It makes me tense to watch Bob Dole relax.
I just don’t feel his heart is in it.
He naps. He eats BLT’s. He looks lonely for the well of the Senate.
Dole passed time on vacation in Bal Harbour, Fla., reading “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington,” by Richard Brookhiser. On Wednesday he noted with satisfaction to The Times’s Adam Nagourney that the Revolutionary War hero turned president was a healthy 65-year-old when he left office, in an era when 50 was a long life span.
Brookhiser’s biography breathlessly celebrates Washington’s physique, revealing that the Father of our Country had good quads. “The body is the basic unit of all human intercourse, including politics,” he writes. “Even rulers who are intelligent, prudent, or visionary must make a sensual impact if they are to lead.”
He quotes Thoreau: “It is an interesting question, how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes. Could you, in such a case, tell surely of any company of civilized men which belonged to the most respected class?” Maybe Dole took all this divestiture talk to heart. Or maybe he’s still trying to prove he was not born in a blue suit.
Whatever the reason, he has been showing a little leg on his vacation, lounging on a chaise wearing only a T-shirt and bathing trunks in an Associated Press photo that made a splash when it was published across the country.
Seeing a politician’s thighs is always alarming. Bill Clinton had just blessedly put on long pants for jogging, persuaded by advisers that he would look more mature, when Bob Dole decided to forgo long pants, thinking he would look more youthful.
Some Republicans were so surprised to see the reserved Dole in a sultry pose, they assumed it must have been taken by the kind of telephoto lens that caught Princess Fergie having her toes nibbled.
“Wasn’t that awful?” said a Dole adviser, Lyn Nofziger. “Who in the world let them get in and take that picture? Not only does it show a lot of flesh but, as usual, he’s on the phone and looks about as relaxed as a guy getting ready to be executed. I think you can identify with the common man without being common.”
Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, harkened back to the picture of Richard Nixon strolling on the beach in dress shoes, and asked, “What’s the point of nominating Bob Dole if we can’t go back to Nixonian formality and awkwardness?”
Although not a staged photo op, it was retroactively sanctioned by the candidate himself. A freelance photographer for The AP named Lauren Crigler approached Dole by the pool and pretended she was a tourist getting a few candid snaps. When she took the film back to The AP’s Miami bureau, her supervisor told her she needed permission before the photo could be put on the wire. She returned to Dole’s condo, confessed her ruse and offered him the film. She said he had laughed and told her she could use it.
White House officials sniggered and predicted the photo would hurt their rival. Dole aides fretted privately that the candidate did not look particularly hunky, given the slight gut and square Gomer set of his “Farmland” cap.
The Kansas senator has shown off his gams before as a way to combat the age issue. He was pictured recently on the front page of USA Today, walking on his treadmill in a dress shirt and gym shorts that some mistook for boxers.
Politicians beset by health or age questions have sometimes disrobed for the camera to display robustness. In ‘32, Franklin Roosevelt swam in a pool at Hyde Park. In ‘80, Ronald Reagan did yard work bare-chested.
Once, leaders were fastidious about sartorial dignity. Herbert Hoover dressed for dinner and wore a tie, even when fishing. John Kennedy put on his suit jacket before being photographed in the Oval Office.
But since Clinton instituted the first dress-down, boxers-or-briefs presidency, no one worries much about gravitas or gravity. We can only contemplate the cheesecake shots yet to come in this election.
“If you had Perot posed like Dole,” Nofziger muses, “it might be the first time Americans had ever seen a Martian in shorts.”