Bob Dole finally found something he could control in his campaign: himself.
He decided to stop beating his head against the wall. It's the best decision he has made since his campaign began.
For months he has dog-paddled in congressional waters, getting nowhere. He bickered with Ted Kennedy. He mouthed the familiar litanies _ the previous question, the absence of a quorum. He watched the economy and the Clinton numbers go up; watched unemployment figures, crime statistics and welfare rolls go down. He could do nothing about any of it. From his privileged sanctuary, he wrapped the security blanket of the Senate around him.
He heard the whispers of fellow Republicans who thought his chances slim, who mourned that Clinton would have to officiate at a same-sex marriage in order to lose.
They heckled him and counseled him in public and tried to distance themselves from him in clumsy, brutal ways. They had their own ideas of how to conquer Clinton. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, for instance, suggested the commandeering of education funds to take up the slack from elimination of the gas tax. Sen. Al D'Amato, who has run Whitewater into the ground, thought that a feud between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Dole would revive the lifeless campaign.
In a climactic "every-man-for-himself" maneuver, five Republican governors set up a clamor for a change in the party's plank proposing a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. None of them seemed to notice that Clinton was in boiling hot water with the Catholic hierarchy for his veto of a ban on a late-term abortion procedure. The Catholic vote was up for grabs. But the five progressives, with miraculous timing, rode to Clinton's rescue. The spotlight swung around to them, giving Dole and disunity more glare. Never has a party been so insistently aided by the other side.
Dole's efforts to define the issues came on weekend campaign forays, which resulted in events occurring at hours that ensured their absence from the evening news, and stories that never got told. Dole was otherwise nailed to the Senate floor, Indian-wrestling with Democratic leader Tom Daschle. His issues evaporated on being unwrapped. His attack on Clinton judges didn't catch on _ he had voted for almost all of them. A diatribe against Clinton's foreign policy died quickly: He supported the president on the big stuff, most-favored-nation treatment for China, intervention in Bosnia.
Old friends like former Sen. Paul Laxalt urged him months ago that he would become involved in causes he couldn't defend, in squabbles that diminished his stature if he stayed on as leader. Dole has never been a great listener. But finally, someone got through and he decided to fling off his shackles and roll the dice.
Laxalt was having lunch in the Senate dining room as the rumors were sweeping through the Capitol that Dole was quitting, not just his job as leader, but the Senate itself. "Maybe," said Laxalt, "he decided that if he was going to be a bear, he might as well be a grizzly."
The auditorium on the ninth floor of the Hart Building was packed to the walls. All the people Dole would be so glad to get away from were proudly on hand: Gingrich, D'Amato, freshmen Republicans, the whole gang. If nothing else, he will no longer be at their mercy.
His face reflected his satisfaction; his voice trembled with his regret at leaving the Congress, his home for 35 years. He will run as a man, not as a senator. He made the speech his followers have been wanting to hear since he declared. "With all due respect to Congress," he said, "America has been my life." He spoke of the country, for once. He did not mention his war record, or indeed anything of the past. He said starkly he has "nowhere to go but the White House or home." The crowd cheered.
He said quietly, "I have absolute confidence in the victory that to some seems unattainable."
Maybe his bold move will not make it more attainable. But at least he brought a touch of theater and class to a dreary cavalcade of parliamentary minutiae and decorated self-pity. Everyone knew that Bob Dole was better than his campaign. A number of people think that he's better than Bill Clinton. He has said it's all about character. Now at last he's shown some, and it certainly can't hurt him.
Universal Press Syndicate