20 January 2008

Bob Dole

Bob Dole is one of the wittiest men I met in Washington. Freud would tell us that his humor is a response to his pain, especially to the war wounds that left him with a crippled right arm. Bob Dole would have little patience with that sort of explanation — he’d probably dismiss it with a zinger.

When he is straight-talking, there is no one in Washington to match him, not even his disciple, John McCain. (During the Vietnam War, when everybody wore P.O.W. bracelets, Dole wore McCain’s — but didn’t tell him so until decades later, after they’d been Senate colleagues for years. It wasn’t politics but character, and McCain understood that was Dole’s greatest gift.) The flip side is that Dole is very, very bad at saying things he doesn’t believe.

The witticisms elude him, and he relies on stock phrases that sound not like profoundly held statements of belief but like the targeted constructs of political operatives and think tanks. The energy drains from his face, and the light fades in his eyes, which begin to dart nervously, checking to see if anyone notices. He seems awkward, embarrassed. But as Republican candidate for the vice-presidency (in 1976) and the presidency (twenty years later), and as his party’s leader in the Senate, he did his duty, like it or not, much as he served his country in wartime.

Preparing news reports, we used to see the duality of his nature all the time. Whenever he stopped forging and started parroting the party line (which by the time I met him was a lot more conservative than he was, especially on social issues), he’d fall apart. For example, when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Bob Dole agreed that “We probably do need some kind of health-care reform.” He seemed perfectly sincere, as one might expect from a man whose own physical condition and history gave him an intimate knowledge of the concerns and needs of patients. He’d seen his youthful dream of a career in baseball shattered by his war wounds; he’d spent a long time in the hospital. Better than most in Washington, he knew how sick and injured people feel.

Within a few weeks, though, the lobbyists and party bosses had gotten to him (I presume), and he led the charge against Hillary’s proposals. It can be argued that Hillary’s proposals weren’t very good, yet Senator Dole didn’t propose any alternative, or try to negotiate a middle ground, and all these years later, health care in America is more expensive and less comprehensive than ever.

Other times, you couldn’t be sure whether he was straight-talking or not. When he described the military conflicts of the twentieth century as “Democrat wars,” was he serious? I don’t think anybody can construe our latest conflicts as “Democrat wars” (though Karl Rove has been trying, lately, to say that Congressional Democrats rushed the United States into Iraq), so there may be nothing to learn from this. Perhaps it’s best simply to move on.

Some analysts said that Dole’s sharp tongue caused some voters to believe he was “mean,” and that this perception contributed to his loss in the 1996 presidential election. I’d be willing to argue the opposite: that Dole’s transparency when saying things he didn’t believe cost him more votes than his bluntness when saying things he did believe. He wanted the presidency, and he wasn’t alone in thinking the Republican nomination was his due, after so many years of carrying water for the party. But in order to get the nomination, a candidate must appeal to the primary voters, who are (in both parties) less mainstream than the voters in the general election. A candidate winds up doing a lot of pandering to people he disagrees with. Bob Dole was pretty darned mainstream, and he’s no good at pandering, and he was incapable of covering up his discomfort. I think voters saw that; I know reporters did.

Washington reporters have a sense that most call a “bullshit detector,” and it is developed not only through native skepticism but through laziness: it is a good deal easier to receive the truth and run with it than to go digging for it. Thus the press loved Bob Dole — up to a point. If you could get him on the right subject, there was nobody better to tell you the real deal, usually in eminently quotable, witty language. (He demonstrated this for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, after he’d retired from politics.) But you never could deactivate your bullshit detector when you were talking to him — and the curious thing was that his own bullshit detector was activated, too, and you could watch its functioning.

I met him a few times, always in the company of Dan Rather. I was immediately struck by the similarities between the two men, an impression that Dole’s press secretary encouraged. If I wanted to see Dole as a hardy survivor, a patriot and truth-teller — which was how I saw my boss — then Dole’s staff had no objections. And although it might have been a professional liability for either of them to say so publicly, Rather and Dole liked each other, too. There was always a certain wariness, unsurprising in the circumstances, but there was also a camaraderie between them that I didn’t see often, when either of them engaged with others. They’d known each other a long time, and they respected each other — as pros, as working guys who’d made it to the top.

I had the feeling that, if ever the two of them could get away from the Washington madness for a couple of hours, sit down with a couple of beers and swap a few stories, they’d both have the time of their lives. And, oh, to be within earshot when they did!