WASHINGTON — Former Senate majority leader Robert Dole, a disabled World War II veteran and leading advocate for veterans during decades of public service, on Thursday called for a shake-up at the Department of Veterans Affairs following allegations of delayed treatment and falsified books at VA hospitals, a situation he called a "disaster."
In an interview with USA TODAY's Capital Download, Dole, now 90, spoke with apparent anguish about whether that shake-up should include VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Dole had introduced Shinseki at his Senate confirmation hearings in 2009, praising his military service and calling the retired Army general a "true American hero."
"I have mixed feelings," Dole said when asked whether Shinseki should be replaced.
"He should stay until the White House gets this investigative report that they're doing, until we get the facts, and you see what you can lay at his feet and what his response has been." But he went on: "If the facts reveal that he neglected his duties, then he should go."
After meeting with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin on Capitol Hill, Shinseki told a small group of reporters that he hadn't offered his resignation and wanted to stay on the job. Some members of Congress, including a few Democrats, have called for him to step down.
Dole's comments carry particular weight because of his personal story and long history on veterans' issues. He co-chaired a commission appointed by President George W. Bush on the care of returning veterans. His wife, former North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole, leads an organization supporting military spouses and other caretakers of wounded soldiers.
Pinned to Dole's lapel during the interview was the small Purple Heart bar he was awarded after being grievously wounded in World War II, injuries that cost him the use of his right arm.
"You shouldn't keep a veteran waiting three months to see a doctor," Dole told the weekly video newsmaker series, saying the situation required "an urgent response." He faulted President Obama for being slow to recognize the seriousness of the situation.
"I don't want to be critical of the president, but he waited 23 days before he responded, and I think he should have done it sooner," he said.
Dole moves with difficulty and speaks more slowly than he did during his time as a Kansas senator and the Republican Party's 1996 presidential nominee. But his memory is clear and his words sometimes sharp, particularly when the topic turns to Congress' deepening partisanship and the Tea Party movement.
"Some of them are so far right they're going to fall out of the Capitol," he joked. "I don't know what they contribute if they're against everything. If you're going to be a national party, there are some things you should be against, but there's got to be some things you're for, like health care or immigration or energy or education."
He has made two sentimental journeys to his home state of Kansas over the past month and has another scheduled to begin Tuesday.
"Just saying 'thank you,' " he said. "I mean, some of these people voted for me five times for the Senate." At events in more than two dozen counties, he made a few remarks, asked for questions, posed for photographs and accepted gifts of oatmeal-raisin cookies and brownies.
He hopes to make it to all 105 counties, "if my knee holds up." But not during the summer. "It gets pretty warm in Kansas in July and August," he noted. "Plus you have the wheat harvest, and you don't want to bother people during that time." He'll be back to finish up, he said, in September.