The man who built a bridge to the past

Bob Dole's heart's desire was a presidential nomination. But when he finally got it, America found he could only look backwards, writes Sidney Blumenthal

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If anyone today can rightfully claim to be called "Mr Republican," it is Robert J Dole. He has spent his entire adult life in the grinding service of the Grand Old Party. His slow, uneven ascent consumed decades - rising up the political ladder rung by rung, from congressman to senator, from chairman of the Republican National Committee to failed vice presidential candidate, from failed presidential hopeful (twice before his current effort) to Senate majority leader Everything Dole has, he has earned, including his impending defeat.

Dole's career has confirmed his grimly determined view of the world. Without his entourage of handlers and speechwriters to craft his image and language, Dole naturally reverts to the rhetoric of his harsh past, bitterly informed by his wartime wound (an injury which paralysed his right arm). Dole insists that the only way to get ahead is "the hard way" and that "pain" is the true path to understanding. His underlying message is the opposite of Ronald Reagan's, the avatar of pleasure and easy street. Dole's projection of Kansas is a world away from Reagan's political Disneyland. For Dole, life is nasty, brutish and agonisingly long. His presidential campaign, if nothing else, should once again confirm his bleak conviction.

In 1996 his message has been the one that he feels in the marrow of his bones and conveys with his whole being: it's his turn. Within the Republican Party, which is far more hierarchical and deferential than the Democratic Party, the notion that Dole has deserved the presidential nomination after so many years of hard labour carried some weight in the primaries. And virtually all of the party establishment supported his effort. But once Dole actually had the coveted nomination in his hand, he lacked a larger message to communicate to the country.

He had sought the prize for so long that the struggle to get it had almost completely taken him over. Dole's insistent belief in his own entitlement left him bereft at the moment of his triumph. He had little else to add. His quandary was that the party had finally bestowed its ultimate honour on him, but that the voters were unimpressed. "Mr Republican" was not an identity that held much attraction for them.

"I'll be Ronald Reagan if you want me to be," Dole implored at the start of the campaign. Unfortunately no one is more unlike Reagan than Dole. In fact, from the enactment of Reagan's supply-side tax cut, Senator Dole was among the leaders in trying to contain the explosion of the federal deficit with countervailing tax increases. He made constant sardonic jokes about the foolishness of supply-side economics. His favourite was this: "There's good news and bad news. The good news is that a bus full of supply- side economists just went off a cliff. The bad news is that there was an empty seat." Dole particularly ridiculed that champion of tax cuts, Congressman Jack Kemp, as having played football "without a helmet" and seeking a tax cut for "hair spray". Dole's deficit obsession reflected his agrarian sensibility, which he was certain was the real essence of Republicanism. As far as he was concerned, Reaganism was a perverse aberration, another oddity emanating from the freakish state of California.

Immediately after securing his nomination, Dole returned to the Senate, his true home, an insulating cocoon. He acted as though, having finally achieved his ultimate goal, he would be treated with the proper respect. After all, didn't he deserve the nomination? Wasn't it his turn? But Dole could not be both the Senate majority leader and the Republican presidential candidate simultaneously. The more he was pushed to oppose the Democrats on popular measures, the more his standing in the polls plunged.

Dole began discarding the elements of his basic political character. First he resigned from the Senate. In his farewell address, he stifled his sobs as he spoke of becoming "just a man". Then he embraced the supply- side tax cut programme, in effect repudiating the single position he had consistently held over the years. Shortly after that, he named Jack Kemp, an object of his derision, as his vice presidential running-mate. He had given up most of his identity and was indeed "just a man", an exposed and vulnerable one.

In his convention speech, Dole was a candidate in search of a metaphor. Without a smile, he described himself as "the most optimistic man in America". He offered himself as a "bridge" to the past, a better world that lay behind us, that only disbelievers called "myth". With that, Dole had handed President Clinton a blunt weapon. At the Democratic convention, the President lambasted Dole for trying to lead the country backward and promised instead to build "a bridge to the 2lst century". In just one rhetorical trope, Clinton claimed control of the future, leaving Dole flailing as yesterday's man.

In the closing days of his political career, Dole inadvertently began assuming a new political identity: Republican Party scapegoat. All the failings of the party in 1996 are blamed by Republicans of every stripe on "Mr Republican". Every faction argues that if only he had pursued their line from the beginning, he would have won, or at least finished respectably. The social conservatives and members of the religious right, the supply- siders and the party officials have all found a last use for Dole as the convenient excuse for losing. He is an icon of their denial.

All along, Dole's true model, his hero, has not been Ronald Reagan, but Richard Nixon. The two men had a tangled love-hate relationship, with each drawn magnetically to the other's darkness.

Before he died, Nixon wrote Dole a series of letters spelling out the strategy he ought to pursue. He advised Dole to move to the right to win the nomination and then shift back to the centre to win the presidency. One approach was aimed at the party, the other at the nation. It was the strategy that Nixon, who always played each against all for his own benefit, had followed himself. His advice, in brief, was that to succeed Dole must be Nixon.

Dole tried to adhere to Nixon's plan, but the old balancing act in the middle could not be sustained. The problem for Dole was that the Republican Party had changed since Nixon's day. It had moved far more to the right. It was more Reagan's and Gingrich's party than Nixon's. Dole could not hold it together and pretend he was standing anywhere near an atrophied party centre. His march to the right continued up to election day.

In winning his heart's desire, his party's nomination, Dole shut himself out of the White House. Dole could not be Reagan and he could not be Nixon. The roles were not available; they had been removed to presidential libraries and museums. Shifting endlessly to satisfy a right wing that can never be truly satisfied, he could not even present himself convincingly as Bob Dole. Being "Mr Republican", as it happens, is a self-defeating proposition.

The writer is on the staff of `The New Yorker' magazine.

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