Reminiscing an Unforgettable Trip To Armenia with Sen. Dole in 1997
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 8 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
the 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.