speech 20 years ago, when he heralded the GOP as the party of inclusion.
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    "If there's anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln," Dole said, as he looked out into the crowd in San Diego. "The exits which are clearly marked are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise."
    To this day, Dole believes he was on the right side of history.
    "I believe I was right," he said Tuesday. "When I look at a person, I don't go, oh, there's an African-American. We weren't raised that way."
    As Trump gets ready to formally accept his party's nomination, Dole is still monitoring the businessman's rhetoric and hoping to hear a more inclusive message. But he is certain of one thing: Trump has what it takes to defeat the Democratic presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton.
    The reason Trump has emerged the GOP's nominee out of a field of more than dozens of political veterans is because he has caught the attention of the working class with his unfiltered rhetoric, Dole said. Next to Clinton, who has been in the political limelight for years, Dole believes Trump holds a clear advantage but needs his party to get behind him.
    "I really believe Trump can win because he captures Democrats and independents and if he can get the Republican Party united, he'll beat Hillary," Dole said. "I couldn't beat a Clinton -- but maybe he can."