Profile: She acts just like a Lady like a little Lady the little Lady: Elizabeth Dole

Bob Dole's greatest asset could have been his strongest rival.
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The Independent Online
"Don't blame me, I didn't vote for Hillary," read one campaign button at last week's Republican National Convention in San Diego. "I don't trust President Clinton - or her husband," read another.

A feminist might dismiss these jibes as an expression of the reactionary, red-meat Republicanism of the white males who dominate convention proceedings. This would be a mistake. The mood of America's electorate has turned against bossy women. President Clinton's re-election team knows that, which is why Hillary, in the words of Russell Baker of the New York Times, has been locked in the White House attic.

Mrs Clinton's pay-off for standing by her man during the torrid 1992 election campaign was a high-profile role in the White House. Soon accusations flew that she had become an unelected co-president. She stood up to her tormentors, bristling, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies".

Many women applauded her defiance, but among the explanations given for the Democrats' crushing defeat in the 1994 congressional elections was the perception that Bill Clinton did not conform to the John Wayne/Ronald Reagan ideal of American manhood, that he was hen-pecked by a shrill wife.

The moral of the story has not been lost on the Dole camp. Elizabeth Dole's campaign role has been clearly defined: to shed light on her husband's manly attributes. She succeded - almost too well - in San Diego on Wednesday night, stealing the convention show with an impeccably stage-managed speech "about the man I love". She toured the convention floor with a hand-held microphone, waxing rhapsodic about "the strongest, most compassionate, most tender person I know", pausing to talk to strategically seated "friends", witnesses to the courage her husband displayed after the terrible wounds he endured during the Second World War.

The media gushed. Nearly every newspaper in the English-speaking world used the Oprah Winfrey analogy. She had emerged as Mr Dole's number one campaign asset, the prefect complement to his wooden style. The only problem was that she was so good, so dazzlingly in command of the medium which shapes US electoral outcomes, that viewers wondered why she was not running for president.

A glance at her cv demonstrates why this is not a frivolous thought. She has served in the cabinets of two presidents. As transportation secretary under Ronald Reagan; as labour secretary under George Bush. Asked in 1990, when she was still serving in the Bush administration, whether she had any plans to run for president, she responded with coded evasiveness, "No plans. I have no plans to run ... I don't really have any plans to do that." But when she moved on to become president of the American Red Cross, with 23,000 employees and more than a million volunteers, her in-house biography noted that in a poll "she was chosen by a significant margin ... as the woman most likely to be the first female president of the United States".

Her qualities have not been lost on Mr Dole. After his unsuccessful presidential bid in 1980 he said, "I decided to drop out when Elizabeth got ahead of me in the polls". When he was asked during the 1988 campaign, when he lost out to George Bush, whether he would consider Mrs Dole as his vice-presidential running mate, he replied, "That's a great idea. But can I be president for at least the first term?".

Mr Dole would not be caught dead making a joke like that today. Now he makes a point of saying that he, unlike President Clinton, wears the trousers in his household. "She will not be in charge of health care," he reassures his audiences. "Or anything else." She plays along, saying that she will go straight back to her Red Cross job after the election, adding, as properly befits the ever-loving wife, that since the Red Cross building is only two minutes' walk from the White House, "I'll be able to go over for lunch every day".

Quite apart from what all this says about evolving perceptions of a woman's place in contemporary America, what is remarkable about Elizabeth Dole is her readiness to play Nancy Reagan when she is, in truth, Hillary Clinton. Only more so, since before Mr Clinton became president all Mrs Clinton could boast was an impressive record as a lawyer in the far-from glamorous state of Arkansas.

What drives Mrs Dole? What is it in her make-up that prompted her to subordinate her carefully-crafted political identity to her husband's 1988 and 1996 presidential campaigns? Why does Mrs Clinton struggle to play the subservient wife, while she appears to revel in the role?

Mrs Dole is 60 years old; Mrs Clinton is 47. Mrs Dole graduated from university in the late Fifties; Mrs Clinton in the early Seventies. During Mrs Dole's formative years women's liberation had not been invented; during Mrs Clinton's, women were marching in the streets. By the time Mrs Clinton reached adulthood it had become socially acceptable for women to wear their ambition on their sleeves. The etiquette of Mrs Dole's generation demanded that she mask her ambition in sugary smiles, a task that came more naturally to her, coming from the conservative American South, than to Mrs Clinton, who came from Chicago.

ELIZABETH Mary Hanford was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, in August 1936. Her family was prosperous. They lived in a mock Tudor home and brought her up to be a Southern belle, paying for riding and piano lessons, encouraging her to attend debutante balls. Being bright, as well as attractive, she went to Duke University, where the female students, strictly segregated in those days from the males, were called Duchesses. A handbook for first- year students, whose lessons she diligently absorbed, said: "A Duchess should have the tact and good judgement to know when the occasion requires her to be serious and when to be gay ... Everything she does is in good taste and to the highest standards."

In order to make it to the top in a man's world the young Miss Hanford understood that she would have to dissemble, play a twin-track game: pander to male expectations first, then use feminine wiles to beat the system. So she took part in both beauty contests and political campaigns, winning the student May Queen competition and then proceeding to be elected the university's "model leader" by both the male and female campuses.

It was only after she left Duke and won a place at Harvard Law School that she revealed her true intentions to her parents. She ditched a suitor whom they expected her to marry and announced that finding a husband would take second place to pursuing a career in government. Her mother was physically sick at the news. Only at the age of 39, in 1975, did Elizabeth Hanford finally get around to marriage, choosing a like-minded political animal in Bob Dole, a divorced 52-year-old senator with presidential ambitions. Mr Dole had a daughter by his first marriage but he and Elizabeth are childless.

Much has been said about the nature of their relationship. Prompted in part by her confession that a feeling of "spiritual starvation" led her 14 years ago to rediscover her Methodist faith (she claims to read the Bible every day), one line of speculation has been that he has been a cold, self-absorbed husband. It has been remarked that the two are often apart and communicate more by phone and fax than face to face. Yet the force that binds them is uncommonly strong: a lust for power, a sense of sharing a common political destiny, but one in which Mrs Dole - unlike Mrs Clinton - has settled comfortably into the role of junior partner.

He needs her at least as much as she needs him, and not just because American presidential contenders have to be seen to be playing by the "family values" rules. His first wife, Phyllis Holden, was a nurse who looked after him when he was recovering in hospital from his war wounds. Elizabeth is his political nursemaid. On the campaign trail she has been overheard saying things to him like "Don't look so glum - smile" and "Quit talking to these reporters, and don't make any of your smart-alec jokes".

His tendency to shoot from the hip, admired by those who know him, can prove fatal in an election, when every twitch is captured by the cameras. She, by contrast, is obsessively self-controlled, never a hair out of place, never a wrinkle in her dress. For years she took lessons in public speaking and still today, a practised orator who has made a million dollars on the lecture circuit in the last five years, she will engage in endless rehearsals before addressing an audience. Ever the Duchess battling to convey an impression of graceful ease, she even practises her lines before making important phone calls. "Nothing is ever unscripted", wrote Newsweek before her tour de force in San Diego, a performance she had been honing all year at a hundred smaller meetings the length and breadth of the US.

Of the two Doles, she is by far the more accomplished television-age candidate, for the simple reason that she has been an actress all her life. At 60 she is in her prime, younger-looking and more self-assured than 10 years ago when she was being touted as a presidential contender. She appears to be more driven than her husband by the desire to make it to the White House. But, prepared by her upbringing to accept with elegant resignation the anti-feminist tenor of the times, she has bet all on becoming America's First Lady. If Bill Clinton wins in November, as the polls predict, she may well feel the loss more keenly than her husband.

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