AMERICAN ELECTION: Dole finds a smile in moment of defeat

One night has ended a lifetime given over to politics, writes John Carlin
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"Tomorrow will be the first day of my life I won't have anything to do."

Bob Dole, accepting electoral defeat late on Tuesday night, intended the words to be taken as another of his wry jokes. And while he smiled, and the Republican crowd laughed at an event initially billed as a "victory rally", there was no denying the pathos.

Mr Dole has been criticised often for being dull, for allowing his work to consume his life. But it is not as if he has had a great deal of choice in the matter. Playing golf, for example, was never on the agenda. And for a man whose courageous single-mindedness saw him overcome crippling injury in World War Two and rise to become the most successful legislator of his generation, an obsessive temperament is perhaps understandable.

Mr Dole has also been criticised for being mean and nasty. Washington commentators warned before the campaign that he would not be able to restrain the emergence of his "dark side". Those who saw him on the road these last months, especially during the athletic 96-hour dash that concluded his campaign, never saw it.

Even when he was savaging the Clinton White House for its sleaze and immorality, a whimsical smile, an ironic aside were never far away. And as for the manner of his parting the political stage, it did him honour - hard as the tired and emotional besuited young yahoos in his Republican audience strove to undermine the dignity of the occasion.

The football crowd cheers when he entered the ballroom of Washington's Renaissance hotel shortly before midnight to concede defeat were the appropriate greeting for the courageous old soldier. But then, as he tried to speak, hecklers shouting "we love you, Bob" and suchlike continually cut him off in mid-sentence. Concealing his irritation but unable to restrain a crack at his own expense, and indeed at the failure of the central message of his campaign, he cried: "You're not going to get that tax cut if you don't be quiet."

He congratulated President Clinton ("I wish him well and I pledge my support") and he even thanked the media who had travelled on his campaign airplane ("all my friends"), gracious gestures both which the crowd tried to ruin with cacophanies of boos.

Gamely, and even more graciously, he told his audience that it was in their hands, the Republican youth, that the future of America lay. On a personal note, and perhaps here with unintended irony, he declared himself to be "still the most optimistic man in America".

The fact is that he never had a chance of defeating President Clinton - because of the healthy US economy, because Mr Dole simply lacks that quality of phony "potato love", in Saul Bellow's phrase, that is the raw material of a successful presidential campaign.

Yet, driven by a spirit that passes rational understanding, he was determined to run for the highest office. "I've never been prouder in my life than to have been the Republican nominee for president of the United States," he declared.

It was a heartfelt moment but one that also cut to the heart of the Dole election campaign. Crowning his career with the ultimate endorsement of the party he has served for 45 years was the prize he chiefly craved. Running against Mr Clinton was the closest in his post-war life he has come to playing sport.