Nixon Without the Charm
Bob Dole is so short on ideas he doesn't even know why he's running for president.
Eight years ago around this time, Sen. Robert J. Dole's useful political life seemed to be over. He had run for president and in the crucial New Hampshire primary received fewer votes than fringe candidate Lyndon LaRouche. Dole seemed destined to finish out his Senate career as a fairly senior member of the minority party and a historical footnote as President Gerald Ford's acid-tongued 1976 running mate.
Yet by 1982 he had risen, Phoenix-like, from the ashes. The Washington establishment that had once scorned him began viewing Dole with "strange new respect." Haynes Johnson, a Washington Post columnist and liberal bellwether, lauded Dole as "the lion of the moment…praised for his moderation, fairness and bipartisan statesmanship…a potential president."
Even far-left journalists Alexander Cockburn and James Ridgeway of the Village Voice sang his praises as "our kind of guy…emblem of the least repugnant segment of the conventional political landscape: moderate Republicanism…a powerful curb on outre-Reaganism." Like Johnson, they finished off in words that must have been music to Dole's ears: "A true thinking man's dark horse for president."
What happened? By almost any standard, this was a truly remarkable turnaround. From a bitter, acerbic has-been, Bob Dole had become a statesman and leading candidate for president. "The evolution of Robert Dole is the tale of a political outcast who became 'civilized' by Washington," wrote journalists John Fund and Martin Wooster in 1983. "The old Dole, the politician who desperately yearned to be Spiro Agnew without the tact, has disappeared." The story of how he made this transition—largely by selling out Republican principles via the largest peacetime tax increase in history coupled with strong support for a massive Social Security tax hike—is that of a modern-day political Faust.
Robert Dole originally planned a medical career, but his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. Leading an infantry platoon in Italy weeks before the war ended, Lieutenant Dole charged a German machine gun nest and was badly wounded in the right arm and upper chest. A star basketball and football player who stood a solid 6'3″ tall and weighed 190 pounds before the war, Dole shrank to 120 pounds during the two years he spent in hospitals undergoing painful physical therapy. To this day, he extends a left hand in greeting and it is a chore even to dress himself every morning.
Forced to abandon his dreams of becoming a doctor, Dole followed many other veterans on the GI Bill into the crowded law schools. His war record coupled with his natural ambition was enough to land him in the Kansas state legislature even before he graduated. Two years later he was the local district attorney and in 1960 a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dole attracted little attention during his four terms in Congress, sticking mostly to the back benches and concerning himself primarily with keeping wheat subsidies as high as possible. As he began to contemplate the next step in his career, however, he made efforts to become more visible.
In 1967, for instance, he introduced legislation that he promised would cure "crimes of violence, crimes of wanton destruction, organized crime, riots, rowdyism, juvenile delinquency and immorality." His idea was to make possession of even a single barbiturate or amphetamine pill without a prescription punishable by a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Dole's great idea was quietly forgotten.
A year later, Dole won his Senate seat with little difficulty. And now, yearning to be a "national figure," he decided to jump out front as President Richard Nixon's chief apologist.
In a series of mostly unsolicited defenses, he tagged Nixon's critics "left-leaning marshmallows." Anyone who opposed Nixon's plans for government subsidies to build a supersonic transport plane was "unpatriotic." When Maine Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie questioned the FBI's role in domestic surveillance of antiwar groups, Dole branded this attitude "Muskiesh" and said that any further doubts about this program would only serve to undermine "public confidence in law enforcement."
After the 1970 congressional elections, Nixon rewarded his Sir Galahad by appointing him chairman of the Republican National Committee, where Dole carried on his crusade with renewed vigor. Although he maintained that "Watergate happened on my night off," he vigorously defended Nixon against charges of wrongdoing. He maneuvered to block the formation of the Senate Watergate Committee, condemning "the brazen manner in which, without benefit of clergy, the Washington Post has set up housekeeping with the McGovern campaign."
Although Dole greatly toned down his defense as the evidence against Nixon mounted, that did not prevent him from having a tough race in 1974. His opponent, Rep. William Roy, M.D., was making headway by painting Dole as a willing and able handmaiden of the disgraced Nixon White House. With support evaporating, Dole launched into a patented tirade in the final weeks of the campaign, charging Roy with being an unrepentant abortionist. The last-minute emotional appeal worked: Dole squeaked by with just a few hundred votes to spare.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford, concerned that he suffered from a "nice guy" image and forced to appease the large number of Republicans who supported Ronald Reagan, tapped Dole as the reliable hatchet man. He did not disappoint.
While capable of telling jokes about the Watergate tapes ("Thank God when I was in the Oval Office I only nodded"), by and large Dole eschewed issues and tried to get by on one-liners and caustic jokes. He called Jimmy Carter "Southern fried McGovern" and said that AFL-CIO President George Meany was "probably Mondale's makeup man."
The nadir was undoubtedly reached during the October debate with fellow vice presidential nominee Walter Mondale. Fed up with Mondale's efforts to tar the GOP as the party of Watergate, Dole shot back that 1.6 million American boys had died or been wounded in "Democrat wars" in the 20th century. Given the circumstances of his own wounding, Dole's bitterness was perhaps somewhat easier to understand, but few people pause for studied reflection during a presidential campaign. The ticket lost by a close margin, and many of Ford's supporters lost no time in hinting loudly that Dole and his barbed tongue were responsible. "Dole," in the immortal assessment of former Sen. William Saxbe, "couldn't sell beer on a troop ship."
Losing the election and being assigned a big share of the blame was painful for Dole. It was also the catalyst that persuaded him to change his image.
"When you lose and come that close, it's hard," he recalled in an interview later. "You just sort of sit back and reflect for awhile on whether you have to change your direction or change attitudes or change perceptions. Because we came out of that election viewed by many in the press as the hatchet man, the tough guy. And you don't want that image.…So you go through a rehab process."
He took those words seriously. His voting record began leaning perceptibly liberal. Now he was supporting the CETA jobs program, had kind words for national health insurance, and voted for the Chrysler bailout. He even teamed up with Sen. George McGovern to vastly expand the food stamp program, an idea he had initially voted against in 1964 until somebody put a bug in his ear about how great it would be for the farmers. He even went so far as to propose a cabinet-level Department of Food whose secretary would act as a "food czar."
It wasn't all public policy lurches, though. Dole also sought professional help from Dorothy Sarnoff, a well-known New York image consultant. She says that Dole came to her telling of his intense desire to be president and his realization that the "old Dole" couldn't cut it. She taught him not to slouch over a speaking podium trying to hide his wounded arm, thereby calling attention to it. She also curbed his cutting sense of humor.
"I changed him," Sarnoff boasts. "He was the best student I ever had. A nice, nice man. I took away his snide."
But the message about the New Dole apparently didn't make it through to the heartland in time for the 1980 presidential campaign. Despite polls showing he had high name recognition, Dole just couldn't get his act together. He went through at least five campaign managers and couldn't seem to excite anyone with the slogan, "If you're looking for a younger Ronald Reagan, here I am."
In Iowa, a farm state right next to Kansas, the farmers showed their gratitude for all he had done for them by giving him just 2 percent of the vote. New Hampshire was even worse. He finished way down the list with only 607 votes out of 220,000 cast. Rejected once again, Dole ignominiously withdrew from the race and returned to the Kansas prairies where he was still loved to seek a third Senate term. He seemed condemned to obscurity.
But then Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Republicans took control of the Senate, and Dole was literally overnight propelled into the chair of the all-powerful tax-writing Finance Committee. Suddenly, history beckoned Bob Dole.
His first task was to enact into law President Reagan's unprecedented three-year tax-rate reduction package. He didn't bother to hide his skepticism about supply-side economics, endorsing it only by saying, "The president deserves a chance." He did reduce the cut from 30 percent to 25. He also stayed in the background when it came time to cut the federal budget during Reagan's first year.
But when the biggest federal deficits in history loomed and the country began sliding into a recession, Dole saw his chance and never looked back. In 1982, he began to float trial balloons about a tax increase, disguising it under various pseudonyms such as "revenue enhancement" and "tax reform." He proposed granting even more sweeping powers of investigation to the already heavily armed IRS, along with a corporate "minimum tax" and nickel-and-dime increases in taxes on cigarettes, liquor, airline tickets, telephone calls, and gasoline.
When the House balked, preferring to put the onus for tax increases on the GOP, Dole obliged them, ignored the constitutional requirement that revenue bills originate in the House, and wrote his own tax bill. The result was the largest peacetime tax increase in history: a cool $227 billion over five years. But Dole was careful to exempt gasohol producers from increased federal gasoline taxes, thus keeping alive an industry that could not survive without massive taxpayer subsidies, an industry that was also a lucrative source of campaign contributions for you-know-who (see sidebar).
While Dole did not play a leading role in "saving" Social Security in 1983, he was a member of the Greenspan Commission. And he of course signed off on its recommendation—surprise, surprise—that payroll taxes be raised.
Did all of this satisfy him? No way. When the deficit stubbornly refused to disappear as predicted when the tax increases cut in, Dole came up with a novel solution: more taxes. The Finance Committee chairman was now waving around a proposal for another $20- or $25-billion increase.
One provision particularly rankled the public, however, and that was proposed withholding of taxes on interest and dividend income. While Dole maintained that the whole idea was just to nab a few tax cheats, it actually was to give Uncle Sam interest-free use of honest taxpayers' money. Dole apparently didn't realize that when you mess with people's bank accounts, you are playing with fire.
Bankers posted signs at teller windows informing customers how Bob Dole intended to reach into the vault in the dark of night and make off with their money. Banks conveniently provided handy postcards they could mail and register their protest. Millions did, and soon members of Congress began deserting the idea in droves.
Dole frothed at the mouth, charging the bankers with "waging a campaign of deception" against the innocent American people. "To listen to Bob Dole, you'd think Satan himself was behind the campaign," said Rep. Norm D'Amours (D–N.H.). Despite Dole's frantic efforts at resuscitation, the corpse wouldn't move and withholding was repealed.
This momentary setback, however, hardly nicked the rapid rise of Dole's stock in Washington. Indeed, it may even have helped. The liberal Republican Ripon Society decided to let bygones be bygones and named him Man of the Year for 1982. Former Democratic National Chairman Robert Strauss declared that Dole had "grown more than anybody in this town." Dole was clearly flattered by the attention. "Bob Dole hasn't changed, he's been noticed," was his own assessment.
What was more likely was that the liberal establishment and entrenched interests inside the Washington beltway noticed that Bob Dole was now a powerful ally in opposition to "Reaganomics" and any effort to trim the welfare state. From now on, Dole would aim his pitch primarily at this audience, not the "silent majority" in the American heartland he sought to represent in the early 1970s. The big payoff came in January 1985 when Dole was elected to succeed Howard Baker as Senate majority leader, making him Ronald Reagan's only real rival for power in the Republican Party.
In his new position, Dole was careful to rebuild his exceedingly frayed ties with the right, who would be critical in any presidential contest. At a meeting with New Right point man Paul Weyrich and other conservative leaders, Dole took notes on what legislation they wanted passed and wasted no time: he immediately pushed through a loosening of federal restrictions on gun ownership and repeal of the Clark Amendment forbidding U.S. aid to the anti-Communist Angolan freedom fighters under Jonas Savimbi.
Dole continued to prate on about the deficit (and still does so in his presidential campaign), but that didn't stop him in 1985 from engineering far and away the biggest farm subsidy bill in U.S. history, which added billions to that same deficit. He was at best lukewarm about the 1986 tax reform bill, the most sweeping such measure in over three decades and one that dropped the top income tax rate to 28 percent and got nearly six million working poor people off the tax rolls.
One of the disturbing constants in Dole's record is his almost complete indifference to issues or ideas, which makes him highly vulnerable to shifts in the political climate or to other people's agendas. Conservative writer George Gilder, Dole's speechwriter during the 1976 campaign, has noted this.
"Dole doesn't read any more than he has to," Gilder reports. "When I worked for Dole, there seemed nothing in Dole's psychology so deep as his resistance to intellectual ideas, strategic themes, or inspirational rhetoric. He was bored with what he called the 'ish-shoes.'"
Dole freely admits that he usually only "glances" at what is put before him and doesn't have the discipline actually to sit down and read books. This tendency is lampooned by opponent Jack Kemp, who jokes: "Dole's library burned down the other day. Both books were destroyed, and he hadn't even finished coloring one of them."
In his lack of commitment to new ideas in public policy, Dole is very reminiscent of Richard Nixon, who gyrated between liberalism and conservatism on domestic issues as suited his political purpose. This has caused some to murmur that Dole is "Nixon without the charm."
In his presidential campaign, Dole is playing to what he believes is his strong suit: experience and leadership. With 37 years in politics at every level, he's got plenty of the former. But he seems to forget that America's historic great leaders—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt—didn't spend a great deal of time talking about it. They merely practiced it and let people draw their own conclusions.
He also seems sensitive about his reputation as a relentless taxer, noting in his stump speech that "I don't believe in taxing everything you make." While vowing that he doesn't want to increase income taxes, he quickly adds that there are unspecified "other sources" of revenue.
Dole's propensity for making mistakes at critical moments became apparent once more as the Republican race started to look like a two-man contest between himself and Bush. When President Reagan signed the INF treaty, Dole sought to placate the antitreaty GOP right by expressing skepticism. That lasted barely a week before the pressure became too great and, at Reagan's side in the White House, he declared himself for the treaty—angering the right and disappointing the moderates for not doing it sooner.
Under the pressure of the campaign, as some had predicted, signs of the "old Dole" emerged. In January, Dole persisted in pressing Bush about what advice he had offered President Reagan in the Iran-Contra affair, much to the chagrin of his fellow Republicans, who thought Dole was just handing the Democrats more ammunition. All this despite the fact that Dole has carefully avoided saying whether he agrees with the majority (Democratic) or minority (Republican) report on the affair.
While he has tried to keep his tongue under control, it doesn't always work. Back from a trip to Nicaragua, he said there was nothing wrong down there that a little "three-day invasion" wouldn't fix. His "snide" may yet.get him in trouble again.
Meanwhile, without any real motivating force besides being the next logical career move for him, he is hard-pressed to come up with an explanation for why he is running. He seems to be following Lyndon Johnson's 1960 formula of bragging that he alone among the candidates knows how to cut a cloakroom deal.
It's hard to come up with a less inspiring platform to offer the American people. Americans have historically sought an inspiring commander who can stand on the bridge and steer the ship, not the guy who knows how every gear in the engine room meshes with every other, important as that is. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter were both technocratic engineers by profession and both were abysmal presidents rejected by the voters.
Dole is very much a part of government and government is a part of him. In debates with other Republican candidates he has called for a cease-fire in the war on Big Government and surrender in trying to make it shrink. "The government exists. We're not going to get rid of it," he snapped at one point. He said Republicans should concentrate on trying to make it work better.
That's hardly an inspiring call to action. If your agenda includes serious effort to reduce the size of the intrusive state, Bob Dole is clearly not your man.
John A. Barnes is deputy editorial page editor of the Detroit News.
The Andreas Fault
The gasohol industry has no better friend on Capitol Hill than the senior senator from Kansas. The man who has made millions upon millions of dollars off this relationship is Dwayne Andreas, chairman of the Archer Daniels Midland Corp., of Decatur, Illinois.
As reported by Edward Pound of the Wall Street Journal and Warren Brookes of the Detroit News, ADM is without question one of the nation's leading corporate welfare queens. One estimate is that out of ADM's $5.2 billion in 1986 revenue, no less than $1.3 billion can be traced to corn and gasohol subsidies. With more than 50 percent of the market, ADM is far and away the nation's leading producer of corn-distilled ethanol, which is mixed with gasoline to form gasohol. Only the federal tax subsidies and import tariffs backed by Sen. Robert Dole make this business profitable.
Over the last eight years, Andreas, his family, and friends have contributed a total of $130,000 to Dole and his various campaigns. Bob Dole has jetted around the nation in Andreas's corporate plane. And Elizabeth Dole recently purchased a Florida condominium—for $150,000, half its market value—in a building that Andreas owns.
Dole says his support of gasohol predates his friendship with Andreas by more than a decade. "Dwayne Andreas may benefit," Dole has said, "but not because of any action Bob Dole sneaked through Congress."
But there's no question that ethanol production didn't take off until Dole and some farm state colleagues got busy in the late 1970s, when only 10 million gallons were produced annually. In 1978, Dole succeeded in passing a bill largely exempting ethanol from the federal gasoline tax.
Ethanol production totaled about 800 million gallons in 1987—500 million from ADM—estimates Frederick Potter of Information Resources Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm. Potter pegs ADM's pretax profit on ethanol production at $150 million. Without the exemption, he says, ADM would lose money. But, we can be sure, Bob Dole won't let that happen.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Nixon Without the Charm".