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.

Bob Dole’s status as front-runner is an anomaly, hard for many political pundits to believe; they half expect an upset because they think the country is restless and Bob Dole violates the rule that new faces are best. It’s the new faces who bring a plausible promise of change, an end to business as usual, a vow to throw the rascals out, a reborn commitment to old ideals that Americans seem to want before going to the polls. They are commonly disappointed at the end of four years, but that only leaves them ripe for a new face uttering a new promise, “the vision thing,” in words the ordinary citizen can get excited about.

Bob Dole has been a senator for nearly thirty years. He has expressed a public opinion on every issue that has rippled the surface of American political life since 1968. The man has been stabbing the forefinger of his left hand into the air for longer than most Americans have been old enough to read. His face, his flat but resonant Kansas voice, his choppy sentences, and his frequently biting if laconic humor are as familiar to Americans as a pair of old socks gone out at the toe. Dole talks like a man telling you how to get your car out of a ditch. He is not one of those press-the-flesh professional politicians, like Nelson Rockefeller or Lyndon Johnson, who plunge into crowds like porpoises into school fish, and he is not a speechifier like Hubert Humphrey, who would deliver a statement on the American dream to a man out walking his dog. If you want to know why federal subsidies for grain-based ethanol are good for America, Dole can tell you. But when it comes to uplifting oratory and soaring expression of the vision thing George Bush is the modern Demosthenes next to Bob Dole. The man’s notion of a speech is about a hundred sentences, half of them missing either verbs or subjects, beginning and ending with the words “Thank you.”

The journalist Richard Ben Cramer recently asked Dole what he would do first thing if he woke up in the White House on the morning of January 21, 1997.

Haven’t thought,” said Dole. “If I get elected, at my age, you know… I’m not goin’ anywhere. It’s not an agenda. I’m just gonna serve my country.”

If we want to know what President Bob Dole would do for the country we can’t just ask him, but must figure it out for ourselves. Important to the task will be three recent books about Dole by two journalists and a former aide who worked briefly in Dole’s Senate office more than a decade ago. Cramer put his book together from passages about Dole in What It Takes, his thousand-page tome about the 1988 presidential election, which is probably the single best primer on American presidential politics (Random House, 1992). It is Bob Dole the man that Cramer seeks to understand, not the Washington political operator. Jake H. Thompson has written a conventional political biography, Bob Dole: The Republicans’ Man For All Seasons, based on his years as a reporter covering Dole for the Kansas City Star. Stanley Hilton’s book, already mentioned, is more critical, particularly about his taking money from corporations. What these books tell us is that once youth, the war, and the war wound received in Italy have been recorded, Bob Dole’s life has been all politics.

Bob Dole was elected a member of the Kansas state legislature while he was still in school, he was elected county attorney in his home town of Russell, Kansas, in 1952, he was elected to Congress in 1960, and he was elected to the Senate in 1968. There are other elections that matter—1974, when he almost got beat after supporting Richard Nixon in the Watergate affair to the bitter end; 1980, when he was so discouraged by his whipping in the primaries he almost didn’t run for the Senate again; 1984, when he was elected Republican majority leader in the Senate, etc.—but when all the tallies in all the races have been counted, most of the drama in the Washington years of Bob Dole is on the table in plain sight. He is the sort of Republican politician who excels at working out compromises, which requires a kind of instinctual moderate centrism. He was a staunch cold warrior and a backer of the war in Vietnam. His many years on the Senate Finance Committee have made him an expert on the tax laws. He has a reputation for skill at savage political infighting—he was called Nixon’s and later Reagan’s hatchet man, but at the same time Bob Dole seems to be genuinely liked by his colleagues in the Senate and by Washington reporters.

Stanley Hilton, now a San Francisco trial lawyer, worked in Bob Dole’s Senate office in 1979 and 1980. “While I liked Bob Dole as a person and was amused by his superb sense of humor,” he writes, “I was appalled by his utter lack of commitment to any ideals or beliefs.” Hilton is especially disapproving of Dole’s relentless pursuit of money. Dole is very good at raising money, not to enrich himself personally but to finance his campaigns and promote himself politically. He has already raised more than $25 million to run for president in 1996. A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C., research group, claims that Dole raised more than $70 million since 1973. (Of this money $1 million came from the owners and employees of the Gallo Winery. In 1986, Dole helped pass an amendment to the tax reform bill that would save the Gallo heirs more than $100 million in inheritance taxes.)

The laws governing lobbying, political contributions, and political action committees (PACs) are complex and their ostensible purpose is to limit the amount of money that can be given to any single politician, and thereby limit the degree of political influence exercised over him. Dole and other politicians routinely stretch these limits by establishing many separate recipients for contributions—for example, Dole’s ‘92 Senate Campaign Committee, which is distinct from the Dole for President ‘96 Campaign Committee; Campaign America, Dole’s “leadership PAC,” which he uses to fund the campaigns of political friends and allies; the Dole Foundation, which provides money for programs helping the handicapped; and the Better America Foundation, which supports “the values and principles espoused by the Republican Party.”

Virtually all the contributors to these numerous entities have a financial interest in what Dole does in the Senate and they overlap to a large degree, which demonstrates Dole’s ability to tap the same source for money over and over again without violating Federal law. The restrictions on what Dole can do with the money are often fuzzy, especially where campaign contributions are concerned, but in one way or another the money is all available for the pursuit of Dole’s political goals. Hilton says Dole likes to travel comfortably, and regularly pays first-class air fares for the right to fly on corporate jets (whose costs to the corporations per flight are of course much higher than first-class fares). The spending records of his campaigns and PACs are replete with money for gifts, expensive dinners, limousine service, and so on, but Hilton makes no charge that Dole misappropriates the money he raises for his “personal” use within the meaning of the law.* At the same time, however, there is no dividing line between Dole’s personal and his political life, because political life is the only life he has got. All the books about him appear to agree on this point.

Even in a city full of compulsive workaholics Bob Dole is a creature apart. It is a little frightening to read about. In 1948 Bob Dole married a woman named Phyllis, whom he met during the year it took him to begin to recover from his war wound. They had a daughter named Robin, who is now forty-one, single, and employed by a real estate firm in Washington. In 1971 Dole had dinner with his wife and daughter twice—on Easter and at Christmas. In 1972 he divorced Phyllis. He broke the news in a single short sentence. He emerged one evening from the basement study and bedroom where he spent most of his time and said, “I want out.”

In 1975 he married Elizabeth Hanford, then thirty-nine, never previously married, a woman with her own career, recently as head of the Red Cross. They are both extremely busy people, live in a modest apartment in the Watergate complex, and they may get together on Sundays whenever Bob Dole isn’t scheduled for one of the morning talk shows. The rest is public life—office hours, committee work in the Senate, fund-raising galas, drop-ins, speaking trips all over the country. Dole will sometimes conclude his working day with a two- or three-state whirlwind mini-tour, as he chases the sun west to put in brief appearances and say a few words at political rallies. That’s his ordinary working life.

When he’s seriously running for president it’s worse. Unlike his fellow Kansan Eisenhower, who liked western novels, or John F. Kennedy, who liked James Bond spy thrillers, Bob Dole does not appear to read books for pleasure, or go to the theater, or play poker, or take walks in the park. The battlefield injuries he sustained in Italy on April 14, 1945, rule out all the common Washington power sports (squash, tennis, golf) and he has no other hobbies or personal interests of any kind. His wife Elizabeth says they like to order in Chinese food and watch old movies on TV together, but they are rarely at home to do it. Politics is not dull and solitary work, like filling out income tax forms. But politics is work and so far as I can make out that is what Bob Dole does when he is not sleeping.

Bob Dole’s political philosophy is hard to pin down. His maiden speech in the Senate, delivered on April 14, 1969, defended the rights of the handicapped and he has remained the main advocate in Congress for handicapped people. But he has been on different sides of most other issues over the years. In traditional Republican fashion he has steadfastly criticized the “tax and spend” Democrats, but as a legislator he has pushed through some major tax increases himself and has even voted to spend money on social programs like food stamps and free lunches for schoolchildren. But Dole has no illusions about the make-or-break power of the activist right-wing ideologues in his party and he dances to their tune when he decides it is to his political advantage. He has supported amendments to the Constitution to ban abortion, balance the budget, prohibit flag burning, and permit school prayer. A year ago he promised to use the new Republican majority in Congress to overturn the recently passed ban on assault weapons. Since the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City this promise has vanished from his agenda. Opportunism is the usual word for this sort of tacking on the political seas.

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

  1. *

    Money and politics are as intertwined in Dole’s career as they are in any other. One of Dole’s oldest political friends in Kansas, until a falling out in 1988, was David Owen, who also managed a blind trust for Dole’s wife, Elizabeth. A recent article in the New Yorker (January 22, 1996) pointed out that several of Owen’s investments handsomely benefited Elizabeth as the result of tax measures and other actions of her husband. But Owen and Elizabeth both agree she did not know what he was doing. The bottom line as recorded by writer Jane Mayer: “no one has accused Mrs. Dole or her husband of breaking any law.