Russell keeps faith with its favourite son

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The Independent Online
Driving west from Kansas City on Interstate 70, you run a veritable gauntlet of celebrity to reach Russell, Kansas, the place Bob Dole believes to be the moral centre of America. You pass the hometowns of three astronauts no less, before encountering the Agriculture Hall of Fame and then the Greyhound Hall of Fame ("A Racer, A Hero, A Pet, A Friend.) But finally after three hours across the prairie you make it.

Russell, according to the pre-packaged mythology no presidential candidate can now do without, is Bob Dole. Forget Washington and the Congress where he spent his most productive years. This was where he was born and raised. To Russell he returned in 1945, a premature war veteran of just 22, crippled and half killed by wounds suffered in Italy. Here you can still see the drug store where they collected $1,800 - a vast sum in those days - to send Bob Dole to Chicago to see the specialist who would put his body and soul together again.

It was in Russell last year that he formally declared his candidacy. Here he returned last month to celebrate (if that is the right word) his 73rd birthday, and here this Saturday he will present his vice-presidential running mate to the world. All will be recounted in a misty sepia-tinted video of a remarkable life that will be the backdrop to the convention in San Diego, and whose location shooting took place here the morning after he turned 73.

Bill Clinton is still fond of depicting himself as the man from Hope, Arkansas. But Bob Dole is the man from Russell, an even more perfect specimen of a half-vanished, eternally decent small-town America, clothed in innocence, friendliness and God.

And as a stage-set the town is perfect. On a hot midsummer day, hardly a soul stirs on the broad, wide streets, lined with two or three-storey brick buildings. But Dole is everywhere. Every shop on Main Street is festooned with Dole insignia, the billboards of restaurants and motels are made over to happy birthday signs - even the old Dream moviehouse, closed now but still smart painted in ochre and pale blue, pays its tribute. Mostly the posters and photographs show a younger Dole in his fifties, kindly sidestepping the age issue that is his greatest handicap.

Beyond, to the north and south, east and west, the ramrod straight avenues merge back into the vast plains. "Russell, Kansas, home of Bob Dole," proclaims the sign on the white grain silo standing sentinel over the railway line on the north side of town, just a stone's throw from the Dole family home at 1035 Maple Street, but somehow on the very edge of civilisation.

As a makeshift museum of old oilfield equipment which you see when you hit town from the interstate suggests, what passes for the golden age of Russell is long gone. But even now the place looks relatively prosperous; the stillness is of peace, not desperation; of people who will not easily be moved.

Dole's sister still lives on Maple Street. Her sibling's importance has earned her the protection of the police, parked close by in a couple of cars, one marked and one unmarked, both surely baking under the midday sun. An old cottonwood tree on the corner provides shade. Plastic deckchairs surround a side porch. The unostentatious but immaculately kept red-brick structure with its American flag implanted in the lawn bespeaks the chosen virtues of Kansas, Russell and Bob Dole, of thrift and toil, plainspeaking and patriotism.

But will these values be enough? "It would be nice if you could all come to the inauguration," he told a crowd of 1,500 people (out of a town population of under 5,000) assembled for a cakes-and-ice cream birthday rally in Russell's one park, an occasion as scripted and soulless as most of the Dole campaign thus far.

Right now, a trip halfway across the continent looks about as probable as the reopening of the Dream movie house. Instead, come January, a more likely pilgrimage beckons.

Almost 100 miles north-west - but still within the great state of Kansas - lies another small town called Norton. There, on the mezzanine floor of the First State Bank on 105 West Main Street, another hall of fame of sorts is to be found. It is the Gallery of Also Rans, a forlorn museum of candidates who ran for president and lost. Barring a miracle, a section devoted to the man from Russell will soon be joining them.