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Sidney Blumenthal. Writer, The New Yorker and author, The Permanent Campaign. He has written New Yorker articles on the curious nature of the Dole/Nixon friendship. Interviewed June 27, 1996


FL: To start, what is the effect of the war wound on Dole, the man we see in front of us?

BLUMENTHAL:

Dole's wounding is central to his personal being and to his political being. He is, wounded, on many levels. At the same time he's recovered on a number of levels. He's very proud about his ability to recover and recuperate, and the difficulty he had in that. That's a source of his self-respect, of his continuing belief in what he calls "the hard way". At the same time, it's clear, that it's also a source of his anger, his bitterness, even his occasional lapses into self-pity. All at once. That's how central this is.

FL: Where would you begin the story of the Nixon-Dole friendship? This complicated relationship between Dole and Nixon.

BLUMENTHAL:

Bob Dole, was a very ambitious young man. Not so young. He had not succeeded at an age that Richard Nixon had succeeded in, and Nixon was now President. How could Dole rise? He sought the top party position, Chairman of the Republican National Committee. On his horizon, that was the top of the greasy pole at that moment. And, Nixon had always sought somebody to play the role of Nixon. He sought the role of somebody that he called "a nut cutter", somebody who, in doing that, would be dirty. In other words, the role that Nixon himself had played earlier in his career, before he was president, and Dole, this very harsh, partisan, as he was seen, at the time, one of the most conservative members of the Republicans, was named as chairman of the party. And his role was to deliver fierce attacks against the Democrats. It was to be harsh.

Now, something terrible happens to Dole here. What happens to Dole is, that Nixon wins in a landslide. You would think that this would mean that Dole would share in the glory. That he would get part of the glow, after all he'd been chairman of the party. Nixon had won by a landslide, what was wrong with that? During that campaign of course there'd been tensions. Dole had played his role perfectly, he had been harsh, he had delivered the attacks. There'd also been some friction with some of Nixon's White House staff, Charles Colson, some of the people who were even harder-charging than Bob Dole. Dole didn't wanna do everything they said, he wanted to be his own man. But still, here he had played the role perfectly. Nixon had won. And what happens? Nixon puts him through a rite of humiliation. A terrible humiliation. And why does Nixon do this? Nixon himself had been put through many humiliations, politically, in his past, by Eisenhower, when Eisenhower was president. Nixon had tried, as the younger man, sort of the bad stepson, to the most beloved, paternal figure in the country, to ingratiate himself, to win his approval. And no matter what he did, he was rejected. Eisenhower, perhaps had him in the living quarters of the White House once. He wanted very little personal contact with Nixon. Nixon knew this. Nixon, trying to reach up to this fatherly figure, and always be pushed down. Even humiliated. Dole, now, is sent to visit the ambassador to the United Nations, George Bush. Nixon had looked in the mirror, and what did he see? He saw himself, and he didn't want that, he didn't want the old Nixon. Nixon is a man of new Nixons. Who's the new Nixon? In a memo, he says Dole, he must go. Image, what's the image? Harsh. The attack dog, the nut cutter that Nixon had wanted. He doesn't want that now, he shatters that mirror. There's a new Nixon. He looks in the mirror, it's an innocent face, a younger face, a face of ease and comfort, even a patrician face, it's the face of George Herbert Walker Bush. The ambassador to the UN. And he makes Bush Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Takes the job away from Dole but he doesn't tell Dole. He tells Bush and sends Dole to see Bush. And Bush does not tell Dole. He does not tell him. And the job that Dole felt he had scratched for, that he had earned through, the hard way, as Dole likes to talk about it, had been simply given, as a kind of gift, to somebody, why? Because, they hadn't gone through the procedure that Dole had gone through, that had made him so hard. It was precisely the fact that Bush looked soft, that Bush was an easier character, that he had won the prize, that Dole had labored so hard for. And it was simply taken from him.

And that was the beginning of the terrible competition and even hostilities between Bob Dole and George Bush. And it was due to the, punishment really, that had been visited upon Dole, by the man he would later regard as his political mentor, and star, Richard Nixon.

FL: What is your sense of what was at the heart of the Nixon-Bush attraction, or, Nixon's attraction to Bush.

BLUMENTHAL:

Nixon, from his earliest days, at college, and even before, had always felt, I wouldn't call it a class resentment, but I'd call it more of a status resentment. He wasn't a member of the club that, not the wealthier boys, in his college. He was always posed against those who were more, socially at ease. Who had more, charm. And, Bush, represented this patrician class that Nixon now having been elected President twice, ought to have around him, he ought to have, some of that ought to have rubbed off on him, some of that club. Particularly in the Republican party. You have to remember Nixon had come from a lower middle class background, from southern California, and he had always in his career sought the approval of the eastern establishment. He sought the approval of Thomas Dewey, the previous Republican nominee, who had been the New York governor, who was really the leader of that wing of the party. He had always sought his approval, even before he ran for Vice-President. When Nixon was prosecuting Alger Hiss, in the House un-American Activities Committee, he privately sought out Dewey and won his approval. Eisenhower represented all these things, including the fact that he was the candidate of that establishment. Nixon was at war with large parts of that establishment throughout his career.

FL: Does Dole share the same kind of class or status grievances...?

BLUMENTHAL:

I think that Dole shares some of the status resentments that Nixon has, but that his history in the party is far less complicated than Nixon's. Nixon had so many different relationships with so many different people at all levels of the party. And had existed at a much higher level than Dole in the party. Dole had been the vice-presidential nominee in '76, that was very brief. Nixon, actually was Vice-President, at the age of about 40. He's a young man. But between 1952 and 1972 there was only one Republican national ticket without Richard Nixon on it. Richard Nixon existed in this very rarefied, ether, dealing with all of these different factions, that was his method, in fact. That's what Dole aspires to, is to learn the secret of this method. What is the method? The method is, no matter what the factions, no matter what the wings of the party, Nixon could sustain himself in a portable middle, by playing one off against the other, with each somehow, disliking Nixon, and yet feeling that underneath it all he was really one of them. That was Nixon's political genius. That's what Dole seeks to do. That's the Nixon place in the party that Dole wants to occupy. It's the secret he's trying to learn all along from Nixon.

FL: So, what did he learn from Nixon...

BLUMENTHAL:

The political lessons that Bob Dole wants to learn from Richard Nixon have a profound emotional subtext. It might be the most profound emotional element in Bob Dole's career, and that's because for both of these men, the greatest emotions are reserved for politics. These are political men to the marrow of their bones. Politics is more important to them than anything. Both of them. And Richard Nixon is an unappealing man, he's not a likable man, he's not a charismatic man. And yet he succeeds. And he comes from a lower middle class background like Dole. Richard Nixon is on every Republican national ticket, except one, between 1952 and 1972. Nobody else has ever done that. Nobody has ever been at the peak like Nixon for that length of time.

How does he do it, without charisma? That's the secret that Dole wants to learn. Dole, also not a particularly popular man, not a particularly likable man or charismatic, and he has a hard time even in Kansas winning elections, because of that. Even in Kansas, his home state. Nixon has done this at a very young age. He's vice-president at 40. He vaults to the top of national life, a heartbeat away from the presidency? He's a very young man, he is younger than Theodore Roosevelt when he was vice-president. That's pretty young. That's, how does he do it? And he wins and -- now he loses to Jack Kennedy, and he loses the governorship of California to Pat Brown, but he wins and he wins and he wins, still. He always comes back. And these are not small things he wins, he wins the presidency. So Dole wants to know what's the secret. For him this is no small thing, this is, this is the heart of politics, it's the heart of his ambition, and it's the emotional center of a political man .

This is about being a winner, not being a loser. Not being left behind in the pack. So Nixon, is the star. He's the person you want as a mentor. You fix on Nixon, and there's the additional, fixation of the common background. Nixon actually does have secrets to impart. Having succeeded, he has learned a thing or two. He is a brilliant politician. He does know a good deal about tactics and strategy. And above all what he knows is how to master the Republican party. Having mastered it. How to keep every faction, every wing, in conflict and yet supporting him. He pits one against the other. Each of them, not quite liking him, but feeling that somehow they can make a claim on Nixon. Nixon has a portable middle. And through that he sustains himself in the party and constantly rises. That's the secret Dole wants to learn. How do you do that, and rise.

Neither Nixon nor Dole ever understood Reagan. In the same way that Nixon never really understood Kennedy. Just as Dole wanted to learn his secret, from Nixon, Nixon wanted to learn the secret from Kennedy. And he was, after his defeat, to Kennedy, he was obsessed with the idea of charisma, of mystique. And along comes Ronald Reagan, another charismatic politician. Neither Dole nor Nixon have this property. And, somehow, Reagan floats into the presidency. Just as Nixon is trying to make his comeback from exile. Another Nixon campaign. Another new Nixon. And Dole, let us never forget, was defeated by Ronald Reagan. A bitter defeat. This is underestimated for Dole. Dole had been the vice-presidential nominee of the Republican party in 1976. By all rights, in a party that's deferential and hierarchical, that gives its nominee, often, to the vice-presidential candidate of the previous turn. It ought to have gone to Dole. At least that's what Dole must think. After all, it's his turn. That his deepest feeling in every presidential campaign. And he's denied in 1980, denied so badly that he wins less after being the candidate for vice-president, the Nixon role, that's the Nixon slot. He's then, he wins less than a thousand votes in New Hampshire in 1980. Who wins? This charismatic person. How did he earn this? How did Ronald Reagan earn this? It's some ineffable personal quality, that Dole can't have. That Nixon never had. It's something you can't beg, borrow or steal.

FL: When Nixon goes into exile, it's an interesting reversal. Although Nixon has fired Dole, put Bush in. Yet...

BLUMENTHAL:

You'd never think that Richard Nixon would have needed Bob Dole again after Nixon resigned from office . But he did. He needed Bob Dole. Richard Nixon needed the support of anybody who treated him as though he were a grand political figure, with some wisdom and power to impart. All of this, somehow erased the disgrace of Watergate and resigning the office.

And Bob Dole, on his own, sought out Nixon. It was all Dole's doing. It was not Nixon's doing. Dole decided, after having been humiliated by Nixon, after Nixon having tarnished the Republican party, and Dole in 1974, the year of Watergate having just escaped, by a razor thin margin in a race because of Watergate, really, as Republicans across the country fought terrible races. Dole decides that he will go to Nixon, and that he will show respect, and that he will seek Nixon's advice and wisdom. And, that he will elevate Nixon. And whatever Dole has, he gives to Nixon. And it's then, that Nixon becomes the mentor. He decides then that he loves Dole. He'd mistreated Dole before, partly because he looked too much like Nixon's dark side. And now that Nixon is in such disrepute, here comes Dole, and Nixon, really lavishes him with, kind of good feeling and emotion, and, both men really have a need for this relationship. And Dole, of course, is still, remember what, he's still in the game. Nixon's out of the game. Dole's still seeking the secret. He still wants to know what the secret is. And maybe Nixon, knows the secret--how do you win.


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