Bob Dole: The Republicans' Man for All Seasons.
In the winter of 1994, Senator Robert Dole appeared on ABC's This Week With David Brinkley from the Kansas Republican's Sea View Hotel condominium in Bal Harbor, Florida. Dole was not the only V.I.P. to maintain a little getaway at the Sea View, chairman of whose board is Dwayne Andreas, president of Archer-Daniels-Midland, the country's largest ethanol producer. Other eminentoes to winter there have included Tip O'Neill, Howard Baker, Robert Strauss and Brinkley himself. As the show wrapped up, Dole urged Brinkley to hop on down to Bal Harbor to escape Washington's icy blasts. "I shall shortly," Brinkley replied, and the program cut, appropriately enough, to a commercial for A-D-M. Dole and Andreas had known each other since the 1960s. By the time of the Brinkley show, the small-town boy from Russell, Kansas, had long since become a frequent flier on A-D-M's corporate jets.
A tireless, sometimes truculent mouthpiece for agribusiness interests, Dole has worked long and hard to become the important player that he is. An intense and driven man, he yearns to be more important still. Twice drubbed in runs for the Republican presidential nomination, he is out for the big prize again. Conditions seem somewhat more favorable now than in years past, though not unequivocally so.
While a bit long in the tooth (at 7 1, he is older now than Ronald Reagan was when he took office), Dole is a campaigner of astonishing energy and daunting determination, able to raise great sums and distribute them shrewdly through his political action committee, Campaign America. His job as Senate majority leader puts him before vast television audiences night after night but keeps him tending to business in Washington when men of lesser stature--Pat Buchanan, Lamar Alexander, Phil Gramm--are out drumming up cash. Still and all, the nomination may yet be his. One day he could be President.
Even then, one suspects, Dole won't feel fulfilled. A voice within will whisper that the former soda jerk from Dawson's Drug Store does not really belong. With no more of that "vision thing" than George Bush had, Dole seems hungrier for the job than the Kennebunkport preppy ever was. Seething with class resentment, this Washburn Municipal College (LL.B., 1952) alumnus appears no less convinced that the White House should be his, by dint of hard work if not by right of birth. Other reasons for wanting the job--like what he would wish to accomplish while he held it--seem less apparent, and Jake Thompson of The Kansas City Star does little to clear up matters. He offers scant information about what Dole believes and no explanation whatever for why he believes it.
In newspaperese distinguished neither by an ear for the vivid phrase nor an eye for revealing detail, Thompson is unable to render the drama of a life that has been, at times, quite dramatic indeed. In April 1945, as a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in northern Italy, Dole crawled out of his foxhole to rescue a comrade. As he made his way along the ground, machine-gun fire ripped apart his right shoulder and shattered his spine, leading to years of painful and heroic rehabilitation.
To this day, it takes Dole half an hour to button his shirt and tie his tie--a fact reported not in Thompson's thinly researched and badly edited book but in Richard Ben Cramer's 1992 epic What It Takes. The existence of this morning ordeal alone suggests just how dogged Dole must be. Forced by his injuries to give up dreams of a career as a surgeon, Dole turned to law, then to politics. For someone who feared he would end up a paraplegic selling pencils on the streets of Russell, he has done very well for himself. He has also done well for his constituents.
From an agricultural state, Dole has always been eager to prop up home-grown products, backing food stamps and farm price supports in defiance of laissez-faire economics. He has also brought home his share of outright pork. In 1990, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who had shrewdly traded his Senate leadership position for the Appropriations Committee chairmanship, admonished Dole for not doing "enough for your state."
At Byrd's urging, Dole "redoubled his decade-long efforts to bring federal projects and dollars to Kansas " Thompson writes. "In 1991, he steered $107 million in appropriations to various projects, and secured another $800 million-plus in defense spending at the state's military bases."
Dole's most noteworthy dissent from G.O.P. orthodoxy came in 1982, when he broke with Jack Kemp and other supply-siders to concoct the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, or TEFRA. A deficit-cutting measure, TEFRA repealed 30 percent of the tax breaks enacted the year before and infuriated, among others, Newt Gingrich. It was then that the future Speaker of the House dubbed Dole "the tax collector for the welfare state." There has been no love lost between the two Republican leaders ever since. Dole, to his credit, seems not unduly troubled by the fact.
It was also in the aftermath of TEFRA that Time proclaimed that Dole "has mellowed and matured" as a leader. This may be so, but it is also possible that it is not so much Dole who has changed as the political world in which he operates. Today's baby-boomer Republicans are an impetuous, take-no-prisoners bunch. Their kind of Republicanism, all energy and passion, has little in common with the cautious conservatism practiced, not so long ago, by such men as Gerald Ford, Bob Michel and John Rhodes.
These older Republicans were not scintillating men, but they were prudent. They considered the consequences of the policies they pursued and believed in fiscal responsibility. They opposed deficit spending and favored balanced budgets. They could be fierce partisans, of course. Watergate was nothing if not partisan, and Dole, as chairman of the Republican National Committee, dutifully defended the Nixon White House. Not dutifully enough, however; Nixon replaced him with someone more compliant: George Bush.
In the 1970s, Dole was about as savage an infighter as Republicans had. He was viewed as something of a wild man back then, though that reputation seems almost quaint today. It says volumes about how G.O.P. politics have changed that this erstwhile loose cannon now seems a paragon of restraint. Asked once to explain his opposition to the heedless supply-siders, Dole mused, "Maybe it's just old-fashioned Republican doctrine." Compared with the zealotry of the present Congress, old-fashioned Republican doctrine doesn't sound half bad.
Alan Pell Crawford, author of Thunder on the Right: The `New Right' and the Politics of Resentment (Pantheon), is senior writer at Martin Public Relations in Richmond, Virginia.