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Bob Woodward, Investigative reporter for The Washington Post and author of The ChoiceInterviewed June 28, 1996


FL: Robert Dole.....What about the role of religion in his life?

WOODWARD:

The role of religion in Dole's life. Politics is his life. Elizabeth is an adjunct. And he really loves and holds dear Elizabeth, and Elizabeth is a very religious woman. Dole does not have a religious way, as best I can tell, of looking at the world. When religion would come up he would say, well Elizabeth believes that God may have a plan for you, that you have to discover God's will and so forth. And Dole talks with his eyes and his body language, half sentences, and you could just tell in watching it, you would see that he was almost literally rolling his eyes at these concepts, not out of disdain, but out of, that's not part of that's not the way I see the world. It's not a lens through which he lives or thinks as best I could tell. But Elizabeth does in a very profound way and when Dole told his wife he was going to leave the Senate entirely, she was somewhat skeptical, wrote him a memo, a good lawyer, here's a memo, here are the down sides of this. And then pressed him, and he said no I'm going to do this. And she said is this really what you want to do? And he said yes, this is what I want to do. And she said ok, and she wrote him a note that was a speech about religion that she gives, and on the end of it, she said, trust God with the outcome, "E" she signed it, I love you very much, and then see you Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. I mean this is the life they are living, they see each other at 10:30, maybe.

For Dole, religion is values. And when you ask him about religion, he will talk about things like cleanliness, not saying bad words, recounted for me once how his mother washed his mouth out with soap when he said a bad word. Dole lives totally I think every minute of his life in a practical world, and what can you see, what can you feel, what do you hear, and I saw no evidence, and this doesn't mean that he's not a believer, and that there's not a new level here, but it's not there in a visible way that I could see. Now he's a very emotional man, needless to say, and when I interviewed him about [Russell,] Kansas or about his mother, he would break down, just physically could not build the recollections in his mind without being gripped, seized by the emotion of lost memory, of grief, of remorse. It's very touching to see and highly unusual in a political figure; on one afternoon interview with him on a Saturday, he cried twice.

Well, the tears...there's something about it that he can get away with it. Any other political figure turned on the tears like that whether real or unreal, people would say, what's going on, but because of his war wound, his age, his experience, I think there's a kind of a community forgiveness. Now normally, tears in an adult suggest self-pity. And I would not say that it applies here necessarily, but for an adult to be so tearful, remembering his hometown, well his, he can go to his hometown, he's the son of Russell, Kansas, when he talks about it, when he goes there, why does he cry? Why would this, what's been lost? Ah, yes, he's 72, 73 years old, but it's a very strange phenomenon. And to, when you are interviewing him and he gets teary about something, it's like a big cement wall comes up and as a human being, you aren't going to kind of plow into that, at least I'm not capable of it, and say now wait a minute, now why do you cry? It so disorients you, it's so unexpected that you just you kind of sit there and hope it will stop . And it does very quickly. Very important moment of, you know, what's the essence of Bob Dole--in February of '96, after the Iowa caucuses, Phil Gramm, the Senator of Texas, who was one of Dole's, it looked like anyway, competitors for the Republican nomination, and Graham is the one who was the most critical of Dole, Graham is kind of the political assassin lining up Bob Dole in his cross hairs, anxious to squeeze off a shot or two criticizing Dole all along. Graham did so poorly in Iowa he was, he dropped out. Dole called him on the telephone, said Phil I just want you to know I'm thinking about you, I've been there, I know about defeat, I remember 1988, and then Dole breaks up, you know in a way that is very disorienting to Gramm. Gramm can sense this and hear this on the other end of the phone. Now I talked to both Dole people who were there on Dole's end and to Gramm about this and Gramm is sort of well, you know, Bob I you know I've, doesn't quite know what to do, and says I'll think about who I'm going to endorse, maybe I'll endorse you, and Dole just cuts him off and says, "I'm not calling to solicit you, I just want you to know I understand." What Dole is saying there is that he understands defeat. He understands losing, he understands the emotion of defeat perhaps like no one in this country and you could take that line "I just want you to know that I understand" and that's Dole. He does, he does understand. And his human connection in moments like that is total and absolute with those that he's dealing with and I believe with himself, I believe he does understand defeat.

FL: His relationship with Nixon.....

WOODWARD:

The Nixon relationship with Dole is very complicated obviously. I was a little surprised that Dole was willing to talk to me so much, because back during the Watergate period Dole was one of Nixon's most aggressive defenders, in fact in 1972, when we were writing some of the Watergate in The Washington Post, Dole gave a speech and denounced The Washington Post in the kind of language that called us "partner in mudslinging" with the McGovern campaign. Going to Dole and talking to him, it was almost like, this is my interpretation, Dole was saying I want to forget Watergate, I want to forget what happened to Nixon. It was an odd way of burying it in his mind almost. We rarely talked about Nixon, I didn't bring it up, he didn't bring it up, but it was kind of like the third party in the interview many times. Because I was trying to find out about Dole and how he evaluated things, what he did. One thing was very clear to me though. All of Dole's important connections are emotional and personal and that Nixon did a whole series of things to show respect for Dole and deal with him though he eventually fired Dole as Republican National Committee Chairman. [H]ere was that outreach that sense of endurance, that sense of weathering the most ugly that appealed to Dole, and I always thought that it was a way of almost expiation of sin, to sit down with somebody so heavily involved in Watergate and answer all the questions.

FL: What do you think that both men saw in each other?

WOODWARD:

That everything for Dole has been hard. He's not a natural, at lots of things, including politics. Everything for Nixon was hard. These were not, I mean the Bill Clinton natural elegance and sense of camaraderie, in the sense of welcoming in the sense of looking into people's eyes and making immediate contact--Dole, Nixon, no. It was the hardest thing in the world for them. So they identified, they were like the last two guys on the bench on the football team, who had fought their way into the line up, the one's who were not natural, who didn't have natural gifts, who didn't have money, who didn't have good looks naturally, Dole much more than Nixon, but because of the war wound there's a sense of deformity that Dole I believe has about himself. And that they are the ones they are the number ten and eleven member of the football team who are out there and about to be ejected from the game at any moment, but pure persistence, endurance, using their minds, they are able to stay in, and pretty soon everyone else is gone. In one of my conversations with Dole, he's talking about all the politicians who are gone, Nixon's gone, Agnew's gone, Mondale's gone. He just goes through this very long list of political figures that we associate with the last thirty years of American politics and they are all gone. Except as Dole says, except Bob Dole. Here he is, the one clinging, the one enduring, the one ah, he calls it one last mission, but it's more than a mission, it's a kind of Faulknerian endurance that is no doubt a source of great strength for him.

FLN: What about Clinton and Dole.....?

WOODWARD:

Obviously, the most interesting part of this election is the relationship of Clinton and Dole. What do they think about each other, what's it all about. And Clinton harbored one deep personal resentment for Dole, going back to early 1994 when Clinton's mother Virginia Kelly died, and within eight hours, Dole was on television bashing Clinton on Whitewater at this point, calling for an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater, saying that what was going on in the White House about Whitewater was mind boggling. Dole wouldn't stop, and the day Clinton was burying his mother, several days later, Dole was again on the attack. Clinton told one of his aids, what Bob Dole did on this is unforgivable, when you are burying your mother. Now mother to Clinton is family. He never knew his father. That's not just one parent, that's both parents effectively. So this resentment eats away at Clinton. And he is wondering why, how could Dole do this to me. Where are the boundaries of civility. In one interview, in April of '96 with Dole I raised this, I said there are some things that Clinton resents, and one of them was political and then there was this personal one. And I raised it with Dole, and it was like "What? Bob Dole would never do that, I'm sure that never happened, I would not do that." And I said, well I checked the transcripts and you did. And he just said, no I've talked to Clinton about our mothers, we've discussed this, and then Dole in one of those personal moments, recalls, 'I still reach for the phone as if I want to call my mother,' -- [Fina] Dole who died 13 years earlier. And then he recites from memory, that Russell, Kansas phone number. And Dole begins to cry and breaks down. And recovers, and then insists, no, this wouldn't have happened. And I said well I understand it's true. This was a Saturday interview. Dole's haunted by it all weekend and has one of his aides call the next Monday and say they've checked the transcripts, of course Dole had them get the transcripts, and realized that he in fact had said those things at that time. Dole then drafts a personal letter of apology to Clinton. And sends it off. Dole, several days later, is down at the White House, this is in April of '96, and Clinton takes him into a side room and says, I got the letter I really appreciate it, I read it twice, they look at each other, Dole says mothers are important. And there's this moment, and I did not put this in the book, but the way it was described to me by Dole you almost feel like Dole and Clinton are going to fall into each other's arms, or even get down on their knees and pray, I mean there was this kind of unity of realization about what was lost, that just overwhelmed them. Lasted for a moment. They went out and interestingly enough soon made a deal on part of the budget for a year, and within 48 hours, they are out bashing each other. Mothers are important, but not that important. Mothers are a memory, mothers are the essence of life, but what does this say about both of them, it says that the essence of life for them, is politics now.

FL: You describe both of them coming from different generations, different gifts....

WOODWARD:

What is politics? Politics is survival. And they both survived. When you look at it, not just the war for Dole, and this life of politics, and running three times, finally getting the nomination; Clinton given up for politically dead in Arkansas and in Washington, and they understand that politics is survival and they respect it in each other. And that's the magnetism, that's, you know, finally entering the arena for the final combat. They know the other person on the other side is a survivor, is just like them. That that person, they may be different, different in age, you can't ah get inside their heads and skin, but you can bring the camera to that final combat which is now going on, and you, how do they see it? who do they see over on the other side? They know, that, as Clinton said to one of his aides, Dole's a worthy opponent. He's somebody who I, Clinton's saying, I could feel secure turning the keys over to should Clinton lose. So it's the same game for him, it's the same business. It's not just the President of Ford Motor Company looking to the president of General Motors. It's about everything, about people who have poured I think in one form or another, every action, every word, every afternoon, every book read, every person that they've talked to, every meal that they've, had has somehow been related to coming to that moment, this moment, for final combat.

FL: What is it about the two of them, in all their differences--in what ways are they united above and beyond being driven by politics in ways that you have to be to go through this....?

WOODWARD:

Politically, both of them are quite moderate. Quite humane, interested in their own ways in reforming government. But they don't want, as Dole said, we have a heart up here. We're not going to do something cruel. Clinton, all the time, "I feel your pain." And they are, if you put them in a room and said you will be co-Presidents, and you will decide between the two of you what we should do and what we shouldn't do, there would be fights, there would be disagreements, but there is a kind of moderation that both of them possess that is their political identity.

Here's David Donald one of the great historians, saying that Lincoln, perhaps the greatest President, that his most salient characteristic was passivity. And now this is debated in historical circles, but you can look at the lives and the political survival of Clinton and Dole, and you see them delaying decisions, you see them waiting for all of the forces outside, in the country, within the party, within the Congress, within the culture, and they weigh and they measure them and they hold back final decisions. Now a lot of people look at the accounts of the decision making of these men, and see indecisiveness, waffling, ah you could argue that they are just very careful, cautious, political survivors.

FL: What is it like to interview Bob Dole?

WOODWARD:

In interviewing Dole over many many hours over I guess about 18 months, one of the things that struck me was you can't, that it takes about 30 minutes or an hour to get to the essence of what he really thinks about something. And there was this controversy last year which I think is very important in understanding Dole, of the thousand dollars from the gay group that gave the money to the Dole campaign, and Dole's campaign managers decided let's send it back, it'll look like we're endorsing gay rights or associating ourselves with gays. They told Dole about this, and Dole said, wait a minute, why wasn't I in on that? Why didn't I make that, you know, why wasn't I consulted? And they said no it's better politically that we make this decision, and then Dole for two months, literally went around and defended the decision of his staff that he disagreed with. Then finally in October of '95, he couldn't deal with it anymore, and went public and chastised his aides and said we shouldn't have done this, we should have kept the money. Ah, in interviewing Dole at some length about that, on an airplane ride I remember back from Iowa last year, and trying to get to the insides of him to get to his guts, on the issue, you know, why was this important, what was going on here, it embarrassed Dole, it embarrassed his campaign aids, it was a big issue for months during the crucial period leading up to the primary. And finally Dole said, look, this question of this money was about tolerance. And the issue, is Bob Dole a tolerant person. People are entitled and have a right and need to know that. And I am a tolerant person. That is the essence. And if you read exactly what he said, it was a paragraph, it wasn't a half sentence, and if you had been there while he was saying it, you would realize, and if you had it on camera, you would see that fact of tolerance is one of the things inside. It took me hours to get to it. To get to his articulation of it, and for me to be convinced hey yah, he really means it when he says that.

FL: Dole..... His midwest, prairie integrity, emotional disconnect; it's amazing, three times out of ten if asked, 'Why do you want to be President?' -- he's unable to say why. What is at the heart of that, and what does that say about what he might be like.

WOODWARD:

For Dole, words often get him in trouble. You look back in his life, and his career, it's the, in 1976 saying "the Democrat war," something that is seared into his biography and kind of the collective national recollection of who Bob Dole is. And so words are something to be afraid of. Something that often can lead to difficulty and immense political trouble. But if you just nod or shake your head or grunt or give it thumbs up, or look like you agree, that doesn't get you into trouble. He's not a rhetorical person by temperament. Somebody who spent so long in Congress, leading the Congress, you don't, if you examine, as I have, how Dole was majority leader in the Senate, he would have six meetings going on at the same time, and he would pop in and out of the meeting, hmm, how's this going, what's going on here, make a few jokes, or too many jokes, and then move on to the next. Kind of letting it all go on around him and then see where things are pointing, and, as I concluded, interestingly enough, momentum is often the final decision maker, that's what carries you over the finish line. That you're kind of heading to run, or you're heading to support this bill, and you get up to that line and there's not really intellectual consideration of the alternatives, there is momentum. And all of a sudden, as Dole said to me, in picking through this fascinating question of how he decided to run for President this time, he said, you wake up one morning and all of a sudden, you're running.


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