Dole Quits US Senate | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Dole Quits US Senate

Predictable Bob Dole springs a surprise. Controlled Bob Dole goes tremulous with emotion. Cryptic Bob Dole utters clear 15-word sentences. Stern Bob Dole smiles quite a bit, even beams.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 27, 1996

Dole Quits US Senate

Predictable Bob Dole springs a surprise. Controlled Bob Dole goes tremulous with emotion. Cryptic Bob Dole utters clear 15-word sentences. Stern Bob Dole smiles quite a bit, even beams. And sedate Bob Dole appears on a public podium in sports coat and Dockers - without a necktie, collar button undone. There is more. Mean Bob Dole, nice: "There are those who say the Republican party is without compassion, without concern, without care. That is not the case. I believe I can honestly stand here and say I've sort of been in the forefront of many of these programs that reach out to the poor, the disadvantaged or the disabled. I understand. Some would say, 'I feel your pain.' I want to cure your pain. I want to make America better."

It happened last week: dull Bob Dole converted overnight into astonishing Bob Dole. Washington is agog over his startling announcement on May 15 that he is not only stepping down as Senate leader but quitting Congress to be a full-time presidential candidate. Excitement pursued dressed-down Dole the next day for a hastily arranged Chicago speech dressed up with a vision that peers beyond party politics. It edged him away from the sterner conservatism rampant among Newt Gingrich Republicans - and resonant in his own recent record. It sought to shunt the new Dole towards the centre of the political spectrum and distinguish him - as a doer instead of a mere talker - from fellow-centrist Bill Clinton, the Democrat author of "I feel your pain." Promised cure-seeker Dole: "We will reach out to people."

Excitement had never been a word attached to Dole - not during more than 35 years in Congress, in two failed runs at the presidential nomination in the 1980s, as the current Senate majority leader or, since the end of March, as the designated Republican challenger for the presidency. Even the day before Dole announced that he would quit the Senate within four weeks, he was roaming the corridors of Congress in a vain attempt to rally enough votes to knock a few cents off the gasoline tax. His presidential campaign was similarly stalled. Opinion polls and critics within his own party were writing him off as a loser six months before the Nov. 5 election. Word circulated around Capitol Hill that Dole was about to make a measured bow to his advisers: he would delegate some of his legislative duties in order to devote more time to campaigning.

A late-April decision to quit the leadership and his seat altogether had been a closely held secret of Dole, his wife Elizabeth, and a handful of party leaders and senior aides. As a result, even close friends were shocked when the lanky Kansan, surrounded by congressional colleagues in his crowded Capitol Hill room, declared: "My time to leave this office has come, and 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."

At times during his four-minute farewell to the Senate, and to a party caucus he has led for more than 11 years, Dole's eyes teared up and his voice quavered. But, assisted by a rare reliance on a teleprompter, he revealed a personally rare capacity for heartfelt oratory. Said Dole, who spent four years in hospital for treatment of Second World War wounds, his right arm and hand still useless and his left hand disabled: "I trust in the hard way, for little has come to me except in the hard way, which is good because we have a hard task ahead of us." But he voiced optimism about his electoral chances. "I have absolute confidence in the victory that to some may seem unattainable," he said. "That is because I have seen victory and I have seen defeat and I know when one is set to give way to the other. And to concentrate upon the campaign, giving all and risking all, I must leave the Congress that I have loved."

In his Chicago speech, he donned a livelier manner. That served to supplant his image as a tired old man (he will be 73 in nine weeks). A CBS poll conducted between the two speeches showed Dole trailing Clinton by 15 percentage points - Clinton at 56 per cent to Dole's 41. But that was narrower than Dole's 25-point lag barely a week earlier. The earlier poll counted only 28 per cent of respondents as ready to vote for him.

Some analysts still rate Dole's own assessment of "a hard time ahead" as an understatement. He may benefit by freeing himself from the risks of pre-election combat with the Democrats in Congress: surveys show that about four in five voters favor a Clinton-proposed minimum wage increase that Republicans resist. The candidate, whose conservative credentials include opposition to abortion, receives a low rating from women voters, organized labor leaders and northern liberals. But by last week's performance, Bob Dole seemed to have shaken off the omens of certain defeat - poised to seize at least an outside chance of turning his challenge to Bill Clinton into a contest.

Maclean's May 27, 1996