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Sidney Blumenthal Interview


FL: Nixon's death, and his funeral. What was Dole really crying for-- and who--at that funeral...

BLUMENTHAL:

Dole only made Nixon his mentor after Nixon's disgrace. Nixon only accepted Dole as a protege only in his exile. Both men had mutual needs. Nixon sought respect, he sought deference. He sought acknowledgment of his skills. He sought usefulness, he sought relevance. He wanted to be alive, he wanted to be in the arena as he always said. And he wanted someone to carry on. Dole had always sought acceptance from Nixon. He had also identified with Nixon. In a very profound, personal and political way. Nixon had lost and resurrected himself. Dole himself, although he had done well on Kansas, had not done well on the national stage. He was seen as a factor, causing the defeat of Ford if anything. And he had for President and always been defeated by men of his generation. He'd been a loser. How had Nixon done it? So he was seeking from Nixon sage political advise as well as this kind of, emotional attachment, this kind of continuity within the party that would some-- the mantle of continuity that would be wrapped around him, from Nixon. And what was it that he sought to learn? The it, what is the it? Nixon had played the right against the left within the Republican party. The moderates against the conservatives. He'd played this one against that one. With himself always in a portable middle. He had never been loved, he'd never been liked, and yet everyone felt that somehow they had a claim on him, that he really, truly was a moderate. That he really truly was a right-winger. Nixon pulled that trick off, and kept himself, not only moving but rising. That's the secret of what Dole wanted to learn.

And, in his last year, Dole even exchanged letters with Nixon. Seeking advice for this race in 1996. And Nixon wrote him a series of strategic memos, really laying out how Dole should run. It was vintage Nixon. It was that you run to the right in the primaries, but not so far right that you can't run back to the center for the general election. The problem of course is, is that Nixon himself had changed the dynamic inside the Republican party. [B]y being in control he had set in motion forces that had led to the great enlargement of the right wing, of the conservative forces so that the party that had existed, that had, that Nixon had been able to exploit and manipulate didn't really exist anymore. And he was giving advice to Dole on that basis, on the Nixon party. Dole had to make, somehow this Republican party a Dole party.

And at the funeral, Dole mourns, he weeps in public. He cries for Nixon, he cries for the man. He cries for the person he identifies with, the lower middle-class man who had risen high, and yet had fallen. He cries for the parting leader, he cries for the greatest Republican of his generation, he cries for the President. Dole aspires to all of these things. Dole perhaps cries a bit for himself, and for his own unrealized ambition. And what's interesting also, and so Nixon-like, at this funeral, is that, one of the other speakers, who also delivers a eulogy happens to be an heir of Nixon. Another anointed one. Pete Wilson, Governor of California who had been Nixon's driver, helped drive him away from that, press conference when he said, gentlemen, this is my last press conference after the 1962 loss in the California gubernatorial race. And so Nixon, even then, even then, was playing one off against the other.

FL: The two men--what they might have seen of themselves in the other..what was the nature of this bond...

BLUMENTHAL:

This is a relationship of mutual need. Dole, if he is to succeed, needs to learn how Nixon did it. But he also needs to have some historical continuity within the party. He's carrying on a tradition. He believes it's the Nixon tradition. It's not the Reagan tradition. You know, Dole opposed Reagan's economic program really. Constantly was amending it through bills, including huge tax increases to compensate for Reagan's deficits. Dole would ridicule supply side economics. Dole was a Nixonian. He believed that Reaganism was a kind of heresy. And he disliked Bush intensely. Disliked him for class and status reasons, for their whole personal history of competition. And what's interesting also is that Nixon needs Dole. Nixon needs another resurrection. He needs justification. He needs somebody to win in his tradition. Nixon doesn't much care for Reagan. Doesn't, like Dole, he doesn't understand the power of charisma. He also does not really care for this sort of right wing. And neither of them really like George Bush. Dole dislikes him intensely. But Nixon also feels neglected by Bush. He feels shunted to the side. Nixon's communications to Bush are dismissed. Nixon wants to be seen as the foreign policy wiseman. But Bush sees himself as the foreign policy President, and James Baker is Secretary of State, does not want Nixon in the middle of this game, and so they dismiss Nixon. And that partly is what leads Nixon to Dole, as well. And both of them have a mutual dislike. Nixon, towards the end, played a contributing role in overthrowing the Bush presidency, by making a speech attacking Bush's Russia policy. He was disdainful in the end of Bush's policy making. Nixon was greater. Nixon knows, Nixon's the wiseman, and Nixon talked to Dole.

FLN: This friendship, this relationship, how would you characterize it, what makes it unusual and interesting and obviously of great importance to Dole.

BLUMENTHAL:

I think the relationship has more complexity from Nixon's side. For Nixon, Nixon comes to love Dole. And I think he loves Dole also because he's abused him. And it's not as if Nixon is making up for his misdeed. It's that Nixon sees himself in Dole. He sees the man who was abused by Eisenhower. The most beloved figure in the country. Nixon was a very abused figure. So he sees himself in various phases and also sees the possibility of his own reputation being rescued through a Dole presidency far more than through a Reagan or a Bush presidency who are not Nixon heirs in the sense that Dole was, and who obey a kind of homage and obeyessance to Nixon that Dole does. So I think that the depth of the relationship in great part comes from Nixon.

FL: Why should I care about this strange friendship....

BLUMENTHAL:

The relationship between Richard Nixon and Bob Dole is one of the most curious and complex in modern American politics. Both men are among the most powerful figures in our politics over the last half-century. It's a relationship of father and son, of unequals, in which the power relationships shift, of someone who rises and someone who falls, of someone who has a future and someone seeking to redeem his past. Of someone who seeks a mentor, of someone who desires a protege. It is all of these things at once, it is a very strange and curious friendship.

FL: What is it they saw of themselves in each other?

BLUMENTHAL:

What Dole and Nixon saw in each other ultimately, was the triumph of the unlikeable over their betters. These are not appealing men and they know it. And they are resentful of others who beat them, particularly in their own party. And yet, they triumph, come back, they're persistent, they persevere, and somehow, they claw their way to win. That's what they see.

FL: Could they have come together if they didn't share the same background, the same kind of, tell me about that. They smelled the same kind of dirt on each other's feet..

BLUMENTHAL:

For any political figure, there's a wide range of idols and mentors available. You can choose from the pantheon of figures. On the Democratic side, the number of people who'd choose John F. Kennedy. Number of people cite Roosevelt. Some people site Truman, they like the feisty, common man. The plain-speaking man from Missouri, from the center of the country. See that's an available figure. The First Lady likes Eleanor Roosevelt, cites her. So it's available for all political figures. Bob Dole chose Richard Nixon. He chose him, not only because of their personal history. There were other figures in the Republican party he could have chosen. Who were even alive, like Nixon, but Nixon was the one he was absolutely fixated on. Who's approval he sought, who's advice he wanted. Who's time he wanted to consume was Nixon. That's the identification. The man who was humiliated. The man who was beaten, the man who wouldn't stay down.

Nixon is the lower-middle class man, who has risen, and scratched his way, without charisma, through the party, to the Oval Office. Something Bob Dole has not done and wants to do. And more than anybody else he comes to identify with Richard Nixon. Sees in him a reflection of himself and the possibility that he too, then, might sit in that chair, in that Oval Office. Nixon is the prophecy for Dole. He's the forerunner.

FL: You had a conversation with Kenny, Dole's brother a few years ago..can you recollect what you learned about both the physical and emotional landscape of their childhood through your conversation with Kenny?

BLUMENTHAL:

In 1987, I was a reporter for the Washington Post, and I went to Russell, Kansas to cover Bob Dole's announcement speech for his run in the 1988 presidential campaign. And I wandered up and down Main Street in Russell, and went into the office of Kenny Dole, Bob's brother. There was no one else there, and I sat down, we had a long conversation. It was a barren office, Kenny was dressed informally, and he was selling limestone paperweights that he had made himself with the name Dole carved on it, for about 10 bucks apiece. [H]e had been involved somehow in selling oil leases, and was not doing that well. And, he, very spontaneously, talked about, what he wanted to talk about was their difficult upbringing. It was Kenny who told me the story that they had to move into the basement of the house that they lived in, during the Depression, and rent the upstairs. It's a literally dark story. I mean they moved into the darkness. Kenny says, you know, we never had it easy, it was always hard, had to get up early, had to do our chores. It was a bleak vision that Kenny had. Kenny of course had less prospects than Bob. And he was not well at the time. Bob Dole after all he was the Senator, he was a powerful man, he was the most powerful Republican in the state of Kansas, he's running for President, and here's his brother, not doing too well. Either economically of physically. But that enabled Kenny, who had no ambitions at all, to sort of convey this, barrenness, this dustiness, this bleakness. And he did so in a very unemotional way. A very inexpressive. Very Dole-like.

I don't think it was a tragic childhood, by any means. I mean the family was intact, they were supportive of each other, loved each other. And Bob Dole actually, was doing quite well as a young man. Got out, was going to the state school, had enormously bright prospects. And they did have work and they had some money. It may have been bleak but it wasn't depression, lots of people were doing worse. But they had to work hard. They were up early. Kenny talked in terms of chores they had to do when he talked about his parents. You know, the father made him get up early and do the work. The mother was, you know, she was always there, always helpful but, these were inexpressive people. [T]hese are people who are getting by day to day, and they're getting through. And that was the feeling that one got. But also, there had to be a sense of, of ambition, for Bob to want to rise, and, even get out. Certainly wanted to get away.

Russell is clearly the key to Dole's vision. I remember in 1988 Dole was being attacked for having no vision, he passed an eyeglass store, said, I think I'm gonna go in there, buy some vision. But, in fact, Dole's vision, such as it is, has its roots in Russell, Kansas. And has its roots in the bleakness of his upbringing, in his ambition, in his inexpressiveness, in his desire to rise, the way in which the community had supported him after he was shattered, after the war. And his desire also, I think, to escape. Very enclosing place. The nearest town, Hayes. It's very, it's far away. You drive a long way to see some lights. I think Dole wanted some lights at a certain point.

FL: Certainly a great irony, he does escape and then comes back in a full body cast..

BLUMENTHAL:

Almost as soon as he recuperates. Very difficult recuperation, he's back on track again. He goes to school, marries his nurse who helps him. And, gets himself up and out. Goes back to the town, and, decides he's a Republican, asks around, how should I do this? They say, well there's a Republican area, he says, I'm a Republican. I spoke to the local attorney who, remembered that conversation with Dole. Dole walks up and down Main Street and discovers, the oil companies. The financiers of his early races. They're right there on Main Street. It's one of the biggest interests in Kansas. Sort of the beginning of, what I would call his, interest group conservatism.

FL: His humor, the roots of his humor. Give some examples of his humor and what we learn about him...

BLUMENTHAL:

This is not homespun warm humor. This is sardonic humor. This is humor with a barb. The joke does illuminate the joker here. Dole tells jokes like, seeing Carter, Ford and Nixon standing together, and says, hear no evil, see no evil and evil. This is the man he loves, Richard Nixon, evil. He would often joke, in the early Reagan years, at the height of Reagan's popularity, and the height of his supply side program, he'd say, it's good news and bad news-- Dole always tells good news and bad news jokes. It's one of his favorite kind of jokes. He says, good news is a bus filled with supply side economists just went off a cliff. Bad news, 2 empty seats. That's the kind of humor Dole has. He does it off-handed, a lot of the time. I think Dole's vision is contained in the humor. People are looking for his vision. It's in the humor. It's bleak. It's angry, it's bitter, he lashes out. He's not necessarily trying to make friends, and influence people, in that way. I's an image of a world set against him. In which there is great pain. That's what the humor tells you. And he's trying to inflict a little pain himself. This is not, you know, Will Rogers kind of humor.

FL: The source of that bitterness, is it the years that was taken away from him and the body that was taken away from him. Are the roots of that bitterness earlier in the childhood, or is it really around that hospital bed...

BLUMENTHAL:

We can only conjecture about, Dole's bitterness, whether it begins with, having to move into the basement of your own house. Having a hard upbringing. But that's at a time when everyone is sort of having a hard upbringing in a town, where that's not uncommon. He wasn't singled out. And he was rising out of it. He was, you know, young, athlete at the state university. He was doing very well. Then his body shattered. Got shot, as Dole put it. Still partly paralyzed. Terrible thing to happen to a young person. Of course he comes back. A lot of people did not. He comes back and, recuperates-- long, difficult, painful recuperation. That's at the heart of everything for him.

FL: What was lost then?

BLUMENTHAL:

I'm not sure it's a question, I mean, I think it's a question of what's lost but what's lost is his beauty. What's lost is his physical being. That's what he can never get back. It's not some, you know, emotional state that's lost. What's lost is he was a young athlete, and then in a minute, he's not. And it's not just that he's, I mean, he's lost that, body forever. It's not some small thing. It's a very large thing that he lost.

FL: There was a striking comment in that 60 Minutes interview, he said, I can barely look at myself when I shave...he's a very attractive man..I was struck by that.

BLUMENTHAL:

That's how he feels about himself, he can't reconcile himself, ever, to what he looks like. And if you can't, then you always feel a sense of loss. There's nothing you can really do about that, either. No matter what your achievement, what your accomplishment. It's very different from Roosevelt too. You know Roosevelt was older, Roosevelt had the public illusion of being whole. And Roosevelt, became Franklin Roosevelt, in great part, through that, polio. He'd never conquered it, but he conquered himself. He enters this disease as sort of frivolous, somewhat superficial figure, and he leaves it, deepened, compassionate. Somebody who is trying to give back to others.

That's not the Dole story. Dole story is a young man, he's in the war, he's shot, he's in the bed, feels paralyzed, becomes a source of his ambition. He always feels a sense of loss. He's very bitter, he's sardonic. He's also somewhat compassionate. And he learns that, and that's what separates him, also, from many of his fellow conservatives. It was interesting that in the speech announcing his resignation from the Senate, on the Senate floor, that of all of the achievements he talked about, these were all things that any liberal Democrat would be proud of. The Americans With Disabilities Act, Food Stamps. He praised McGovern. He attacked those who attack McGovern. He praised Hubert Humphrey. So that's that side of Dole and that clearly also comes from this too. I mean I think Dole does have that dimension to him. But, it's a different persona than a Roosevelt persona, which is a much broader one. Roosevelt is a whole different, figure, I mean, Roosevelt's politics are completely inclusive. He's an expansive personality. This is an aristocrat who's been brought down by this disease, he's not, you know, somebody who, who regards this as cruel fate in the same way.

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