Nav Bar
Nav Bar

Richard Armitage, Former Dole staffer

Interviewed June 13, 1996

FL: Is there a kind of person that does particularly well with Senator Dole, is there a personality that doesn't...?


Well, I think a person who does well with the Senator is someone who basically understands from the get-go, that this is about policy and issues and if you want a personal relationship, then you'll have to develop that at home or after work hours. This is business. It's all business. I think people who take that view do tremendously well with Senator Dole, 'cause he's very business-like.

FL: What do you think has been his greatest victories, and defeats...


Well, I have my particular view of this. I'd say the disabled legislation, legislation for the handicapped, the food stamp legislation, I think his work with Senator Moynihan and on Social Security are very noteworthy. His support for the Civil Rights Act. I think these are pretty serious endeavors from a pretty serious man.

I think his greatest defeat would have to be considered the 1976 vice-presidential campaign. The 1976 vice-presidential campaign was such a near thing. Literally a handful of several thousand votes in one key state or another. It would've switched the election to Gerald Ford and Mr. Dole. And, I think the closeness of that has always really bothered the Senator. In 1988, the campaign was a more clear-cut victory for George Bush and, hence, I would say not quite as painful for Senator Dole.

FL: You think he looked back on that and took some responsibility?


Well, I think that others have assigned responsibility to the Senator, the comments about Democratic wars and things of that nature, I think weren't necessarily true but I think the Senator really took them to heart.

FL: How would you characterize, overall, his accomplishments. I mean you said earlier on, that you thought he was a lot more reactive rather than proactive Senate leader... How would you characterize these past 30 years?


I think these last 30 years would have been characterized by someone who had took the existing legislation and basically found a way to make much of it come into law, and that necessarily means that your name is not a prime factor in the legislation itself. So I would say he is a master of the legislative legerdemain, more than the actual writing of the bills themselves.

The Senator wanted to have statements on every issue all the time and I, legislative assistants always endeavored to do that. But when you have that much writing, and that much legislation, you don't necessarily have very full and great legislation. I think the Senator's greatest efforts, and greatest achievements have been in taking legislation and working them through [a] committee, and working them onto the floor and getting a general bipartisan vote of them.

FL: When people talk about him, an artist of the deal, for instance, making things happen. What do they mean? What's necessary to be able to do that well?


Well, I would hope that you're referring to deal maker in the positive sense and not as some political enemies would refer to them, he's negative, he's just a deal maker, he has no views of his own. I'd say that, to be a good deal maker, you have to have 3 basic characteristics-- timing, timing, and timing. And, the knowledge of when to bring an issue to the floor, when to pick the ripe fruit, is one that not many members have.

You ask for anecdotes. I can remember in the late '80s in Operation Earnest Will in the Persian Gulf, several of us including the Secretary of Defense were called by Senator Dole to come up and brief a bipartisan group of Senators who were totally opposed to our activities in the Persian Gulf because he judged it, to be a time to make a difference. He was correct. We took what was under his general guidance, what was an absolutely negative approach by the US Congress, and turned it into a very successful foreign policy endeavor because he knew when the time was right. He knew when senators would be able to focus on the issue, and would actually give the administration an open, at least an open mind, if not a wholehearted support.

Another example. When I was with Senator Dole, we made the decision to leave the Agriculture committee, and get on to the Finance committee, he worried and agonized over it a lot because he felt his first responsibility where the people of Kansas, agriculture was big in Kansas, but he made the determination that the way international business and agri-business had shifted, over the years, that the international arena was where he could make in the agriculture area the most benefits for the people of Kansas so he took the Finance portfolio, and he did so. He knew when to do this, there was no bad uproar in Kansas. I think most people supported it and he was ahead of the wave of the Reagan revolution in terms of tax cuts and things of that nature. He was on scene and in position to kind of shepherd those things through the Finance committee. He alone, could see that these things were coming.

FL: When you described Senator Dole as someone of immense contradictions. Talk about that......


On the one hand, he's a very public person. He, like many politicians, I think, seems to thrive in the limelight and live for the adulation of the crowd but, finishing an endeavor, finishing a speech, I think the Senator would like nothing more than to go back in a room and enjoy a bowl of fruit by himself or with Elizabeth. That's a contradiction. A man who seems to be such a public person who really is so private. I think, a person who's seen as having a dark and dour side to him, who really, when you're with him alone or in a small group, find that he's got a wonderful and not particularly cutting sense of humor. His public side seems to have, display a sense of humor that cuts to the quick. His private side, is quite self-deprecating, at times.

FL: Any other contradictions?


Well, I think that there's the contradiction of a man who's seen as so much a partisan politician, a man who's seen as quote, so conservative, unquote. Who's been responsible for some of the most far-sighted and I would say centrist, legislation of our time, along with Senator McGovern for instance, and the food stamp legislation. The support for the Civil Rights Act. These are not the marks of a partisan or right wing politician, they're a mark of a very thoughtful, centrist politician. There, yet another contradiction.

FL: What are they referring to when they do talk about this dark side of Dole? What are they struggling to understand or perceive?


I think it's a perception of the way he appears on television, not unlike the perception of Richard Nixon during the Kennedy debates when he had this, sort of unshaven, dark visage. And I think Senator Dole, seems to be so serious and too intent on the speaking of an inside Washington politics and not open enough with himself to display sort of great compassion and humility and, and the humor. So I think people are getting a perception from a television screen rather than from looking at the total man through his legislation, through his voting record.

FL: How shaped by his past is he?


Well, it seems to me that Senator Dole is of the generation who defeated the Depression and fascism. And growing up in those times, fighting that great war, could not have helped but to leave it's mark on you. I think some of the things that have shaped Senator Dole are sort of enduring without, without bitching. Sort of a, no matter how hard the task, we can get through this. If you don't have much it's still enough. These are sort of basic Kansan virtues, if you will.

I think he's very ill-at-ease in a society which has a lot of largesse, which just seems to be flaunting wealth and flaunting power. I think his view is, shaped by his own background, is that if you've got something, you keep it to yourself. If you got a problem you keep that to yourself. Clearly, the war itself, and his horrible wounding in the war had to have had a very lasting impact. Far beyond, the visible ones you see by the loss of an arm and the difficulties with his hands.

FL: I'm struck by some of [the] things that were on 60 Minutes that he never likes to, tries never to look at himself in the mirror. Which is actually -- he's a very handsome man.


Well he is a very handsome man but I think that he feels that the loss of that limb is more significant than others feel. Now this is yet another scar, from the war.

You know, not wanting to look at oneself in the mirror might actually be ascribed to something else though, something much more basic, which is, humility. It is possible that there are some people around who still, think that it's best to, to be humble, and to, not gild the lily, and perhaps he's one of those.

You know, many, many veterans have said to me, we all bear our war wounds. Many non-veterans have said, oh, this is a heroic badge for the war, this scar, or this, this loss of a limb, very few people who have experienced war, see the loss of a limb or a scar as a badge of honor. I think anyone who does see it as a badge of honor must be somewhat twisted in their mind. Certainly any veteran who sees it as a badge of honor.

FL: You must have talked about Dole's war experience, as more complicated than the good war or the bad war was a very complicated part of World War II and coming out of that isn't quite the same as coming out of other fronts. In some ways his experience seems like it was darker and not unlike Vietnam. Talk about that.


Yeah, I think you have to look, going to the war, he was a very promising athlete, a hell of a fine citizen in Russell, Kansas. He had great hopes and aspirations, but when it came down to do his duty, he signed up and did it. He signed up for a very arduous [duty] indeed with the 10th Mountain Division, and these are not normal foot soldiers, these were highly-trained, very competitive people which one would expect Senator Dole to be attracted to.

But he ends up on the Italian front. At the waning days of the war. No one really viewed the Italians as our long-term enemy. They were pawns of the Germans in this, and to be fighting against people who are historically friendly, at the waning days, the very last gasp of the war, must have seen, be seen in retrospect by Senator Dole as just terribly unfair. In a way, I think wasteful. You remember, he was horribly wounded. Others of his colleagues died. In the last days of the war, just how terribly wasteful. And to what end? To what end? That wasn't bringing Germany down, on our knees.

I think that Vietnam, many of us who served in Vietnam thought that was very wasteful, and to what end? To what end? What were we really there for? What were we really fighting for? And I think Senator Dole would be certainly welcome to those views. I certainly had them about Vietnam.

FL: War, as a defining experience, as an experience that tests you and reveals something about you that may be relevant as a leader..... Would you talk about that, and what we can learn from that..


I think there are 2 issues. On the question of a good leader, first, I would say that most of those leaders are, presidents in our case, who are considered great by society and by history have been steeled, in some sort of crucible. For instance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was kind of facile young man until he lost the use of his legs and really developed a backbone. Harry Truman knew both bankruptcy and war. Abraham Lincoln certainly knew war. A self-made man. Steeled in a crucible, so war can be one of the crucibles, which steels you, to the greater effort, required of leadership.

On the question of war itself, and what it does to an individual, I think that, it's more defining, for those who haven't been to war, than it is for those who have. Those who have been in combat, realize how horrible it is, how frightening it is, and how little they ever want to repeat the adventure. Those who have never been, have myths and views and visions about what it's like and the glory of it, and that are completely unwarranted and yet it's a much bigger problem for them than it is for the combat veteran, in my view.

FL: How do you see that played out with Clinton? Not having gone, the criticism around that. His own way of dealing with that, and his own relationship or unease, some say, around the military.


Well my personal view is that President Clinton has nothing to fear from the military or, from his lack of military service. He is the Commander-in-Chief, but I think at least for a time he felt the gulf between himself and those who chose to serve as being much wider than it really was. I think the question that President Clinton needs to ask himself is, to the manner in which he did not serve. I think we've discussed in the past, my particular view that those who went to war and did their duty are honorable people and deserve some praise. Those who hated the war and went to war are equally honorable. Those who hated the war and went to Sweden are equally honorable. But those who, for their views, did not inconvenience themselves I think have a lot of soul-searching to do. They really have to look at themselves in a mirror and ask some deep searching questions.

FL: The Nixon-Dole friendship. What did you know about it? What did each man see in the other?


Well I cannot speculate on what they saw then, and others who were with the Senator at that time can be more astute on the question. I have looked very carefully at Senator Dole's eulogy, of President Nixon, and I think what I saw was a respect for someone who had come back from terrible defeat, which Mr. Nixon had in 1960. Clawed his way back on top of the heap and I think that the Senator on the one hand was, according respect for that. I think two, Mr. Nixon did have a sense of the place of the United States in the world. And I think Senator Dole has much that sense, and those two things, led, I think, Senator Dole to be so emotional, at the eulogy of President Nixon.

As to their deeper relationship, I can't imagine. I would say that I think our analysis of President Nixon's presidency, it might show that he made more headway on domestic issues than one would naturally assume, not having really studied the record, and carried through, successfully, many of the programs that Lyndon Johnson actually started. So perhaps the third element on that respect is that President Nixon after all, in domestic terms was quite a centrist politician.

FL: What about comparing Dole and Clinton, as different as they are, from two different generations, and, stylistically just off the charts different.... Talk about the ways they are similar and different...


Yeah, well I was gonna say that both men have for the most part, have always been at the public front, the senator in the Congress for 30 odd years, and that President Clinton as Governor, and now President. So they're very similar in that way. They're very similar, I think, in the fact that, no politician, outside their immediate family really develops a lot of deep lasting friendships. It's not acceptable, it's not done, it's difficult to do, to have, to really have friendships, and I think that's another thing they share.

At the end of the day, I think both of them are, they may not like the term, but they're pretty pragmatic men, and they do what's necessary to move their countrymen in one direction or another. And these are great similarities. I think the differences, and there are several. One has been the backgrounds of the two men. They both had some hard scrabble times in their background. I think Senator Dole's has been more, sort of grounded in traditional values that middle America was, or middle American values. I think President Clinton had some hard scrabble upcoming because of a tumultuous family life and relationships that are well documented with his step-father et cetera.

A difference further is that at the end of the day, as I understand it, Mr. Clinton goes from one crowd to another. Even in his private movements, he wants to be surrounded by people. Senator Dole, in his private moments, wants to be surrounded by Elizabeth, and perhaps Robin. But beyond that, not. So, there's a very public-private side to Mr. Dole where there's a public-public side to Mr. Clinton.

FL: This political race..... Some of our interviews have had some very strong feelings about what it is that we require our politicians to about what it's become over the years.


Well we are in a bit of a free fall. I think in the area of laziness. We sit back and let the media judge thumbs up or thumbs down, on one of the candidates daily performance or another. We're not unlike Roman citizens in an amphitheater, daily passing our judgment up or down, let them live, let `em die. Based on just a short snapshot. We as citizens, I think are very much at fault. We want someone to ride in a white horse. And show us the way home. Show us the way. And yet we vote in every dwindling numbers. The Constitution determines that democracy comes from the bottom up, and yet, we're looking for someone to come in from the top down and tell us how to get the answer. But preferable without any sacrifice. So, you'll have that real strong views, I found the the whole endeavor very dehumanizing and very humiliating for us as citizens and very invasive. And I think at the end of the day we're all a lot worse off for it.

General Powell would say the lack of civility is one of the biggest single lapses that we face in terms of presidential politics or politics in general. General Powell, has shown that you can raise difficult issues, you can take very controversial stands and do it in a way that requires civility. For instance, General Powell's views on affirmative action, his views on choice, are very well documented and very well known. And yet he's held in very high regard because he's got clear views, concisely stated, in a congenial manner. Now if General Powell can do it, it seems to me it's not beyond the can of most politicians.

In my own view of the difficulty and the dehumanization of the process can be summed up I think in these photo ops where one candidate or another is required to hold up a pig, or put on a baseball cap and, there is nothing sillier than a grown man in a baseball cap saying this or that on, on the top. We pander and have to pander to the lowest common denominator hence we miss the big picture. I think the media is very much responsible for it, I think politicians won't stand up against it, so they have to bear their responsibility but at the end of the day it's we, [the] citizens who have not demanded more. And we're willing to accept less. We're getting what we deserve.

stories of bill | stories of bob | interact | photo gallery | four colloquies | readings | reactions | tapes & transcripts | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation