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BOB DOLE by Richard Ben Cramer

Used by permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
Copyright (c) 1995 by Richard Ben Cramer


I see him again-first time in three years-steaming through the double doors of a big Florida hotel ballroom, straight up the aisle, past five hundred prosperous pink men, making for the head table and his speech. From across the room, he looks the same: still, there's not a wrinkle in his dark Brooks Brothers suit; his silk tie is knotted tight against the smooth collar of his white shirt; his hair is dark, softly in place (four strokes with the barber comb, still in his back pants pocket); his face is still handsome, tight with perpetual tan. (It's like even his skin is practiced: Dole can get a tan on the way from his car to the hotel door.)

There is the same purposeful speed to his walk, as he blows past the pink men, to the front of the room. These are the Big Guys of the textile industry-$137 billion in annual sales, CEOs and COOs--and some of them know Dole. That's why he's moving fast, to get by before anyone can ask him for anything. That's why his wave (to one Big Guy who has caught his eye) is a quick left palm with the fingers upraised-at full reach, not even wiggling ... on a football field, it's called a stiffarm.

He has his other arm bent at his midriff, as he always carries it before him in the world. Most people in that room know the right arm is useless, almost paralyzed, but even those who've known him for years think all the operations must have cocked the arm in front of him, fused the bones so the arm bends from the elbow to look almost like a working arm. In fact, it's Dole who makes it look like a working arm. If he ever let himself rest, that arm would hang straight down, visibly shorter than his left arm, with the palm of his right hand twisted toward the back. But Dole never lets anybody see that--his "problem." He keeps a plastic pen in his crooked right fist to round its shape. If he ever let that pen go, the hand would splay, with the forefinger pointing and the others cramped in toward the palm, the back of the hand painfully hollow where doctors, long ago, failed to graft in tendons. But no one ever sees that, either: no matter how many hours he's been up, no matter how long he stays out, no matter how that fist aches or spasms, Dole holds on--against his problem.

He's been doing it so long, you can't even see the moves--he's magician-quick. Now, on the dais, as one of the CEOs raises his right arm to clap ol' Bob on the back, Dole moves instantly: a quarter-turn toward the man, and just a foot backward, with his camera-perfect grin of delight--like he, just that very second, had in mind to turn and greet that Big Guy-with his left hand swinging up to waist level ... so the CEO's arm drops in midslap, and his palm settles warmly into the Senator's good hand. Dole can't have his reconstructed back and shoulder knocked around by eager boys.

With Dole it's so quick, you can't call it forethought. After

so many years, you can't call it instinct. It's always practiced, and always made new--as it is with the greatest athletes, like Michael Jordan, on his way to the hoop for the millionth time ... and for the millionth time, making it up as the instant dictates. It's like a dance: he feels the music, and he can't slow down ... no one slows down Bob Dole. They put him on to speak the minute he hits the room.

"A man of character, and integrity..."

This is Lauch Faircloth, a first-term Senator from North Carolina. He's in Florida to suck up to the textile kings--and to Dole. He's already winding up his introduction.

". . . Bob Dole leads like a President.

"He looks like a President.

"He acts like a President ...

"And he's gonna BE President......

This is the music that Dole likes best.

"Thank you ... I, uh . . ."

Dole pretends to look at his notes while they keep clapping. Half of them are standing to applaud before he's even said a word.

"Well, thank you very much. I'm glad to be here, today. .

You can hear him perfectly over the noise. Dole's hardvoweled rasp was made for the distance and mean wind of the prairie. And the voice, like the rest of him, hasn't changed. It's like some devil-deal, like there's some secret portrait of Dole, that's getting old, weak, and ugly in his attic at home ... except there's no attic in his Watergate apartment. Just a bedroom and a half, a living room, a kitchenette ... still the bachelor pad he got twenty years ago, after his divorce. When he remarried in

'76, Elizabeth just moved in. Bob never could see the point of a bigger place. He's not home much. What would he do there?

". . . Course, Senators like to talk. Y'may have seen the budget debate--my friend on the Democratic side, Bob Byrdhe talks about Roman History. . ."

The fact is, Dole is at home right now--Saturday morning, 10:00 A.M., a thousand miles under his belt this weekend ... to another hotel, another podium, another crowd of Important Suits ... and he's relaxing.

"Little bitta Balanced Budget Amendment.

"Little more Roman Hist'ry...

"I even contacted C-Span-see if we could get college credit ...

"But I am very glad to be here today. Because, in my view, the 'Merican Textile Industry . . ."

You can't exactly call it a speech. It's just a bracing stroll through the mind of Bob Dole--so much going on! It's mostly Senate stuff-the line-item veto, budget cuts, Medicaid, a joke about Strom Thurmond ... it drives his handlers nuts. They keep telling him, "Senator, stay on the message!" It drives his hyperdisciplined wife nuts. She rehearses every speech. Bob just gets up and talks.

"Well, I'm sorry 'Lizabeth couldn't be here," Dole says to the textile Bigs. He always mentions his powerful wife. She's a major campaign asset. "She had to go to Indiana. She's President of the Red Cross, you know . . ."

Dole has the timing of a professional comic.

"She got to be President. More'n I can say for me . .

As always, the laughter in the hall is a low, appreciative, knowing male chuckle. Now, he's rolling.

"But I usually don't bring her to these big meetings ... she always wants to start a blood drive.

"Kinda messy. . ."

Dole waits for the laughter to subside.

"You may not know this ...

"But I ran for President . .

Dole has been making jokes about his campaigns for fifteen years. Actually, it's almost two full decades, if you count (as Dole does) from the day in 1976 when he lost the Vice Presidency on the ticket with Gerald Ford.

In 1980, he stepped into the ring on his own, and flew around the country for a year, promising to whip inflation, wipe out the deficit, and fix the economy . . . but he couldn't even fix his own campaign. He had no organization--he ran everything himself, from his plane. And when he got to the first primary, New Hampshire, he got ... six hundred votes. It was a total humiliation. What could he do but turn it into a joke?

In '88, he said he'd learned his lesson: he started early, he raised a ton of money, he hired on Big Guys to organize the Dole campaign. And it worked-for a while. Dole organized Iowa down to the corncobs, he won the caucus ... and by the time he steamed into New Hampshire, he was the front-runner--eight points up on the panicky George Bush. But Bush launched a frenzy of campaigning, and filled the state's airwaves with slashing attack ads ... while Dole and his Big Guys sat on their hands. In six days, their lead was gone. Bush was on his way to the White House. Dole went back to making jokes.

"I remember, in the hotel, three days before New Hampshire, my pollster was whistling 'Hail to the Chief' . . .

"I looked around. I was the only other guy in the room ...

"Haven't seen that pollster since.

"Haven't paid him either, come to think of it.

"But I do wanta just say one word about the, uh, next election.... Because I know somebody who's running in 1996."

With Dole, it's always the next election, the next, and the next. Even now, in his eighth decade on the planet, after thirty-five years in Congress, and twenty years running for national office, he says--as he always has said: it's different, this time, he's better.

This time, a lot of people think he's right--they're writing about the New Bob Dole--they say he seems comfier. (And, look! His early polls are great!)

But what is the difference?

It's not new issues-though, each time, he has some new wrinkle. Now, he's into the heart of his message, and he pulls from his pocket the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. It's about reserving power to the States and to the people. This is the new Dole-code for cutting out federal programs: send the power back to the states, and stop piling up debt in Washington. He calls this "reining in government."

Then he turns to foreign policy, and he talks about protecting American interests-with or without resolutions from the UN, with or without any help from our allies. That's the new Dole-code for America First. He calls this "reasserting our place in the world."

But Dole has been talking about budget cuts ever since he got to Washington and had his first meeting with the President--Ike. Even when it wasn't popular (when Ronald Reagan sat in Ike's old chair, and deficits weren't supposed to matter),

Dole still made the budget and debt his overriding issues. No matter how much he wanted the votes of right-wing, supply-side Republicans ... no matter how many consultants told him to make his message more upbeat ... no one could ever convince Dole that deficits would simply "grow away." Bobby Joe Dole grew up in Russell, Kansas. He saw people die from debt.

And Dole never talked about a "Global Community," a Post-Cold War World Order, or any of the other buzzwords invented to mask our confusion, once the Soviet Wicked Witch melted away. In Dole's view, the world will always call on American boys to fight and die, somewhere, in troubles not of their own making. Lieutenant R. Dole learned that the hard way, fifty years ago. He feels that, still, every day. It changed his life.

In the end, that's what Dole brings to the table-in this election, every election--his life: only the code words change.

Maybe it is different, this time. Maybe Dole's soaring polls won't melt in the sun ... because that life looks better to us. Maybe we're on the rebound, after our fling with the overfed uncertainties of the Baby Boom ... and we value the verities of a man old enough to have had no choice. Maybe we'll decorate our century's end with an emblem of the hard past, honestly scarred ... like we grace our fashion ads or fancy store windows with a beat-up old leather suitcase.

He's telling the Textiles, at the close, about his announcement tour and its big finish in Russell, Kansas-April 14, 1995--fifty years to the day since German steel wrecked his young body. Then he tells them about a trip last year, to the beaches of Normandy, fifty years after D-Day. "I was coming back, after that trip. And, I guess, in the final analysis, I decided maybe there was one more chance, one more opportunity for service--for my generation--one more mission . .

And now, all the Textiles stand to cheer. They're still clapping after Dole has shaken hands with all the Bigs on stage and, with purposeful speed, left the ballroom.

Of course, every candidate for President thinks he has What It Takes. These are men (these days--still--they are all men) of personal power: people change their lives for them. They are men of will, ambition, faith. They are men with a lifelong habit of winning. But no one gets through this on habit.

No one can rise at dawn, in another unlovely motel room, to stand outside in bone-aching cold, shaking hands at some factory gate ("How y'doin?" "Hi!" "G'mornin' . . .") for an hour, before his breakfast speech at the coffee shop ("I'm here to tell you, this morning, YOU can make that difference!"), before he piles into a rent-a-car for a half-hour ride to a high school assembly (". . . Because that future is up to YOU . . ."), then forty-five minutes to his coffee-klatsch in the next county ("And I especially want to thank our hostess . . ."), and his luncheon speech over chicken-and-mashed at the motel two counties after that ("I'm here to tell you, today, that YOU . . ."), and his meeting with the local editorial board ("Senator, shouldn't timber products be exempted from the Uruguay Round?"), before his long car ride in the rent-a-car backseat with a feature writer from Chicago ("Did you feel you could never really please your father?"), while he's lurching through traffic in the major market for Live at Five with the local anchors ("Senator, thanks for being with us! Why do think you're losing in the polls?"), before his cocktail remarks to fifty big givers ("I'm here to tell you, tonight, that YOU . . ."), and his town meeting at the community center ("I'm glad you asked that, because, as you know, Social Security. . ."), until his body man finally pulls him out, and he's driven through the night to an airport motel, where he's handed eight call slips that ought to be returned-fast, so he can get his sleep. If he gets everybody on the phone, straightaway, he'll have five or six hours till wheels up and an hour's flight, to another state, to do it again ...

No one can do that day after day, week after week, for years ... without some rock-hard certainty that can't be milled away by nonsense and stress. He has to know: Why him? And: Why now? ... He has to know that he is The One.

And if he's strong enough to keep going-if he's able, smart, and lucky-then, he'll get to the final twist in the road, when things catch fire, he can see how his words make the people feel, he can feel how those words now matter to him. He can make all the difference just by walking into a room. There are thousands of people-and they want him. He and his campaign fill the lives of people who are almost strangers, and he takes over the life of everyone dear to him. He has to, it's all right--because it's that important. Now, he knows:

Not only should I be President, I am going to be President!

At that point, his idea of himself will change-has to change-so he can see in himself a figure of size to bestride a chunk of history. He will make war and peace, guide the nation, and change 250 million lives ... an age of those lives will bear his name forever ... his name and his face, his wife, kids, and dog, will be known to billions-across the planet-they'll look to him, listen to him, depend on him ... he will bend the story of mankind on earth.

And after that, alas, by the nature of the process, all but one man will lose.

This is loss that's almost impossible to deal with. It's horribly public-a great national fireball of failure, in a country that reviles its losers. But that's not the worst part: it's the loss inside that won't let you rest. These habitual winners have bent the world to their will for their whole lives-forever. If they could see it in their minds, they could make it happen ... and now, for the first time, they have to come to terms with how they saw so wrongly. This is loss that makes you question your life. But there's more-and worse: for now that life has changed. Or it's gone. It just doesn't fit anymore ... once you've seen yourself so differently ... and huge ... you can't go back. Win or lose, your life, as you knew it, is over.

That's What It Takes. It takes your life.

It takes your life away, and replaces it for a while with a strange, intoxicating hyperexistence--awesome and full of import ... and when that's over, if you lose that, then you don't know anything about yourself-save that nothing will feel quite like life again, except another dose of the same.

And if you've lost it for good, if you know you can't make it happen again, then it feels like there's nothing at all-like a death.

Bob Dole has been there.

It was in '88, after that fateful week in New Hampshire. Dole thought that was his time--he was winning! At last! It was going to be him! ... But Bush campaigned as he never had before--flung himself all over the state--truck stops, McDonald's, 7-Elevens, parking lots ... and George Bush stole Dole's dream away.

It was that night, after the vote. Dole couldn't sleep at all. It all kept replaying in his head. All the work--all the people who helped him, and never took a dime, never asked for anything--they just wanted ... him.

He blamed himself-what was wrong with him? He thought of a hundred things he could've done--could have tried. God knows, he tried, but ...

He lay there all night, tried to lie still ... until he couldn't try anymore, and it was five o'clock and there was no reason to lie in bed. That's when Dole came down to the lobby of his hotel, and sat-no one around, he just sat. Pen in his hand. Careful suit. Perfect shirt, tie. And no one around. What would he have said, anyway? He was sorry? Sorry was the only thing in him.

He knew loss-God knows, he could handle ... why couldn't he handle this? . . . why couldn't he stop his head? Things that could've been different-all the things he'd done ... probably wrong-half the things ...

But the worst part wasn't things he'd done. It was the pictures of Bush-that was what he couldn't stop--pictures of Bush! In his head! Bush throwing snowballs, driving trucks, forklifts ... unwrapping his Big Mac. Dole never wanted to see that in his head. And he never wanted to say, even in his head ...

It would not leave him alone ... five in the morning! Had to come down to the lobby ... but he couldn't get away from it. For the first time in his career-first time in thirty years-Bob Dole said to himself-

"Maybe I could have done that ... if I was whole."

From the seat next to Dole, in the plane back to Washington, now I can see, there's more silver in his hair. There're a few new lines in his face, around his mouth, where skin has sagged. Or maybe it's just the way Dole goes loose when he finally gets to a plane, one of the corporate jets that always seem to be waiting for him. This one's a Lear, and it welcomes Dole's back with soft leather. The body man, Mike Glassner, sits opposite, facing backward, toward Dole. The copilot digs from a bin two small Saran-wrapped platters-sandwiches and fruit--Diet Cokes are in the fridge ... the door swings shut, the engines rumble ... and for an hour or two, there will be quiet, nothing pending, and no one who can get to Bob Dole.

"Yeah, I said to 'Lizabeth, if we retire, I think I'll buy a plane.

"'What for?'

"Agh, I don' know. jus' to sit in it. Fly around.

"Hegh hegh hegh . . . "

Dole's laughing at his joke. That's how you know it's not a joke. He must have seen my surprise at the word--retire.

"I thought about it. Sure. After last time. Couldn't sleep right. Thought about it for a long time. Going over it. For months."

Dole is silent for a moment.

"Thought maybe ... Got a pretty good life. Home with 'Lizabeth. Sundays, at least. Get out to dinner, every once in a while. Pretty good married life."

But Bush lost, in '92, and that changed everything. People said it was the end of an era-and the end of Republicans in the White House. It was the coming of a new generation-and government as the spearhead of change. It's hard to even remember now how everyone-in-the-know in Washington knew the Republicans were clueless-nowhere-when Clinton rode in for his honeymoon.

And Dole? Well, he was the Republican Party. Had to be.

The last Big Guy standing. He didn't see any choice. He did what Bob Dole does. He ran with the ball.

"Good news is, Clinton's on his honeymoon," Dole said at the time.

"Bad news is, his chaperone is Bob Dole."

Of course, he took heat for that. Dole remembers it well:

"Yeah, everybody--you're too tough.

"You're too mean.

"You're too this ... you're too that."

But Dole was right. Clinton started his new age with Gays in the Army. Then he proposed his Stimulus Package--an oldfashioned plate of pork. Dole rallied his troops in the Senate ... and killed it. Clinton's honeymoon was over. The Republicans were coming back. And they never stopped coming.

"If he'da started off with something else, we'da been quiet as mice ... didn't happen."

Dole started flyin' around again-this time for the midterm elections. He hit eighty-five House districts himself-five hundred events, forty-seven states ...

And it was different, better. It wasn't just the Republican tide though he could feel that: called it, state by state, like Nixon used to do. But something else was different. They wanted ... him.

Dole's thoughts turn, as always, to New Hampshire.

"Yeah. In '88 we had, by the end-what was it?-seventyseven hundred volunteers up there. Now we got twenty-three thousand ...

"Got four outta five on the Governor's Council. Nine outta ten of the Sheriffs--they make a difference."

Nine out of ten?

"One's a Democrat. But we're try'na get him. Hegh hegh


This time, Dole has the Governors. They're the ones who put Bush over the top.

"Yeah, lot of 'em. Pataki in New York. Voinovich came out early in Ohio-and Speaker of the House there, leader in the Senate . . ."

This time, Dole has a hundred Congressmen.

"House guys, I go to their fund-raisers in Washington. I can hit five a night. Two or three at the Capitol Hill Club, one with the Truckers', one somewhere else . .

Dole glances out the window at the sunset. There's a funder in Washington he could stop by, tonight.

"They ask you, you know-they're so pleased, if you actually show up."

"We had a funder in Washington," Glassner, the body man,


"Yeah," Dole says. "Three hundred fifty thousand."

"Right," Glassner says. "But no PACs. Personal checks. Guys in Washington don't write personal checks."

Dole cuts him off with a gesture of his left hand toward his glass of ice. Glassner jumps for the Diet Coke. The pilot's already on the intercom with the weather for D.C.

"Just a half," Dole says--a little glass of caffeine. Probably will stop by that funder, since it's early.

Dole takes a swig, and settles back in companionable silence.

"Yut dut dut dah ... dut dut dut dut dah. . .

He's tuned in now to the little march that plays in his head. No one knows what song it is--or whether it's a song at all--it's just a syncopated bit of prairie breeze that leaks out of him, when he's happy. I can see what all the writers mean, with that New Dole stuff. "Comfy" is putting it mildly.

I'm watching his profile ... it's more than comfy. He's free. More than any man in the country, Dole knows What It Takesa whole life. And he's already given his.

"Uh, Senator? . . ."

I have a question--kind of dumb--but a President question.

If you do get in, what's the first thing? I mean, not the first hundred days, or any of that. But what's the first thing you want to do?"

Dole stops marching, and there's silence. It's the kind of question that every first-timer learns as boilerplate, by the time he's been running for a week.

"Haven't thought...... Dole says. He looks out the window again--dark outside, now. His voice is soft. "If I get elected, at my age, you know ... I'm not goin' anywhere. It's not an agenda. I'm just gonna serve my country."

There's a lurch as the Lear slows down, over the Potomac. Dole straightens, hands away his glass, and squares himsell He's been doing this so long, he can feel the runway coming. It's going to be a good landing, this time. He knows.

The Lear's door swings open to reveal his Lincoln Town Car, idling on the tarmac in the darkness. I'm trying to thank him for the time, and the ride.

"Agh, gotta gooo!" Dole says. It's the chain-saw voice. He's back to business. Don't slow him down. He makes for the car, and he's gone in twenty seconds. Saturday night. He's got work to do.

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