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The Last Hurrah

Bob Dole

by Richard Ben Cramer
Vintage, 165 pp., $11.00 (paper)

Senator for Sale: An Unauthorized Biography of Senator Bob Dole

by Stanely G. Hilton
St.Martin’s Press/A Thomas Dunne Book, 300 pp., $22.95

Bob Dole: The Republicans’ Man For All Seasons

by Jake H. Thompson
Donald I. Fine Books, 279 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The New Hampshire presidential primary has not been kind to Senator Bob Dole. Twice it has inflicted the sort of wound that would have killed the White House dreams of a less driven man. In 1980 when he first ran for president he finished last in New Hampshire in a field of six, with a total of 608 votes. This was less than a half of 1 percent of the 145,000 votes cast. Even the write-in votes had a bigger tally—1,310 votes. “Pathetic” is too pale a word for Dole’s dismal showing, and too kind as well for a defeat which all observers agree had been inflicted on Dole by Dole himself through political errors so fundamental it is hard to imagine the man has been routinely described as one of the great professional politicians of the age.

Eight years later Dole tried again and came into the New Hampshire primary with a sound win over Vice-President George Bush in the Iowa caucuses. What went wrong is a puzzle. Victory seemed to depress his spirits no less than defeat. Normally the quickest of men on his feet, Dole grew confused about the right answer to a crucial question about taxes in a televised debate two nights before the primary.

Politics in New Hampshire is founded upon one bedrock principle: No taxes. No income tax and no sales tax. This is the issue, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, in every state and national campaign conducted in New Hampshire. No taxes. State spending on schools, social welfare, health, the environment, and other similar matters of legitimate concern to government is extremely low, but the voters of New Hampshire are comfortable with that so long as there is no erosion of the bedrock principle. Two years ago a woman ran for governor of New Hampshire on a pledge to lower property taxes by instituting a much fairer and more efficient income tax which would give the state money for many good things. Her campaign was a heart-wrenching spectacle, like watching a coyote gnaw off its own foot caught in a steel trap. At a recent meet-the-candidates dinner put on by the New Hampshire Republican State Committee in Manchester taxes were the constant refrain. The eight candidates, Dole last, all spoke of taxes, and some, like zillionaire Steve Forbes, spoke of nothing else—lower taxes, a flat tax, to end or not to end the capital gains tax. Several of the candidates got rousing cheers when they promised to abolish the Internal Revenue Service. It’s one of civilized mankind’s oldest dreams. “Why do Americans hate the rich?” a woman asked me. She’s for Steve Forbes and the flat tax.

No taxes. It’s not a difficult rule to memorize. Bob Dole has been on the Senate Finance Committee for decades. His hand is on every piece of tax legislation. His campaign contributors have sought and have received his close personal attention on numerous tax matters. According to Stanley Hilton in Senator for Sale: An Unauthorized Biography of Senator Bob Dole, the 1986 Tax Reform Act included 600 separate corporate tax loopholes introduced or supported by Dole, including, to take just one example, a provision allowing deferral of taxes on earnings from a type of investment known as “single-premium life insurance.” The AmVestors Finance Corporation made a fortune selling these “policies” and the company’s chairman, T. M. Murrell, in due course was named a co-chairman of Bob Dole’s 1988 campaign. Servicing the tax problems of constituents has been such a central theme in Bob Dole’s career that he has apparently never felt the need, in any statement that I have seen, to justify it as right or fair.

But somehow in New Hampshire in 1988 on the eve of the most important election of his life, in what at the age of sixty-four surely had to be considered his last shot at the presidency, Bob Dole forgot the New Hampshire rule. During the debate one of the other contenders handed Dole a sheet of paper containing a no-tax pledge. Routine stuff. Bob Dole looked at it, he froze, he pushed it away, he refused to sign. “Give it to George,” he said. “George will sign it.”

Well, Dole gave it to George all right. The voters of New Hampshire were watching that TV debate. George Bush came from behind to win the New Hampshire primary 38 percent to 29 percent, and he was elected president very largely on the strength of his own memorable pledge: “Read my lips—no new taxes.”

That should have been Bob Dole’s political funeral. But George Bush made a few mistakes of his own and discovered in 1992 that the voters would not forgive him for breaking his pledge, thereby offering Bob Dole one last—absolutely final—shot at the Republican nomination for president in 1996 at the age of seventy-two. No one older has ever been elected for the first time. Practically everyone says that Dole can have the nomination, but he understands that anything short of a strong and convincing victory could threaten his chances for the nomination, and he has prepared for it as his political hero and fellow Kansan Dwight David Eisenhower prepared for the invasion of Normandy in 1944 to begin the final battle for victory in World War II. Bob Dole fought and was badly wounded in that war and he doesn’t let anyone forget it. He has described his campaign for the presidency as “one last mission” for the generation that proved itself in World War II, and the day after he announced his candidacy, as was customary, in his home town of Russell, Kansas, he flew with his presidential campaign invasion force to the scene of his previous bloodlettings in New Hampshire with a hard glint in his eye.

This time Bob Dole came armed with pollsters and political advisers he has promised to listen to, and all the money in the world, and a pledge to raise no new taxes. He has even explained some of the customary political legerdemain for raising taxes without appearing to raise taxes and pledged he would have no truck with any of that—no new taxes, period. The polls, his own and others’, say Bob Dole has figured it out this time. His rivals are all in a cat-and-dog fight for second place, far, far behind. They are all more or less conservative Republicans or are at least willing to walk the walk and talk the talk. Pat Buchanan, the ultra-conservative former speech-writer for Nixon, says the issue in the primary is “leadership,” and he can provide it because he will never compromise on principle, whereas Bob Dole is always giving a little in order to get a little in some legislative deal.

In recent weeks the candidates have all been attacking Bob Dole because he is the front-runner. They say he is too old, too boring to beat Clinton, and too wishy-washy on abortion and other litmus-test issues. The New Hampshire campaign oratory has no focus. What the candidates are mainly offering is style, personal history—a sense of who they are. Bob Dole is holding his own in this contest. He has presence. He speaks with unpretentious authority. But he is a hard man to read. This is the test Americans face every four years, trying to get a sense of who the candidates really are down deep from the ocean of words mostly written by professionals and from the impression the candidate makes over television. Bob Dole gives little of himself away. He says what he has to say and that’s it. But if his strategy works Dole will win strongly in New Hampshire and power his way through the rest of the big primary states by the end of March and go on to get the Republican nomination in August. With a little luck, and perhaps General Colin Powell as his running mate, Dole should have a good chance of beating President Clinton in November.

Then what?

The contribution of George Bush to political philosophy is summed up in a single phrase, which, unlike “read my lips,” was apparently his own invention: three words that popped out of him in the heat of the moment, under pressure to explain what he planned or wanted to do as president. Bush never claimed he was more than a practical, can-do sort of fellow; he confessed he had no natural gift for “the vision thing.”

Americans are accustomed to great gobs of “the vision thing” from their political leaders, promises of new deals, fair deals, and square deals. Men running for president have promised to end war, racism, and poverty; to bear any burden for liberty; to extend the American dream to all Americans; to make the world safe for democracy; to save the world from fascism and communism; to bring religion back to American life, values back to families, power back to the states. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis cast a pall over his campaign in 1988 when he said the election was about “competence,” the workman-like ability to do things right. George Bush may have had no natural gift for expressing “the vision thing” in words, out he understood that voters were not looking for a plumber. Bush wrapped himself in the flag and called himself “a combat kind of guy,” while Dukakis worked his way methodically down the list of everything that was wrong with the conduct of government in Washington. There is a lesson in the defeat of Dukakis for Bob Dole, who has for decades handled public business with a deftness that exceeds mere competence and Dole’s advisers have got this lesson firmly in mind. The lesson is that voters want their leaders to handle things right but they don’t want them to go on and on about it.

Among the one hundred senators in Washington there are always twenty or thirty (some say more) scheming how to get to be president. For roughly twenty years Bob Dole has been one of them. It’s a kind of natural phenomenon. Great skiers and tobogganists want to go to the Olympics, and if they make the team they want to win a gold medal. Politicians want to go to Washington, and if they get there and the idea is not an absolute joke they start thinking about the White House. The senators are thick on the ground at the beginning of every primary season raising funds, issuing statements, and forming exploratory committees, but the serious contenders as often as not come from the outside—Eisenhower from the Army and Columbia University in 1952; Richard Nixon from his law practice in 1968; Jimmy Carter from Georgia in 1976; Ronald Reagan from California in 1980; Dukakis from Massachusetts in 1988; Bill Clinton from Arkansas in 1992. The Republican primary in New Hampshire this year is full of outsiders like Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, hoping for discovery by the public. Well-known Washington figures like Senators Phil Gramm and Richard Lugar are getting nowhere.

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