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Hendrik Hertzberg, political writer for The New Yorker.


FL: Dole has been described by his admirers and his detractors as someone of immense complexity. Could you talk about his complexity?

HERTZBERG:

Well, when you look at Dole from a distance, basically you see a tall, good looking man with broad shoulders and you hear that flat, cutting voice. But if you go a little closer, look a little harder, you really see a kind of doubleness about him. A physical doubleness. It begins with the fact that his left side is vigorous and alive and moving, and he's gesturing with this left hand. And then his right side, as if in reproach to all that energy and life, is still and crabbed and his arm curled. His hand is shriveled and he's holding that pen. This two-sidedness runs throughout his character. At least insofar as one can judge another person's character from a distance. And that doubleness is what makes him so fascinating, gives him so much more depth than a lot of politicians have. And he does it with a very laconic way of talking. He does not explain himself. He does not put his feelings out in any kind of an overt way. They come out in code. The doubleness of Dole which is so clear in the physical two-sidedness of him, almost like a mask of comedy and tragedy, his healthy side and his still, crippled side.

It's a different sort of two-sidedness from the sort of yin-yang, harmonic sun and moon sorts of metaphors. I think it's more like the two poles of an electric machine and at any moment you think the spark might go. And you don't know whether it's going to be a shocking spark or a pleasant spark, but you know it's going to happen. And it frequently does with Dole. It's one of the things that makes him interesting to watch.

FL: Talk about the guardedness in terms of what he values. He sends out one signal about what he's accomplished and yet his record is really something else.

HERTZBERG:

The press is very fond of Dole and one reason is that he's empirical, he's common sense, he's practical, he's unidealogical and so is the press. It's also though, that Dole seems to suggest through body language and through these bleak little asides of his, that he doesn't quite believe a lot of the things he's saying. And his humor sends that signal constantly, his humor is a kind of subversive ... It's a subversive kind of humor, it's a very modern kind of humor. It suggests that there's something wrong with the whole process that he's involved in.

FL: He really operates on three levels. Talk about that.

HERTZBERG:

Dole's humor isn't like what we're used to in American politics. It's not country, it's not yarn spinning, it's not cracker barrel, it's not folksy. It's bleak. It's savage. It's Dada almost. It's modern. Now Dole knows nothing about popular culture. He's probably never heard of, well he's probably heard by now of David Letterman, he's been on his show but only because his staff told him about it. And yet his humor has a lot in common with that of these kind of minimalist modern comedians, in that it is subversive to itself.

Here's an example of a piece of Dole humor. He's saying, this was in the '88 campaign. Somebody said, "Senator Dole, Vice President Bush says that when Reagan needs help he calls on Bush." And Dole goes, "Has he called collect?" Well, there's, that joke which kind of comes and goes so fast you hardly notice it, makes fun of, it does three things that one. It makes fun of Bush. Call collect, he's the rich boy with the silver spoon in his mouth. It makes fun of Reagan a little bit, as a slightly doddering figure. And it also, well it doesn't make fun of himself, but it does, I'm being subversive myself here.

Here's an example from earlier in the campaign. Remember Dole gave the Republican reply to Clinton's State of the Union address. And everybody agreed it was a flop. Dole went out on the campaign trail right after that in New Hampshire and he was going around just after the press had been swept by this whole agreement that Dole's speech had been a flop. And he talked about how the liberal press was running him down because they didn't like the message so they were trying to go after the messenger, but nobody really took that too seriously. And the press recognizes that Dole doesn't really mean it when he says something like that. So instead he said that on three stops in one day. The first stop he says, he give his riff about the liberal press. The second stop he gives his riff about the liberal press, and then he adds, "Course they should have seen the first draft before I took out the tough stuff." Third stop he says, "Liberal press, they didn't like my speech. Yeah, I gave a fireside chat and the fire went out." He's recognizing with that joke that what he said previously about how it's just the liberal press running him down is just a pro forma, is a bit of pro forma political rhetoric and that he understands the game. Some of Dole's humor is so encoded, and that's one example, and sometimes the audience in front of him doesn't get it. I mean often Dole will be on the campaign trail, and he'll say something and the good citizens whom he's addressing sit there placidly. And in the back where the press is you can hear [chortle], that's where they're cracking up. And part of the function of Dole's humor is to send those messages at different levels at once. So he sends a certain message to the insiders and to the press and then he sends a rather different message to the public.

FL: What is his humor?

HERTZBERG:

Here's another example. Dole's out there in New Hampshire and he's saying, "Well, you can have a talker or you can have a doer. I'm a doer. I deliver. I'm a guy who delivers. In fact I make special deliveries in some of the early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa." This is real Dole, this is pure Dole. He's saying rightly, that he's not a theoretical sort of guy, he's a practical kind of guy and that he does care about delivering and delivering the goods. But by acknowledging that there's a political motivation behind some of this and that it doesn't hurt to deliver a few more goods in the early primary states, he kids himself. He kids the whole process.

Dole's speech sometimes it's kind of like an avant-garde jazz performance, I find. Where there are certain standard themes that he's playing, but they're really a kind of skeleton for him to hang these bleak asides on. And sometimes they're joke asides and sometimes they're serious. Or at least non-joking asides. And that's a kind of doubleness operating in his discourse right there. He talks about his war wound with reluctance. In the first two times he ran for President he almost refused to talk about it at all. He's been persuaded to talk about it this time. I think in '88, when he was running against Bush, he was reluctant to parade as a war hero because Bush really was a war hero. When he talked about his own experience it was in that laconic, bleak, flat way. He would say, "Oh yeah. I got shot. I was in the wrong place, I got shot." He would talk about how it made him a bitter young man. A word you don't often hear a politician use, especially with reference to himself. I mean the relentlessness of the optimism that we've all been trained to expect from politicians, at least since Ronald Reagan, makes it a real rarity to have a politician who will acknowledge that kind of feeling even if it's set in the past.

This year, he's shown more willingness or has been persuaded to talk more about that suffering that he underwent. This is 51, 52 years ago. This terrible wound which is still so visible, you see it every time you see Dole, you see the evidence of the wound. Every time you see him shaking hands with his left hand and the right hand held in still, holding the pen, warding off a touch, with the left hand out. You see that wound still hurting. But he doesn't like to boast about it. It's, he has to be kind of dragged to do it. And that is a quality about him. That laconic, flat, bleak, Kansas plains, flat affect, flat plains, flat everything. That some people find very attractive. I happen to find it very attractive though I don't have any truck at all with Dole's political views. I couldn't disagree with him more. But that quality about him I find so appealing. He's not an ideologue. He's been a deeply partisan figure over the years, but not an ideological one. And now the partisan differences are in many ways less important than ideological ones, he's not long such a polarizing figure. And he talks about himself that way, as "If you want a polarizer get somebody else. I'm not going to be a polarizer." Which is ironic in a way because his own personality is so polar. It's so much these two opposites in him contending that Dole, the funny Dole, and Dole, the mean Dole, and you don't know which way it's going to crackle and sometimes it crackles both at once. Sometimes he's funny and mean at the same time. A lot of his opponents have discovered that.

FL: What other ways do you find him divided?

HERTZBERG:

Well, Dole has said in this typical, flat, let it all hang out kind of way, when he's explaining how he became a Republican, he said, "Well I asked the local county clerk and he said, "Well, there's twice as many Republicans in this town as Democrats." [A]nd Dole then continues in telling this story often, "So I made a great philosophical decision right there on the spot." And when he says that of course he's saying he didn't make a philosophical decision, he made a practical decision. He became a Republican because he came from Kansas and there's more Republicans there, and he wanted to be elected to an office. This is part of what has made him untrustworthy in the eyes of a lot of true believing right wingers. They sense, and I think rightly, that he's not one of them. He's not a true believing right winger. That's part of his appeal to Democrats, that's part of his appeal to the center, that's part of his appeal to the press. So there's a kind of political doubleness about him. He's posing as a movement conservative, but he's not. And there's also a personal doubleness and it's not, you can see it in, it's the reactions that people have to Dole. You love him or you hate him and it doesn't have much to do with politics. I think that there are a lot of people who vote for him who hate him and a lot of people who vote against him who love him.

FL: You never know what's going to fly out of his mouth and maybe he doesn't either.

HERTZBERG:

Yeah. You never know which way the spark is going to fly between those positive and negative poles in his personality. And you don't know if he's going to electrocute himself, or electrocute an opponent, or just electrify. And he's quite capable of bringing of some surprises and some gaffs. Most of the gaffs that he's committed over the course of his political life have come from that sudden spark. 'Democrat wars, stop lying about my record,'-- that was his sort of sign off in 1988, when asked if he had any message for Vice President Bush, "Stop lying about my record." Well, that's not the kind of thing the political consultant tells you to say before you go on the air. That was right from the spark of his inner bitterness. And the bitterness and the humor are stirred from the same pot. They're two tastes of the same brew. The humor is edged with bitterness and the bitterness is edged with humor. And it makes both of them go down not more easily, but more interestingly.

FL: What does it tell us about the man above and beyond bitterness.

HERTZBERG:

His humor tells you something about his bitterness but it also tells you something about coping with his bitterness and his answer to his bitterness, his way of having dealt with his bitterness. And he is somebody whose experience as a veteran, which was not a heroic experience, it was the experience of being hustled into the Army. Two or three weeks after he's commissioned he's on a mountainside in the Alps. He gets shot and then he's on his back for years. Then he's essentially paralyzed and bitter.

And that bitterness that he felt then has never left him but he has controlled it in a way that, for instance, Nixon was unable to control his bitterness. There's such a difference between Nixon and Dole. Both bitter characters, but one, Dole with a real ability to detach himself from himself and look at himself from the outside and Nixon completely without that ability. And it's what makes this two sidedness of Dole. On the one side there's that unalloyed, that unfathomable bitterness and on the other side there's this sort of rough wisdom touched with compassion. It's not cheerfulness. It's not smiley face. But it's something real. Just as real as the bitterness is. Those two things are not quite opposites, but when one dominates, Dole can say something cruel and often self-damaging. And when the other, when this rough, compassionate side dominates, that's when he finds it difficult to engage in the usual nonsense of politics. Or else he'll sometimes engage in it in such a kind of angry way that it's almost as if he's telegraphing it another way that he doesn't mean it. I'm thinking of when he, when the Supreme Court, in it's ruling protecting flag burning as protest, and Dole came out with a kind of apoplectic statement about, "Well if they don't like our country let them get a country they do like." It was so over the top that my suspicion was that it was meant almost with a touch, just a little touch, of irony. That there was a little signal there, I may be completely delusional in thinking that. Dole may mean every word he says about abortion or about flag burning. But I somehow don't think so. I somehow think that he continually signals what's really important to him and what is part of the game. It's hard work never killed anybody, that's really important to him. We ought to put flag burners in jail. That's not really important to him. I think you always get the message of which is which.

FL: Part of this film is about the mentors and teachers, and in the case of Dole, it was Nixon. It was quite charged on Dole's side and less so on Nixon's. I'd be curious about your ideas.

HERTZBERG:
Dole was a kind of protege of Nixon's. Nixon made him Republican National Chairman. Kind of lifted him up out of the crowd of Republican Senators to national prominence. And when Nixon died, Dole was visibly affected. Dole wept at Nixon's funeral and he actually seemed to grieve for Nixon. I think Nixon did not see Dole in all his interesting complicatedness. I think he basically saw Dole as his Nixon. That if you can imagine somebody being a hatchet man for Nixon, that's what Dole was recruited to be. He was the tough guy and Nixon, when you look at Haldeman's book and Nixon's book, and the private side of how Nixon felt about Dole, he had a certain amount of patronizing contempt for Dole. He saw Dole as somebody he was using basically and then when he outlived his usefulness, he discarded him. [A]nd in fact replaced him with Bush as Republican National Chairman.

Dole saw Nixon as a scrapper and as a survivor and as a fighter. But Dole was also the guy who has done nothing to discourage the legend that he's the one who, upon seeing I guess Ford, Bush and Nixon together, "There's see no evil, hear no evil and evil." Dole obviously didn't see Nixon in any kind of simpleminded way as a hero or a man of the people.

FL: The ways in which you see them similar and quite different.

HERTZBERG:

I think Dole's bitterness is more existential than Nixon's was. Nixon's really was all about sort of social hurt. It was all about being awkward and unloved. And it was all about resentment. With [[partialdiff]]ole, yeah he feels some of that. That there are a lot of people born to wealth and position and they've had advantages he never had, but I never get the feeling that that kind of bitterness really motivates him very much or that it's very important to him. With him it's a more existential bitterness. It's more the suffering of life and the lousy luck. And he was dealt a hard hand when that bullet hit him in 1945, just a few days before the end of the war. And he had a lot of time to reflect on the dark side of life. But it's a kind of bitterness and suffering that he could, it was dealt to him unfairly, he didn't deserve it, but nobody deserved it. He deserved it as much or as little as anybody who was on that hillside, or wasn't on that hillside. And it doesn't seem to have made him paranoid. It doesn't seem to have made him see plots against him, the way Nixon always seemed to see plots against him and finally succeeded in bringing that wish true. So that at the end of his career there were plots against him.

There aren't any plots against Dole that I know of and Dole doesn't believe there are any plots against him. He probably wouldn't believe it even if there were. It's a very different kind of bitterness and the feeling that Dole so obviously had for Nixon, I don't fully understand. I think there must be some way in which Dole is identifying with something, some quality of loserness or patheticness that was in Nixon.

But I was surprised at how genuinely he seemed to feel sorrow when Nixon died. I have a feeling that with Dole sometimes, emotion comes welling up a little bit more than you expect it to at a given time. It's as if all that flatness and all of that calm and all that expressionlessness causes a kind of build up and then there is an occasion for him to feel, or to cry--he's sometimes startlingly emotional, as he was when he left the Senate, when he announced his departure from the Senate. As he was at Nixon's funeral, as he was when he went back to Russell, Kansas for his campaign kick-off. On all these occasions Dole wept, but I don't think he's the kind of person that we would think of as a cry-baby.

FL: How are both these men expressive of their generations?

HERTZBERG:

Well, that's certainly a theme of this election. This is the quintessential '60's product baby boomer. Talkative, voluble, intelligent. Against the flinty, Gary Cooper kind of World War II veteran. I don't think that's what the election will turn on. I'm perverse enough to think that in the end it will turn on issues and on the sort of government that people want and not so much on the personalities of the two men. But it is a sort of last gasp for that generation of World War II junior officers. The country, the country has been run by junior officers from World War II right up until Clinton, practically, and Dole is the last of the breed.

But I think that the generational theme is oddly more important to Dole, more important in Dole's mind than in Clinton's. Clinton comes from the most sort of narcissistic self regarding generation that we've known for a very long time. That big cohort of baby boomers coming through like a pig through a python, demanding all the attention, demanding all the magazine covers. Yet I don't get the sense that that particularly interests Clinton. It does seem to interest Dole. The idea of his own generation and the one last mission. I don't think an awful lot is going to turn on that theme. But for what it shows about what these guys think about themselves, it's interesting. And I think for Dole it's a way of being able to think of himself as heroic without false modesty. It's for Dole, this notion of himself as the personification of the generation of World War II, is a way that he can talk about himself as a hero without actually taking credit for heroic acts that he doesn't believe that he ever committed. If he represents a generation that did certain things, that's very different matter from him claiming credit for winning World War II all by himself. He's part of the generation that won World War II and rebuilt the country after the war. He didn't do it himself and he's always uncomfortable, at least my sense is that he's always uncomfortable claiming credit for things that he didn't actually do. So this generational theme is a way for him to claim some credit on behalf of something a bit larger than himself.

And I think Clinton, for him it's not a winner, the generational issue. The truth is, both the generations older and younger than Clinton's generation, which also happens to be my generation, don't particularly like our generation because we've basically taken up all the space. The ones that are older than us, the kind of Dole's generation, they don't particularly like us because we disrupted everything and smoked pot and made trouble and grew our hair long. And the ones that are younger than us don't particularly like us because we took all the jobs and all the attention and we had all the good music and we looked down on them for being uncommitted. So Clinton's generation is not a popular generation. Dole's generation by this time is a popular generation, a heroic generation. It's not longer the dull '50's gray flannel suit generation. We don't think of it that way. We think of this as the larger than life people who won a World War and then rebuilt the world.

FL: What about his age?

HERTZBERG:

If he's elected, he'll be 77 years old when he leaves office. That's if he leaves after one term. He'll be 81 if he leaves after two. He's a pretty youthful character. He is dramatically older than the vast majority of Presidents and presidential candidates since the beginning of the country. He would be the oldest elected President ever. And, but he doesn't seem so old. He doesn't seem like such an old man. And I think part of it is that the moderness of his sensibility, the aridness of his sensibility. He's not an old duffer blathering on about the good old days. He keeps it short. He keeps it dry. He keeps it sharp. He has this bleak, minimalist sensibility that works against anyone who's trying to picture him as a weary old man.

FL: Why does he want it?

HERTZBERG:

Actually I think what he'd really like to be is Prime Minister. If there was some way that the Senate or the Senate and the House together could elect the President instead of having to go through all this awful business with the people, I think he'd much prefer that. He's going after this particular mountain cause it's there. That's the summit of his profession. I think that he actually prefers the job he had before. It's more suited to his temperament. He's used to it, he's learned it, he likes it, he liked it. But he's running for President because it's the top. It's the supreme achievement of someone in his profession. Pretty much the same reason Clinton ran for it.

FL: Someone said it's the job furtherest from pity.

HERTZBERG:

The job that's furthest removed from pity. Well, what about the lonely burdens of office and all that. It's a job where you can't afford to feel pity sometimes, when you have to send people to war, when you have to make decisions that result in the deaths of other human beings. I think on that level, on the level of human kindness, this bitter, this bitter arid man can actually be trusted more than most. There is behind that dryness and acerbity, and bitterness, there is little touch of kindness that comes through.

FL: Summarizing, can you compare these two candidates....their similarities?

HERTZBERG:

These two guys, Dole and Clinton, who couldn't be more different stylistically and in the way they present themselves, are similar in certain important ways. I have a feeling that they rather like each other. I think neither of them is a hater, neither of them is an ideologue. Neither of them thinks of principal as more important than people. And both of them have been accused of not having principal. It may be that in a way they share a different sort of principal. The principal that principals are not something that you should hurt people over if you possibly can avoid it. They are both pragmatists. They are both empiricists. They are not theoreticians. They both have a sense of the limitations of what they're doing and in a way it's a shame that we can't have the services of both of them. I think Clinton would be delighted if Dole had chosen to remain in the Senate. They did work together reasonably well until the campaign got under way. They're both people who would rather settle something. They're both people who would rather come to an agreement than have the battle of Armageddon. That's makes them alike in an important way. And I hope it's going to mean that it's not going to be a vicious and awful campaign. I fear that it won't be enough to overcome the other pressures that will push both of them in that direction.

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