Dole's ploy opens up old wounds

Presidential bid/ playing the veteran card

BOB DOLE, who launched his bid for the US presidency last week, will be basing his campaign on the message that has made Forrest Gump one of Hollywood's all-time greatest box office hits: no matter how great the adversity, the American Dream is within everybody's reach.

The Republican majority leader in the US Senate is striving to do for the physically handicapped what Gump has done for the mentally deficient.

A war wound he suffered in northern Italy in 1945 left Mr Dole crippled for life. A shell explosion shattered his right shoulder and right arm. Back home he underwent seven operations, one to remove a kidney. The doctors' treatment enabled him to resume a functional working life but could do nothing to restore the use of his arm.

For years he could not bear to look at himself in the mirror and to this day he makes a point always in public of perching a pen between his lifeless fingers, pointing upwards like a porcupine spine, so as to avoid the embarrassment of someone reaching out to shake his right hand.

It is a testimony to his courage that after a 35-year political career that has taken him to the top job in the US Congress he should have emerged, aged 71, as the favourite for the Republican presidential nomination. The polls show, besides, that were the election to be held today, he would defeat President Clinton.

All of which makes him fair game for America's political satirists. Or does it? A cartoon strip by Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, begs the question whether politicians should be subjected to attacks that stray beyond common decency.

The strip, carried in the Washington Post and other newspapers, depicts Mr Dole in a campaign commercial. "Does my wound stand in vivid contrast to the smooth, untouched skin of Bill Clinton or Phil Gramm?" [the draft- dodging second favourite for the Republican nomination] Dole asks. "You be the judge. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to ... my old war wound." The wound - Doonesbury-style - comes to life and responds: "Thank you, Bob, thank you. I'm proud to be a political asset."

Needless to say, the letters have poured into the newspaper post rooms. "Disgraceful"; "sleazy"; "insulting"; "indescribably tasteless"; "a moral sewer". "Suffice it to say," said Senator John McCain, of Arizona, from the congressional floor, "that I hold him [Trudeau] in utter contempt." Mr Dole himself remarked that he considered the joke to be "in poor taste".

The offending cartoonist entered the debate in a letter last week to the Washington Post. Mr Trudeau's point was that if his work was tasteless, the victim had brought it on himself.

Mr Dole ran unsuccessfully for the vice-presidency alongside Gerald Ford in 1976. He tried and failed to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and 1988. During those three campaigns never once did he draw attention to his heroic debility, leading Mr Trudeau to observe: "I had always admired Senator Dole for the dignity and modesty with which he bore the sacrifice of his military service."

But now, as the 1996 election looms, he is venturing on what he knows will be his last opportunity to win the top prize in American politics. For by the time the election comes around, he will be 73, four years older than Ronald Reagan was when he ran for his first presidency. And he has calculated that his chance lies in throwing modesty to the winds and playing the battle-scarred veteran card.

His hallmark sound bite has become: "Maybe there's still one more mission, one more call to service for the Second World War generation." He announced his candidacy on the 50th anniversary of the day his arm was blown up. He flew to Italy earlier this month to film an interview with ABC television's Prime Time Live on the very site of the battlefield where he was wounded.

The nobility of Mr Dole's war record notwithstanding, Mr Trudeau's argument that he is engaging in cynical politics as usual, appears to be reinforced by examination of two of his recent campaign stunts.

Last month Mr Dole wrote to the National Rifle Association (NRA) promising that he would battle to repeal a law banning the commercial sale of assault rifles. As the New York Times said in an unusually intemperate editorial, his "shameless sycophancy" towards the gun lobby reflected not principle but his "slavery" to the fear that his more hawkish rivals for the Republican nomination would turn his right flank.

It also so happens that the NRA is one of the most bountiful funders of Republican presidential campaigns.

But while making money by whatever means is acceptable if you are a politician or a gun-manufacturer, it is not if you happen to be a film-maker.

Last week on the campaign trail in Iowa, Mr Dole made what an aide described as an "aggressive" appeal to the conservative Christian "family values" lobby by way of a speech attacking the purportedly declining mores of Hollywood. Denouncing the entertainment industry as peddlers of sex and violence, he declared: "We must hold Hollywood accountable for putting profit ahead of common decency." To which Forrest might have replied: (viz `Gumpisms, the Wit and Wisdom of Forrest Gump') "If you're ahead, shut up and stay there."

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