PROFILE; The old man of war is still a sure shot

On Bosnia, Bob Dole speaks for America. He intends to win a much wider brief, says Rupert Cornwell
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The man who may next year be elected the oldest President of the United States today turns 72. But for all his eminence, the representatives of the great Western powers gathered in London will not have raised a celebratory glass to the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, as they sought a policy on Bosnia. For Bob Dole is among the authors of their miseries.

This week only an appeal from the White House persuaded him to postpone a US Senate vote that would have lifted the United Nations arms embargo and scuttled the entire UN mission, exactly as Bob Dole believes it should be. Now he watches and waits for Mr Clinton and the West to deliver. Bob Dole has become the keeper of his country's conscience over Bosnia. And Bosnia has become a metaphor for Mr Dole's quest for the White House.

Such are the strange couplings of destiny. Dole's presidential aspirations seemed to have ended in 1988, back when Yugoslavia was still a single country and his second challenge for the Republican nomination ended in angry defeat at the hands of George Bush. Supporters say he has mellowed now, that the infamous Dole tongue is less biting and his temper fitted with a longer fuse.

Far more important, however, the Republicans believe in hierarchy and the virtues of primogeniture. With Reagan and Bush gone, it is the turn of Bob Dole. And unlike in 1980 and 1988, he has not yet put a foot wrong. Rivals would kill for his name recognition, his campaign is the best financed and the best run. And then there's his age.

Generationally, he offers a great leap backward. But if a Republican captures the White House next year, it is far less likely to be Newt - seen as a third-wave futurologist masquerading as Speaker of the House, babbling about laptops for the homeless and honeymoons in space - than this crusty septuagenarian from the Great Plains, shaped by the Dustbowl, the Great Depression and Hitler's war.

Logically, age should be Bob Dole's Achilles' heel, and as the campaign heats up it may yet be so. Make-up artists may work wonders on TV, but up close there is no concealing that for all his stamina and a schedule that would tax someone of 50, Dole is an old man. For the moment however, the years are working in his favour.

Currently, Dole is following to the letter the advice of his late friend and mentor Richard Nixon. To win the Republican nomination, Nixon once counselled him, "You have to run as far as you can to the right. But to get elected, you have to run as fast as you can back towards the middle, because only 4 per cent of the nation's voters are on the extreme right."

Hence Dole's recent broadsides against Hollywood, gun control, affirmative action, and abortion - all for the benefit of conservative activists who vote in primaries.

But, the US columnist William Safire suggests, everyone knows he's kidding: once he has the nomination sewn up, Dole will race back to the centre. At 72, a man is too old to change his ways; and Dole's ways are those of a pragmatist and realist. His tribulations have taught him compassion and a belief that the state has a duty to help its least fortunate citizens. On guns, welfare, abortion and the rest, 35 years of deal-making on Capitol Hill have taught him the virtues of pragmatism and compromise.

Politics for Dole is the art of the possible, not an exercise in tunnel- vision fanaticism. And even right-wing true believers can understand and forgive the charade. Bob Dole, after all, is saying the right things, and unlike Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes and Bob Dornan, the conservative hot- gospellers in the Republican field, he is electable. On Bosnia he has never wavered, advocating an end to the embargo from from the days of the Bush presidency (as did, of course, a certain candidate Clinton). And he hauled himself back from a living death by sheer guts and willpower - the very qualities so scarce in the West's dealings over Bosnia.

That ordeal is legend, set out anew in a detailed medical history which his aides released yesterday. Dole was a 21-year-old second lieutenant when a shell exploded as he led an assault on a German machine gun nest in the Po Valley on 14 April 1945, shattering his shoulder, fracturing vertebrae and costing him the use of his right arm for ever. He carries it limp and half-folded in front of him, a pen protruding from his fingers to remind handshakers that for the last 50 years, Bob Dole has perforce been a leftie. As he recuperated, an infection cost him one kidney, and almost his life.

In 1991 he was operated on for prostate cancer, of which he is now free. He is colour-blind and suffers a mild hearing loss. Even so, his doctors give him a clean bill of health. Maybe the Almighty always intended he should be president.

And perhaps that is what America wants. Again, Bosnia is a metaphor. With his stance, Dole is taking a gamble. If Congress votes to lift the embargo, Unprofor goes and, as his opponents argue, apocalypse descends on the Balkans, he will shoulder part of the blame. But not all of it. The moral mess of Bosnia reflects the moral vacuum of the babyboomers, a generation that had it too easy, personified by the likes of Clinton and Gingrich, bursting with cleverness but whose war was one they refused to fight.

But when Bob Dole talks about genocide, appeasement and a people's right to defend itself, it resonates. Yes, he conceded the other day, the going could be "a bit sticky" for the Bosnians in the first few weeks after the embargo was lifted. A line like that from Clinton would have had every columnist in the land howling for his head. Not so Bob Dole, who when it comes to sticky moments on the battlefield, knows a thing or two.For him, the mere acts of buttoning a shirt and putting on a tie are triumphs over adversity. Yet he remains one of the most private people in Washington. "I've been tested both personally and legislatively. I'm a survivor - I just keep coming back," he once said, in words as close as he comes to public introspection.

And now the third shot at the presidency. Why's he doing it so late in life? If you believe Dole, he didn't really intend to. But walking on the D-Day beaches during the anniversary ceremonies last June, he says, he realised his generation had one last summons to answer. Shameless hokum? Probably. But when Bob Dole pulls a fast one, no one seems to mind.