"I didn't tell any senators," Bob Dole joshed his colleagues just before his stunning announcement of leave-taking. "Heh-heh-heh. That's why there weren't any leaks."
With one bold personal gamble, the conservative Kansan showed a new willingness to perform on the high wire without a net: "I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the people, and nowhere to go but the White House or home."
The decision was not only gutsy, it was adept. The woman who helped him make it, Elizabeth Dole, hugged Sen. John McCain afterward and said, "I know this is the right thing." She had supported the idea for a month.
Now we're sure to hear a lot of grumpy punditry. "A desperation move" is the spin coming out of the surprised White House; "Win or lose, he would have been finished in the Senate anyway" will be the conventional cynicism.
The fact is, we seers, savants and sages _ not to mention Democratic strategists _ were caught off guard. That includes me; only a few days ago I urged "leave-taking." We all thought the choice before him was (a) hang on to his position of power because his opponent was not giving up his; (b) temporarily parcel out his Senate job to a triumvirate; or (c) go all the way and step down as majority leader.
Who would have thought that "all the way" was only halfway _ that this "man of the Senate" would actually chuck his Senate seat and go for broke? Only a politician with a flair for leadership, that's who. Those of us who were calculating all the possible breaks _ scandal, war, depression, accident _ failed to consider the possibility of Dole making his own break.
The manner of his leaving was clearly intended to invigorate his campaign. The staging was lousy, the writing was terrific, the delivery was improved and moving.
On staging: When you rise to make a profoundly personal announcement _ sacrificing present leadership to demonstrate your commitment to future leadership _ you should stand alone. Unfortunately, this announcement was presented the way a candidate appears on Election Night, in victory or defeat, surrounded by supporters.
When I asked Dole late Wednesday why he allowed Newt Gingrich to hang his chin on his shoulder all during his brief speech, the senator chuckled and replied: "I like Newt. He's been very supportive."
How did President Clinton react when the senator gave him the heads-up a few hours before? "He was surprised. Thanked me for my service."
The short, eloquent statement _ "to leave behind all the trappings of power, all comfort and all security" _ was a far cry from the previous Dole style of sentences on stilts. Who wrote it?
"Shouldn't say. I don't want to get him in trouble with his employer." After I explained that speechwriters today love recognition, and that it would only help his career, the soon-to-be-former senator said: "Mark Helprin. He's a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, wrote a good piece about me a while ago. He said to me about a month ago, "You ought to leave the Senate,' and I said, "Pull up a chair.'
The piece Helprin wrote, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 2, was titled Let Dole Lead. Prophetic; and the gifted, non-staff writer had a hand in helping him lead.
"I trust in the hard way," Dole said in his short speech, "for little has come to me except in the hard way, which is good because we have a hard task in front of us." The phrase was reprised toward the end: "For the American people have always known, through our long and trying history, that God has blessed the hard way." The difficult path was then given a lift: "Because of this, as I say thank you and farewell to the Senate, as summer nears, and as the campaign begins, my heart is buoyant."
Good writing, and the slight tremble in the voice was effective for not being faked. Afterward, Dole's mood remained upbeat as his ad-lib sentences shortened: "Not fair to my state to hang on. I have this thing about duty and responsibility. Well, we did it _ now on to the real America."
New York Times News Service