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Bob Dole's secret weapon: a sharp sense of humor

Published Oct. 4, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

It was only a few seconds after he fell off a makeshift stage recently in Chico, Calif., observers say, that Bob Dole began to joke about it. He was still joking about it Thursday at a campaign stop in Johnson City, Tenn.

"Even before I hit the ground," he told an audience at Eastern Tennessee State University, "my cell phone rang. It was a trial lawyer saying, "I think we've got a case here.' "

Although a fall had long been one of the Dole campaign's worst nightmares _ aides to Dole worried that it would reinforce perceptions that he is too old _ now his advisers insist his tumble was really a bit of good fortune.

Finally, they said, voters have had a chance to see that Dole has a sense of humor. And while this formulation may be mostly spin, it also contains some truth.

Which raises the question: What took so long?

By almost any standard, Dole has a keen sense of humor, and by the standard of the U.S. Senate he ranks as a veritable Sid Caesar. While most other elected officials get their laughs from jokes written by aides, Dole's best lines are spontaneous and his own.

In Congress, he was renowned for his wit, and his former colleagues report that in closed-door sessions he often used carefully timed one-liners to defuse tensions.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has a story he likes to tell to illustrate this point. One day, when President Clinton was dining with Senate Republicans, someone asked him if he had read a new mystery novel by Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine.

He had, he said, adding, "You know, it's a Democratic senator who gets murdered."

"Yeah," Dole shot back. "It has a happy ending."

Dole's own advisers acknowledge, though, that his wit has not made much of an impression on ordinary Americans. Kathie Lee Gifford, they concede, probably spoke for most viewers when Dole appeared on her show in July.

"Bob Dole _ cracking jokes!" she exclaimed in surprise after he took a sly dig at her co-host, Regis Philbin.

Politicians and political analysts offer several possible explanations for why Dole's sense of humor has gone largely unnoticed.

One is that he has been purposefully holding his humor in check. "We haven't seen as much of it," said McCain, one of Dole's closest associates. "One reason is you have to be careful. Things can be misinterpreted in a large group."

Another is that Dole's jokes _ biting, bone dry and often uttered as an aside _ do not translate very well into television sound bites.

"Candidates get such limited time that it's easy for jokes to backfire," said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University who has studied humor in campaigns. Dole's jokes, he said, "can come across as sardonic and bitter because they're taken out of context."

And then, there is Dole's deadpan delivery. He does not send out the cues that prompt people to laugh; often the only indication of his irony is a slight lift of an eyebrow.

"There's a disconnect sometimes for the voters," said Steven P. Lombardo, a Republican pollster. "They don't see a man who's enjoying himself."

Whatever the explanation, Dole's advisers maintain that his humor is an untapped resource that will be more fully exploited. Said Alex Castellanos, a Dole media adviser: "Bob Dole's sense of humor is an unknown asset in this campaign."

The following convey something of the dry and often self-deprecating character of Dole's humor:

In 1972, as Republican national chairman, he commented on the possible effects of the Watergate scandal on the upcoming election. "We got the burglar vote," he replied.

When he faced Walter Mondale in the 1976 vice-presidential debate, his remark that all the wars of this century were "Democrat wars" made him seem mean-spirited. "I was supposed to go for the jugular," he said in reflecting on his performance. "And I did _ my own."

He got 607 votes in the 1980 New Hampshire presidential primary. "The day after New Hampshire, I went home and slept like a baby," he said later. "Every two hours I woke up and cried."

After he was criticized during the 1988 primaries for lacking "vision," he said: "We thought of having a vision-of-the-month club, just for the media. They'd say "That's the wrong vision,' and I'd say, "That's all right, I got another one.' "

"The good news for Bill Clinton is that he's getting a honeymoon in Washington," Dole said after the 1992 election. "The bad news is that Bob Dole is going to be his chaperon."

And while he praises Jack Kemp as his running mate, Dole had been less charitable once: "There was a certain football player who forgot his helmet and then starting talking supply-side theory."

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