The Saturday Profile: Elizabeth Dole, Republican presidential candidate - The head girl of America

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The Independent Culture
"I'M NOT a politician and, frankly, I think that's a plus today." When public figures - any public figures, anywhere - start disavowing their calling, you know they are seriously competing for office. And so it was with Elizabeth Dole this week, when she launched her bid for the world's top job, President of the United States.

While Mrs Dole's protestation rang a little hollow - she may not be a professional politician, but she is one of the most politically attuned public figures around - there was a subtext. What she did not say, but strongly implied, is: "I'm not a man and, frankly, I think that's a plus today." Thanks to the recent emergence into public esteem of a slew of senior female politicians, and President Clinton's very male extracurricular activities in the White House, she could be right.

In a country where the position of women in public life, especially those parts of it where real power resides, is less advanced than Americans like to believe, Elizabeth Dole has already achieved something remarkable. In the three months since she first broached the possibility of running for president, no one has laughed. No one has suggested that she go back to "cookie-baking"; no one has told the "little woman" that she should be at home with her family. No one has said, or even hinted, that she could not do the job because she is a woman, and only a very few have muttered that she has got where she is only because of her husband.

The evident competence - if not always effectiveness - of the women in President Clinton's cabinet may have contributed to the new climate, as may the down-to-earth performance of women representatives, and especially senators, during the President's impeachment trial. A number of female senators - including Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Susan Collins - came to national prominence and showed senior women politicians in a positive light compared to their often fussy and prevaricating male colleagues. For the first time, opinion polls say, the vast majority of American voters (more than 90 per cent) are prepared to contemplate the possibility of a woman president.

Much of the credit for Mrs Dole's acceptability, however, is hers, and derives from the experience and professional credentials that she brings to her bid. She is also a wealthy, well-connected woman who is judged to have more than a sporting chance of raising the $20m-plus that is the unofficial entrance fee to a presidential race.

Mrs Dole's CV may not conform to the conventional pattern for presidential nominees: the Senate, a state governorship, or success in military leadership. But then women's CVs, reflecting family responsibilities, outsider status and glass ceilings, often seem unconventional. Now 62, she has served in the administrations of no fewer than six presidents, starting with Lyndon Johnson (she was then a Democrat). She has held cabinet office twice: as transport secretary under Ronald Reagan and as labour secretary under George Bush. In 1991, she left the Bush administration - which turned out to be an astute move - to become president of the American Red Cross. She spent her first year as an unpaid volunteer to demonstrate her commitment to the idea of public service - a luxury, her detractors would point out, that she could afford only because of her husband's wealth.

This week, Mrs Dole sought to banish rumbling criticism that these jobs had been just patronage appointments, where she was little more than a figurehead. "I'm no seat-warmer," she told her audience in Iowa, and proceeded to itemise specific achievements of her tenure in each office.

At Transport, she said, she had overseen the introduction of more rigorous air safety regulations, airbags for cars, and the sell-off of Conrail, the cargo arm of the national railway company. At Labour, she had settled a long and acrimonious miners' strike, largely by banging heads together. And at the Red Cross, she streamlined US disaster relief and the modernisation of the national blood transfusion service.

While Mrs Dole has never been the beneficiary of lavish praise for an exceptional job performance, former colleagues have no criticisms of her commitment to her work or her ability to get the job done. They do say, however, that the more closely you work with her, the more difficult and distant she seems. To outsiders and political audiences, and those who receive her attention and largesse, Elizabeth Dole appears endlessly charming in a very courtly, Southern way. Despite her decades in Washington she has retained - deliberately or not - her Southern accent, which only enhances the impression, frequently alluded to, of a "Southern belle".

To colleagues, however, especially the closest, she is said to be testy under pressure, and self-contained. She prepares meticulously for meetings and expects others to do the same. She likes to be private and in control, keeping the door to her office at the Red Cross shut and requiring others to warn her on the intercom rather than turn up at her office unannounced.

Some of these traits seem to have begun very early in her life. She was born Elizabeth Hanford, the second child and only daughter of a well-to- do flower wholesaler and his wife in the pretty town of Salisbury in North Carolina. Her mother - who is still alive at the age of 95 - and school contemporaries describe a perfectionist who became desperately upset by any failure, whether it was a less-than-excellent mark or forgetting to return a book. She appears to have taken herself, and her prospects, very seriously indeed from an early age, and she still does. Three years ago she snapped at a television interviewer who called her "Liddy", the childhood nickname reserved for family and close friends.

Growing up in a highly respectable Southern town at a time when young women were expected to marry and have children, Elizabeth proved an unusual combination. On the one hand, she appears to have applied great efforts to conform to what was expected of a Southern girl in terms of manner, grooming and accomplishments. There is much of that schoolgirlishness about her even today, the rather superficial cheer-leading style and bubble- headed enthusiasm that can be both endearing and exasperating.

It hardly needs to be said that she was head girl, May Queen and class president at college (the last elected position she held) and went after pretty much any distinction that was on offer. On the other hand, while she was pushed by her parents to achieve academically she seems to have been a more than willing accomplice. From school, she went to the premier Southern university, Duke, and from there to Harvard where she majored first in education and then, to the evident distress of her mother, who thought it high time she found a worthy husband, took a law degree. She was one of only 50 women among more than 2,000 men at the Harvard Law School.

She then embarked on a career in what she and her former colleagues call public service, but is otherwise known as the Washington bureaucracy - or politocracy. A junior job in consumer affairs in the Johnson administration led to a succession of administrative posts. Politically, she went from being a registered Democrat (working for Johnson) to an independent (working for Nixon), finally becoming a Republican soon after her marriage to Robert Dole, then a senator for his native state of Kansas.

She was 39 when she married, and it was Robert Dole's second marriage (after divorce). They have not had children. Just as with Hillary Clinton, some have seen the Dole marriage as a political partnership that opened a route to political influence at the price of any political ambitions Elizabeth Dole might have had in her own right. But such a view is probably as wrong in relation to Mrs Dole as it is in relation to Mrs Clinton. Those were different times, and Elizabeth Dole never attached herself ideologically to the feminist cause as such, despite a career that has been, in many respects, pioneering.

She has always used her married name and title, and supported her husband's political career to the hilt, culminating in her 20-minute tribute to him at the 1996 Republican convention when she went among the crowd with her microphone in the manner of a talk-show host, delighting and shocking her audience by turns. She was even said to have mapped out for herself how she would handle the job of First Lady - but that was not to be.

In the early Eighties, Mrs Dole started taking her religion - she was brought up and remains a Methodist - much more seriously. Some go so far as to say that she had a "religious experience". Belief in God and God's purpose for her is not something that can be underestimated. She carries a Bible with her wherever she goes and is said to devote at least half an hour every day to reading it, even when she is on the campaign trail.

This religious side to her character has not been without political benefits, as it has brought her followers and backers from the constituency of the religious right, which is so influential in the grass roots of the Republican Party. Just recently, however, whispering has been heard inside the party putting it about that Mrs Dole's brand of Christianity may not be fundamentalist enough for that section of the party.

The suggestion is that she may be a closet "liberal" and, specifically, that she may be "soft" on abortion - that touchstone issue for the American right. Such speculation appears to be based largely on her recruitment as adviser by a number of people regarded by the religious right as "liberals". Mrs Dole herself, however, has always opposed abortion.

Ideological flaws, however, may not be Mrs Dole's biggest liability in her quest for the Oval Office. Her manner and personality may be. As a Southern woman fighting to be taken seriously in her chosen field, she may have had to conform to certain expectations of femininity to make her career; these could include the face-lift that makes her look embarrassingly closer to 40 than her 62 years. But the sing-song voice, actressy appearance and bouncy concern can seem cloying and ingratiating and at times just plain silly.

Loosen up, you want to tell her; abandon the script that is stamped on your brain, drop the mask and tell us who you are. The last time Mrs Dole showed a flash of spontaneity was when she was surprised by a question about her husband's enthusiasm for the Viagra pill and cheerfully confirmed its efficacity. Maybe she needs a little less Prozac, and a little more Viagra?

When announcing the first stage of her campaign this week, Mrs Dole advertised an Internet website - now the essential accoutrement of any self-respecting contender for office. Unfortunately, www. is not quite ready. A logo with a roadworks sign says, in 11 languages: "This site is currently under construction. Please check back at a later date." Something similar could be said of Elizabeth Dole.

Life Story

Origins: Born 29 July 1936, in Salisbury, North Carolina to John Van Hanford, a flower wholesaler, and Mary E Cathey.

Vital statistics: Aged 62. Married Senator Robert Dole, 6 December 1975. No children.

Education: Duke University, 1958; Harvard Law School, 1965.

Religion: Methodist. Gave witness in 1987 to her "spiritual awakening", saying it was "time to submit my resignation as master of my own little universe, and God accepted my resignation".

Career: Served six US presidents. Federal Trade Commissioner, 1973-79; Secretary of Transport 1983-87; Secretary of Labor, 1989-90; President American Red Cross, 1992-99.

She says: "I believe our people are looking for leaders who will call America to her better nature."

A Supporter says: "It would be difficult to imagine Mrs Dole fooling around with a White House intern."

An anonymous critic says: "Her whole life has been a single-minded pursuit of power." (Website: "Elizabeth Dole's Skeleton Closet")