PROFILE: Senator Robert Dole; One final mission, objectives unknown

He's sure to win his party's nomination. But what does Bob Dole stand for? Ummm, well ... Rupert Cornwell reports
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The first thing to know about Bob Dole, senior senator from Kansas and overwhelming favourite to win the Republican nomination to face Bill Clinton this autumn, is that when you meet him, you must proffer your left hand, not your right. If you make that mistake, he will turn, quickly but slightly awkwardly, and stretch out his left hand. Too late, you notice that the right hand, clenched around a protruding pen, is useless. The pen is there in part politely to deter people like you, in part because if he ever let go, the hand would splay out uncontrollably.

For half a century, Bob Dole has lived like that, ever since a German shell smashed into a young US army lieutenant in northern Italy on 14 April 1945, wrecking his shoulder and arm, damaging several vertebrae and leaving him half-paralysed. Rehabilitation took three years. Most men, less persevering by nature, would have remained invalids for life, but Dole's sheer determination prevailed. Today, that same grit has carried him - at 72 years of age, when the healthiest of men are well into merited retirement - to the brink of, arguably, the most gruelling job on earth - the presidency of the United States.

The incongruities do not end there. An ideologically driven Republican revolution has swept Congress; yet the Republican poised to seek the White House is the least revolutionary of men, a pragmatist to his fingertips, a gradualist who believes that politics is the art of the possible. At a time of huge public distrust of career politicians, when outsiders are the rage, the Republicans are about to send forth the ultimate insider.

The US presidency is supposed to require vision; Bob Dole, by his own admission, has none. His personal story is truly heroic, but he hates to dwell on it; after 35 years in Congress, a dozen of them as his party's leader in the Senate, he is acknowledged as a master legislator, but he dares not mention his achievements. Indeed, in the bully pulpit of the White House, he promises to be tongue-tied, or worse. His stump speech is genuinely excruciating; staccato salvoes of fatuities, random cliches drawn like numbered lottery balls from a bag. "This is 'Merica. I wanna talk about being Pres'dent," he will say in his rasping machine-gun of a voice, swallowing vowels by the throatful. "'Merica's a great country. Greatest country on earth. Gotta make it better still."

How, you wonder, can a man in politics so long, who has run for president in 1980 and 1988, still not have learnt to sell himself? Part is surely the Kansan in him, the dour plainsman for whom understatement is a way of life, and humour by its very nature an extravagance. Dole can be very funny, but his jokes are mostly stabbing, bleak and mocking, either of himself or others. "Yeah, I got elected president once. President of Iowa," he says, apropos of his initial but worthless win in his 1988 bid for the White House.

This time, his aides have touted a "new Dole", soft, fuzzy and reassuring. But the only real difference is that thus far the famous temper, the "mean streak", has been kept under control. Dole will never be a national cheerleader. His smile is still that of an undertaker. "Dole 96", runs a fictional campaign bumpersticker, "A Dark Man for Dark Times".

The other reason that Dole can't make a decent speech is because he doesn't believe it's necessary. In the Dole view of the universe, the presidency is not to be won by glib promises and florid words (indeed, Newt Gingrich's omniscient psychobabble drives him insane) but by deeds. His selling points are experience and judgement, a "safe pair of hands", as the British like to say. If Dole can seem defensive and resentful, it is because he has been passed over so often, forced to watch as Republicans he considered less deserving claimed the supreme prize. There was Ronald Reagan in 1980, and above all George Bush, the patrician Yalie who bested him eight years ago - hence his abhorrence of Steve Forbes, another East Coast rich boy, touting nonsensical nostrums like a flat tax, for whom life has come too easy.

For Dole, of course, nothing has come easy, starting with the recovery of the use of his own body after the wounds of 1945. He is a creature of political Washington, yet is physically unable to participate in many of its favoured relaxations - tennis, golf, even the power lunch. He cannot cut a steak or tie shoelaces (hence the shiny black loafers he always wears). "A broken fingernail," he has said, "is a minor crisis." Perforce, his life is politics pure and simple, an almost ascetic existence in which weekend relaxation is an appearance on the Sunday morning talkshows (on which he is the most frequent guest in network history), or a spell on the exercise bike in the living-room.

Elizabeth, his wife of 20 years and a former cabinet secretary under presidents Reagan and Bush, is as busy and as addicted to work as himself. The couple still live in the one-and-a-half bedroom flat in the Watergate building that Dole bought when his first marriage ended in divorce in 1972. An evening at home (once a fortnight, on average; these campaign days, never) is a pizza and a rented video. The Doles have an apartment in Florida which they sometimes visit. Most nights, though, are Senate business, fundraisers or party functions in the four corners of the United States.

Nobody understands the mechanics of politics better - the money that greases its wheels, the art of putting together a majority, and the law of a favour given, a favour returned. Certainly, over the decades, no one has sat before more helpings of rubber chicken, every one of them to further his ultimate ambition.

But ask Bob Dole why he wants to be president and he cannot answer. "One last mission," he calls his candidacy, employing a metaphor of war and manifest destiny. But mission for what? Dole hasn't the faintest idea. "Haven't thought," he told the author Richard Ben Kramer last year. "If I get elected at my age ... I'm not goin' anywhere. It's not an agenda. I'm just gonna serve my country." If Americans want sweep and uplift from a president, Dole is not their man.

But there are moments, rare moments, when the guard comes down and you glimpse the man beneath. It happened in the Senate as Dole tried in vain to prevent American troops being sent to Bosnia, warning of brave but fearful young men facing the terrible risks of combat - just like the 21-year-old Bobby Joe Dole half a century ago - but this time in an unnecessary cause. It happened too at the funeral in 1994 of Richard Nixon, another politician of a hard-scrabble upbringing who had climbed back from defeats and disgrace.

Dole delivered one of the funeral orations that day, and quoted words of Nixon that could have been his own motto: "The greatest sadness is not to try and fail but to fail to try." Maybe they also reminded him of his own childhood in the Dust Bowl and Depression days of Russell, Kansas, in the Thirties, and the constant admonition of his mother, Bina: "Can't never could do anything." Normally so disciplined and composed, Dole's voice cracked and that April Day in California, he wept before the television cameras of the world. You watched, transfixed and disbelieving. Something similar on the campaign trail, and he might at last turn tedium into passion - and prove that an old man's mission has a purpose.