Media, strategists had plotted the scene with precision. Two weeks earlier they had descended on Russell, Kan. (population
For the Kansas senator, the return to his humble Midwestern roots served as a symbolic challenge to the man he must beat for the Republican nomination: the party’s front-runner, Vice-President George Bush, a member of a wealthy Eastern Establishment family. But
5,200)—a windswept prairie town 420 km west of Kansas City—to calculate the required camera angles. Pacing the sixblock main street, they hired a sign painter to cover one unsightly brick wall with a giant mural of green and gold wheat fields. And at the intersection of Eighth Street and Main—against the backdrop of a grain elevator—they raised an outdoor stage. There, on Nov. 9, as 10,000 cheering supporters and a planeload of Washington reporters looked on, a home-town boy, Republican Senator Robert Dole, formally launched his presidential campaign as the candidate of the American heartland.
Dole’s sentimental journey also provided a powerful setting for his campaign message, championing the plainspoken, populist values of the prairies. With his paralysed right arm dangling at his side, Dole retold the poignant story of his own personal struggle against the shell wounds that shattered his dreams in an Italian fire fight in the last weeks of the Second World War.
Shipped home from Europe in a body cast at the age of 21, Dole found his body paralysed. Formerly Russell’s star athlete, he spent more than three years in hospital, helpless, unable to afford the operations he needed. Then, a druggist he had once worked for as a soda jerk placed a cigar box on the counter of his store for a collection. Standing in front of 01’ Dawson Drugs’ neon sign last week, Dole recalled how “people put in their nickels, their dimes and their quarters, and that $1,800 helped shape my life.” Said Dole later: “My home is the core of everything I believe about America. We are a caring nation.”
Indeed, despite the well-plotted staging of his campaign kickoff, Dole’s tale provided an emotional counterpoint to
the sombre rallying cry of his platform. While Bush and Rep. Jack Kemp of New York (Maclean ’s, Nov. 16) have promised voters continued prosperity—with no tax increases—Dole preached what Kemp once branded the “politics of pain.” Dole called for a solution to the nation’s economic woes through hard work, spending cuts and self-sacrifice— including some form of increased taxes. Terming the $3-trillion U.S. budget deficit the “single greatest threat to a prosperous and dynamic America,” Dole issued a stark warning. “We will either sacrifice for our children,” he said, “or we will continue to make our children sacrifice for us.”
That no-nonsense message could prove a risky strategy. In both 1980 and 1984 voters soundly rejected President Jimmy Carter and Democratic nominee Walter Mondale for preaching the same grim economic gospel. But because of last month’s stock market crash, Dole’s aides argue that the time has come for his tough-minded pragmatism. Said Dole: “The American people are ready for bitter medicine.”
In fact, the small-town credo of disci-
pline and duty has guided most of Dole’s 64 years. He was born in a modest redbrick bungalow on the wrong side of the railway tracks. His father, Doran—who ran Dole’s Creamery—prided himself on hard work. With four children, there was no money to spare. And Dole’s mother, Bina, rose every morning at dawn to do chores before setting off to sell sewing machines from the family car. When the Depression hit, the family fended off foreclosure on their house by renting it and moving into the basement. Years later, as Russell’s county attorney, Dole had to approve welfare cheques to his grandparents, who had lost their farm. That background stiffens his vow to offer hope to
“the left-out and the down-and-out.”
Aides insist that Dole is not comfortable among the rich, including his neighbors in a controversial condominium in Bal Harbour, Fla. Indeed, that purchase—in his wife’s name—has cast one of the few shadows on his image of homespun integrity. A recent New York Times report said that Dole may have bought the apartment with the help of Dwayne Andreas, chairman of a vast agricultural corporation and a frequent beneficiary of Dole’s farm legislation efforts.
As a fiercely competitive high-school athlete, Dole trained his six-foot-three body on weights he made out of concrete blocks and lead pipe. But two years after he cut short his first premedical year at the University of Kansas, his disciplined frame lay in bloody tatters on an Italian mountainside. On April 14,1945, his regiment set out to take Hill 913 in the
Appenninos south of Bologna. And in a hail of mortar fire, Dole recalled, he “felt a sting in my shoulder.” He added: “I must say my whole life raced in front of me. I saw my dog, I saw my parents, I saw my family, I saw my home town. Then I didn’t see anything for a long, long time.” Infections and, indeed, death haunted Dole over the next 39 months. His sister, Norma Jean Steele, now a Wichita, Kan., real estate agent, recalls his stubborn independence. “We had to feed him, do everything for him,” she said. “But sometimes we would ask if he needed something and he would say ‘No.’ And you could see it was just because he was so proud.” Later, after a series of operations
that put him back on his feet and restored limited use of his left hand, the same pride guided Dole’s revised dreams. When he went back to university for a law degree, his first wife, Phyllis—a former occupational therapist he had met in hospital and from whom he was divorced in 1972—helped him take notes.
Dole’s writing difficulties prompted him to hone a prodigious memory that has been a boon to his political career. He can recall the family histories of voters he has not seen for 15 years. But his wounds left less favorable legacies. Critics blame his self-sufficiency for the initial chaos of his current presidential campaign. And his razor wit often betrays a bitter edge. In 1976, when he was then-president Gerald Ford’s running mate, his charge that the Democrats had caused all the nation’s wars earned him the reputation of a hatchet man. Indeed, compensating for
that role, Dole spent most of last month’s televised Republican debate in Houston restraining his tongue. The result: many analysts faulted him for failing to show strong leadership.
Still, while winning him headlines, Dole’s position as Senate Republican leader has kept him from campaigning in primary states where Bush has as much as a 20-point lead. Dole has promised to consider stepping down at the end of this year. But that would give him little more than a month to court voters in Iowa’s Feb. 8 caucus—a Midwest contest he must win. In the South, where Dole’s organization lags—and a 20-state March 8 primary will choose nearly 40 per cent of Republican delegates—his strategy rests on his vivacious, 50-year-old second wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole. The daughter of a wealthy North Carolina florist and a graduate of Harvard Law School, she resigned her cabinet seat as transportation secretary last month to stump her native South for him. And her mix of magnolia charm and flinty intelligence may be paying off. Last week Dole topped a North Carolina straw poll.
But aides also express concern about the charged message that Elizabeth Dole’s presence carries. Despite the fact that she is a born-again Christian, the prospect of a powerful presidential wife— one who would redefine the role of First Lady— could frighten Southern conservatives. And some
feminists have said that they could never vote for a man whose cabinet-officer wife had to give up her job for him. Said Elizabeth Dole in her own defence: “The career has not been set aside. It’s a matter of changing focus for a while.”
Dole’s friends credit her with softening her husband’s tough edges since they married 12 years ago. A measure of that influence was his ability last week to talk publicly about his personal anguish. For years Dole has refused to use his war history on the campaign trail. But now Dole understands that he may need that personal sympathy to leaven his unpalatable political vision. Indeed, his campaign will test whether he can defy political conventions and trade charisma for what he calls a common-sense message—that Americans “must stop living for today.”
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