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The Last Hurrah

Cramer, Thompson, and Hilton all labor mightily to define the meaning of Bob Dole. For Cramer and Thompson it is the man and the life. “What were prosy visions for the nation’s next four years,” Cramer asks at the end of his vigorously written little book, “compared to the miraculous fact of Dole’s life—his future—sun-sharp and solid as the bricks on Main Street?” Thompson ends on a similar note. “Bob Dole has always been primed for the next fight, playing the game with fierce devotion, seeking to make a difference. He has never given up, never given in.”

Only Hilton does Dole the respect of seriously questioning his record. In Senator for Sale he accuses Dole of being too responsive to the private wishes of the numerous contributors to his committees and foundations. Convenient tables identify who gave what, and it stands to reason the contributors were all smart enough to know what they could reasonably expect in return. According to Hilton, some cashed in mightily, such as Archer-Daniel-Midlands (ADM), the food-processing giant ($7 billion in sales), which also manufactures about 70 percent of American ethanol, a grain-based fuel additive which has sucked up hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal subsidies. Bob Dole is the Senate’s most important supporter of ethanol subsidies. ADM’s chairman, Dwayne Andreas, is something of a buddy of Dole’s and they sometimes hang out together in a Bal Harbour, Florida, seaside cooperative where Andreas helped Dole obtain an apartment at a bargain price. The ADM Foundation has given $185,000 to the Dole Foundation, and during the 1980s various members of the Andreas family contributed $80,000 to Dole’s political campaigns. This sounds bad, but on the other hand the relationship is obvious to all, it is typical of politics in the Senate, and environmentalists at one time pressed hard for the encouragement of renewable energy sources like ethanol.

Bob Dole is awkward handling questions about his political philosophy. It seems straightforward to him. He thinks the business of America is business: he manages his part of the government in the spirit of a man running the traffic department of a great city; he tries to keep things moving with a minimum of collision, jam-ups, public expense, and with occasional preferment for his friends. That’s about it. Dole’s handlers in this year’s presidential campaign have worked to keep him “on message” in classic Republican style—end the deficit, balance the budget, “family values,” etc.—but it’s not natural to the man. He is pragmatic to a fault. As president he could be expected to handle whatever came his way. If four years of that sounds not so bad Dole’s your man.

When his biographers try to describe the human Bob Dole they describe the harsh world of his youth in Kansas, his year of suffering after his wound in Italy, his jokes and his tears. His jokes are numerous and have won him many grudging fans among the very citizens most appalled by his copious tears at the funeral of Richard Nixon in April 1994. As it happens, Nixon is also the object of Bob Dole’s best-known joke. He delivered it a decade ago at the annual Gridiron dinner held in Washington where he described a lineup of former Presidents Ford, Carter, and Nixon as “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Evil.”

This is classic Dole—short, sardonic, sharp enough to draw a little blood. Sometimes the joke is directed at himself. After his defeat for vice-president on the ticket with Gerald Ford in 1976 he told reporters he took it in stride, he went home and slept like a baby—“Every two hours I woke up and cried.”

More often the victim is an opponent. When his diminutive rival Howard Baker dropped out of the 1980 presidential campaign Bob Dole (six feet, one inch) said “Howard can now open a tall men’s shop in Japan.” Dole once backhanded Jack Kemp, another sometime rival for the Republican presidential nomination known for his blow-dried hair, as wanting “a business deduction for hair spray.” There can be a nasty edge here. In 1974 Bob Dole defeated his physician opponent, Dr. Bill Roy, with a last-minute blitz painting Roy as “a baby killer” for having performed ten legal abortions. The Sunday before the election Dole forces plastered car windshields outside Catholic churches with leaflets showing dead fetuses in garbage cans. After squeaking through on election day with 50.8 percent of the vote Bob Dole rubbed his victory in. “Before the election, they said Roy was one in a million. Well, now he’s one in ten million—he’s unemployed.”

The jokes open a small window into Dole’s character. The delivery is good. He once acted as host on Saturday Night Live. He does not favor farmer’s-wife jokes or corny jokes but prefers damaging one-liners. He takes a certain pleasure in the pain of his victim. The humor is a threat and opponents know it. Jack Kemp was put on notice to think twice about running against Bob Dole. George Bush’s first White House chief of staff, John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire, was disliked intensely by Dole; he called him “the Chief of Chaff.” When Sununu came under attack for frivolous use of White House aircraft Dole joined the general attack with frequent needling jokes. Among them: “The last time Sununu came to my office he asked for a window seat.” “He won’t start a cabinet meeting until the seats and tables are in their full upright positions.” Dole knows how to get such jokes into the newspapers and onto television. Each pinprick drew blood until the weakened Sununu was forced to resign.

But while Bob Dole is clearly a master of the wounding joke, he is not an unfeeling man. The record is clear: Dole cries. His tears at Nixon’s funeral are one of four instances recorded by our authors. “Nixon was the only one in Washington who stuck out his left hand to shake with Dole. The only one,” writes Cramer. It seems hard to believe; everyone in Washington knew about Dole’s useless right arm, forever crooked at his side with a pen clasped in the gnarled hand, which suggests the tears for Nixon shared a common theme with his other recorded tears. In 1993, for example, CBS’s 60 Minutes filmed Dole in tears as he described a visit from his father in 1945 while Dole lay in a hospital bed wondering if he would live, or recover enough to marry, or tie his own shoelaces, or walk again. It seemed possible to him he might be forced to sell pencils for a living. Dole wept when he said of his father, “His ankles were all swollen when he finally got to the hospital, from standing in the crowded train.”

Ten years earlier he had cried in public, too, in the Senate, when he delivered a eulogy to Dr. Hampar Kelikian, the surgeon who had helped to restore the use of his left arm. When Bob Dole tried to read from a Robert Frost poem he broke down and left the Senate floor. But the earliest instance of Dole’s tears was the most dramatic. Cramer tells the story well. In 1976 President Gerald Ford picked Dole as a running mate and the two men began the campaign with a big rally in Dole’s home town of Russell, Kansas. “If I have had any success, it is because of the people here,” Dole said that day.

He was probably thinking of the money collected in a cigar box set up in Dawson’s Drugstore, where Dole had worked before going off to war. Some $1800 was placed in that box and was offered to Dr. Kelikian to pay for Dole’s operations. When Kelikian refused the money the town used it to buy a special car for Dole with a gearshift on the left. Bob Dole still has the cigar box. It has been in his desk drawer in Washington for thirty years.

I can recall the time when I needed help…and the people of Russell helped…” There Dole began to cry, shading his eyes with his left hand. He could not continue. Such a moment can seem to drag on forever. Finally President Ford rose from his chair and began to clap. Cramer writes: “And ten thousand people stood in front of him, clapping, cheering, until Bob looked up again and said in a croak that was nearly a whisper…

That was a long time ago… and I thank you for it.”

What interests Cramer about Dole are the things that made him what he is—the dirt-poor Depression years of Kansas when Bob Dole grew up and the extraordinary ordeal suffered by Dole after his wound in Italy. The details of the fighting are entirely routine—a small unit action in the Valley of the Po River that went awry just nineteen days before the end of the war in Europe. Dole had crawled out of a safe shell hole to rescue another soldier, but the man was dead. As Dole scrambled back for cover on all fours something ripped into his back; it’s not clear if it was a bullet or a mortar shell fragment or what. Some of Dole’s men managed to drag him to safety, gave him a shot of morphine, wrote the letter “M” in his own blood on Dole’s forehead, and left him for the medics or the burial detail as fate chose.

Cramer’s account of the wound, of Dole’s three close brushes with death, and of the slow climb back takes up thirty pages or more of a short book. It is powerful stuff. Stanley Hilton also contributes something to this story with his understanding of the emotional style of the Kansas farm family of the 1930s and 1940s—very little give. Emotions were kept pent up in the Dole house. Dole’s childhood was not filled with hugs and kisses. Dole’s mother, Bina (rhymes with Dinah) was hard, demanding, driving. Cramer, Thompson, and Hilton talked to many of the same people and report many of the same stories, but Hilton records one small, interesting fact about Bina that the others omit. Saturday was whipping day in the Dole house and it was Bina who meted out the blows of the belt or the switch for the week’s sins. Somehow this prepared Dole for the ordeal of subduing what he called “his problem.”

Can’t never could do anything” was the philosophy of Dole’s mother. Dole’s father used to say, “There are doers and there are stewers.” He was a doer and he had married a doer. From his mother or from his father or from somewhere Dole found the grit to pull himself back from helplessness and self-pity. Cramer and some passages from Hilton give us a very good account of this.

In the beginning the doctors thought Dole would die and then they thought he might never get out of bed again and then they counseled him to get used to the idea of letting others do for him. Dole dreamed that he would play baseball again. That was never possible, but he did manage to reclaim the ability to do many basic things, like strengthening his left hand so he could hold a glass without dropping it; tying his shoelaces, buttoning his pants, including the infuriating inside button which can still take him many, many minutes; buttoning his shirt with the aid of a buttonhook, tying his tie in a firm Windsor knot. Hardest of all, requiring endless determination and many, many months of painful exercises with homemade contraptions, was learning to clasp a pen in his right hand to give it a kind of hand-like shape, and strengthening his right arm sufficiently to hold it in a kind of crook, rather than letting it dangle uselessly at his side. In time Bob Dole recovered his ability to function, he went to law school, he got elected to the Congress, and now he’s running for president with what must seem to his opponents like the support of just about every old pol in the Republican party.

Dole’s campaign video, Bob Dole: American Hero, talks about the war, the wound, and the recovery, but Dole himself does not often mention the subject personally. He rarely gets more explicit than he was in the windup of his announcement speech last April in Kansas. “My friends, I have the experience,” he said, “I’ve been tested—tested in many ways. I am not afraid to lead, and I know the way.”

Lead where? The biographers provide few hints of what President Bob Dole will do if elected, and Dole’s recent speeches are not much help either. We are accustomed to plausible talkers with a program running for president, but Bob Dole is no good at that. He has a reputation as one hell of an operator in Washington, but that’s not the message his advisers want him to convey. The speeches they have devised for him are all “on message” and promise traditional Republican values (family, hard work, low taxes, a balanced budget, etc.) but very little in them strikes a note of personal conviction. I don’t doubt that Dole disapproves of the rap lyrics of Ice-T, or the exploitation of gory violence for entertainment in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, but that’s not what he’s going to get out of bed thinking about every day in the White House. Dole told Cramer he had no agenda, and if he beats Clinton it will probably be with votes from people who are crossing their fingers and hoping it is true.

January 18,1996

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