Richard Ben Cramer, author of What It Takes, a book about Bob Dole and the other presidential candidates in the 1988 race. Cramer served as consultant for FRONTLINE's
"THE CHOICE '96"
Interviewed July 9,1996
FL: Why was the Roy race a defining race?
Well, in '74 when Dole got back from Kansas, he found out that his own campaign
for re-election was dead in the water. This Dr. Bill Roy was eating his lunch.
Basically, the Roy line on Dole was as follows - that if he did know about
Watergate he was culpable, and if he didn't he was too stupid to be Senator.
That's a pretty tough argument. The Dole campaign was nowhere. So, basically
Dole went backwards with his fingernails. They pulled out all the stops, I
mean , for the first time they told the Dole War story , they started attacking
Roy, they put on a series of ads that was for Kansas standards was very tough -
what they called the ' mudslinging ads." And they had fought their way back to
shooting distance by the time of the last debate- the big state-wide debate
which was held at the state fair and broadcast all around the state on a radio
And it was held in a tent at the state fair and it was a very acrimonious
debate. You could see Dole getting more and more steamed and I'm sure Roy was
pretty steamed. And just at the very end of the thing , literally , 30 seconds
before the broadcast the debate would end the broadcast would go off the air,
Dole turned to Bill Roy, a Doctor, and said, "Why do you perform abortions on
demand and how many have you done?" With no time for Roy to answer the
question at all and the broadcast literally ended with Roy frumphering into the
microphone some kind of unintelligable explanation of what his attitude toward
abortion was. Well, it was the ugliest thing that anyone had ever seen in
Kansas politics. I don't really know whether it did any good for Dole - I
think it's an accurate measure on how desperate he was about getting
back-retaining his seat. And Dole's victory was---narrow is too mild a word.
Dole's victory was hairswidth. And Bill Roy will still tell you today that the
precincts that turned it around were the ones around Catholic churches.
FLN: Talk about that dark moment on the plane, the real turning point on him
going down real far.
That night Dole was going on a plane to the other end of the State and he asked
one of his aides, Bill Wolford to come along. It's very odd, he doesn't
usually ask for someone for company. So Wolford hopped aboard , he's trying
to cheer Dole up you know. Dole was absolutely disconsulate. Wolford was
trying to cheer him up, you know, young aide: "I thought it went great,
Senator, you know it's fine you know we'll put on this last push, we'll push
this over the top. " And Dole just turned to him and said, "I just don't know
whether it is worth it ".
FL: And what do think--what was the 'not worth it?'
I can't tell you what he thought. But I think that tells it, he was just, he
felt rotten inside. He knew it was a horror show, he knew it was a horror
show. It was interesting that when he got back to Washington that when he did
claw his way back, he was different. He wanted to make something positive
happen, almost as if he had to expeate that '74 campaign. And that's when he
started going across the aisle. That's when he went across to McGovern to
build the foodstamp program. People in Washington couldn't believe it, I mean
this wasn't the partisan Dole that they knew. But Dole was determined to have
a larger self, he was going to make a difference. If that campaign to get him
back to Washington was going to mean anything , it was going to mean that he
was going to do something positive after. And he was just as relentless in
going across the aisle as he had been in attacking across the aisle before.
I remember during that foodstamp fight , it was a tremendous fight to get the
bill passed, and some of the Republican Senators , I believe it was Jim Buckley
from NY- a very conservative Republican- wanted to have a, some kind of
vetting program, where you would have to certify the recipient for a weeks and
check them out against every known standard, to see if they were really
eligible for food stamps. And Dole's idea was that if the people are
hungry, give them food, give them food now. I mean you can't wait for food.
That was something Bob Dole knew about from the bad days in Russell. And
Buckley was trying to put in this amendment to eliminate any possible fraud,
and Dole stood up in the Senate and he said, "Are you going to put in a burial
allowance for the ones who die?" Nobody had ever heard anything like this
from Dole. Or in the Senate. But he got his bill, and he got it passed.
FL: And to some extent you feel that this flowed out of that?
Out of the Roy Campaign? I do.
You have written about that central loneliness of this guy--even if he is in
the midst of a group of colleagues and his wife...
You know, more or less Dole is always alone, even if he is in the midst of a
crowd. I remember when I first started doing research about him, I went to the
congressman who hold his old seat , Pat Roberts. Another Kansan, very good
with words, very durist, wheat farmer stock I think. And Roberts said
"Oh, Rapid Robert," he said talking about Dole "you know, Dole's the kind of
guy you bring in to clean up the town, you know from the Old West and the
marshall days. But after the gunfight don't expect to go into the saloon and
have a drink with him."
And I think that's true ,Dole is always alone. I remember , in '88 , the night
of Ohio primaries ,the Ohio caucus, the caucus Dole won,which seemed at that
moment to be putting him on the road to the White House, to the realization of
his dream. And he is surrounded at that moment by a tremendous coterie who was
going around from interview to interview with him. There was his wife,
Elizabeth, and Murray Macain, an aide of his, and Bill Brock the campaign
manager and a couple cousins, a niece and nephew of his who came from Des
Moines-about 6 or 8 people surrounding Dole. And we got onto the platform to a
standup with Tom Brokaw for NBC, and NBC had some kind of problem, the lights
weren't right or something was wrong , so there was a holdup. So there were 6
or 8 people standing around Dole, his friends, his wife , his relatives, his
closest aides. But I remember Dole turning around toward the crowd bouncing on
the balls of his feet like this ,waiting to go, lets go, lets go. And Jeff
Nelson, his nephew had the results from his precinct caucus and the others in
the group wanted Jeff to show Bob the results from his precinct caucus. So
Jeff is kinda patting his pockets 'where did he put that paper, you know'. So
finally he digs out the paper and he holds it toward Dole. But Doles head was
turned, and no-one would walk up and tap Dole on the shoulders and say, "Hey
Bob, here's the numbers from Jeff's presinct". No-one would touch him or get
near him or get in that Guard All shield that's around him. And it got to be
like a minute, 2 minutes, Jeff is holding up this paper until finally someone
mustered the courage to tap Dole on the shoulder.
But that's the kind of reserve in which he is held. I remember them all
looking up at him waiting for him to turn around and of course he is 6' 2" and
the NBC lights are shining into their eyes and they were all looking up at him
with the lights in their eyes they looked like some king of adoration painting.
Noone would touch it . There he was in the auriole of NBC halogens.
FL: The brothers part - 'brothers under the skin' --obviously there are ways in
which Clinton and Dole are very different and there are ways that they are
quite alike. Talk about that.
Well, I think these two guys are exactly alike under the skin.
I think you have to look past the surface differences . On the surface
Clinton and Dole are totally unlike. They are different generations. Clinton
is talk, talk, talk, loves a discussion, long dinners, fast food. Everything is
different in their styles. Dole is not going to pick up his saxophone and
entertain. But underneath in the way they do their politics they are the
same. They are not about any ideology . They're about the fundamental conviction
that when the deal goes down, it is they who should be in the center of the
table. They're the ones who have to bring it together. And they're alike in
the way that they will take from every side . They will take from wherever the
help is going to come from. They don't care. They're about building the
consensus around them. And this makes for some fundamental surprises, terrible
shocks to their supporters. But that's because their supporters are about some
issue. Whereas Dole and Clinton are about themselves.
FL: Another unifying link that you have talked about is the nature of their
Well, both of them, both Dole and Clinton, are people who have given their lives
to this. You know, that is one of the things we demand of a President that he
is going to give over their lives. But never has this process had two more
willing subjects than these two fellows. Clinton of course, the story is
famous, you know from the time he shook JFK's hand at Boy's Nation, that he was
coming back to the White House.
Dole has given the last twenty years of his life non-stop. Dole was nominated
as Ford's VP in 1976 . When he lost that campaign by one point , he knew he
could do it. He has been coming back ever since. You know Dole had announced
in Russell so many times that his friends now are pretty darn good
advancement. I remember the last time I was there for a Bob Dole rally , a
snow storm came and they had to move the whole thing indoors. And I of course
was coming to talk to old friends about Bob. And what do I see, these old guys
from Russell, Kansas on their cell phones , saying, 'Yeh, yeh move it indoors, the
whole thing , and give us capacity for a balloon drop....'
FL: Can you talk briefly just about the process itself...running.....
Well, the process is very seductive especially to a guy like Dole. Dole loves
it. He loves to be at the center of what's happening. Imagine the joy of
being himself the center of what's happening. So for Dole it's almost a
physical affect on him. I mean, I've seen him be so exhausted that he could
barely put a sentence together . And then the plane touches down, time to do
business, he'll sit up in that seat and say, 'Let's go .Time to go'. It's like
his backbone came back and out he goes and he is big, and full of juice, and
just what they need. There are studies now that there is actually a release of
some kind of internal enzyme or something, you know like the runners say they
get. But I have actually seen it happen in Dole's case.
The other thing is that Dole has continued. You know, Dole is such a striver
on himself. I mean his whole life he has been getting better. You know he was
getting better before he got wounded, he was getting better after he got
wounded, he has been getting better at what he does in the Senate, he's been
getting better at running for President.