Bob Dole: A Poignant, Human Story

THURSDAY, NOV. 7, 1996

Finally, it is over.

The last 96 hours of Bob Dole’s electoral life were the decathlon event of sleep deprivation. There was a do-or-die frenzy about the grand finale that left hardly a tarmac untouched. He wore out the tires on his plane and the reporters in his entourage, and he sorely tested his own vocal cords.

Then, late Tuesday night, still working on adrenalin and Throat Calm, Bob Dole entered the feisty ballroom atmosphere of a defeated campaign. This most inarticulate of candidates looked at the crowd and began speaking in the only tongue in which he is eloquent: the language of plain words.

“I was thinking on the way down the elevator,” he said, “tomorrow will be the first time in my life that I don’t have anything to do.”

Sometimes, it seems there is nothing in American life over so fast as a campaign. Or a candidacy. One day, a contender is the center of a swirling mass of media, Secret Service agents, aides, supporters. The next day, he unpacks his own bags.

The television commentators listening to Dole’s remarks used the same word to describe them: “poignant.” In some ways, poignancy has been the emotional undertow of this elder’s race for the presidency, making Dole the most human story of this campaign.

Five months ago, when Dole announced his resignation from the Senate, he described his campaign for the presidency in terms of a mythic heroic quest. “I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the people,” he said, “and nowhere to go but the White House or home.”

Even then, he framed the quest in terms of loss. “I leave behind all the trappings of power and all comfort and all security.”

There were many who wondered why a man in his 70s, a round peg in the round hole of the Senate leadership, would risk it all for a last shot at the brass ring. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it “the last crusade of a great warrior.” Others called it a dream he couldn’t relinquish.

But Dole never convinced voters that he wanted something more profound than a personal trophy. At times, it was painful to watch this respected elder strip himself of so much - his reserve, his old beliefs, his sense of privacy and his humor - for his ambition.

It is said that Americans love winners, but the stories that touch us most are often about people in defeat, dealing with the most public of rejections. So the special “poignancy” comes from the image of a man, not unlike others, suddenly forced to shift from full-speed ahead to idle.

Ex-candidates, like ex-presidents of countries and companies, says Jeff Sonnenfeld, director of Emory University’s CEO College and author of “The Hero’s Farewell,” led a life of action. The chief executive officer in pre-emptory retirement, the political lion in winter faces “the trauma of a lot of time, the abyss of insignificance.” Often, he says, these people go through the stages of grief, from denial - “I’m busier than ever” - to, eventually, possibly, acceptance.

There is no role model for ex-politicians, ex-candidates or ex-presidents, any more than there is for former first ladies. Each man makes his own life.

It took a despairing Jimmy Carter nearly two years in Georgia, doing carpentry for therapy, wrestling with wife Rosalynn over their memoirs, before beginning a commitment to mediation.

A restless Lyndon B. Johnson, cut off from the life that had energized him, was miserable writing and ran his ranch as if it were the nation.

After the darkest days, Richard M. Nixon set about methodically and relentlessly to restore his reputation by delving into international affairs.

But some, says Sonnenfeld, are like orchestra leaders without an orchestra.

What will happen to a man like Dole for whom the Senate has been the center of life, a man without hobbies or much love of introspection? A man who is, for the first time in a half-century, neither a candidate nor an elected official?

When the angry campaign words dull and the attacks fade into memory, there well may be a bipartisan role for a man who once wrestled senators into agreement. The president who finished his own final campaign Tuesday may see to that.

But today, “for the first time in my life, I have nothing to do.” In the full glare of the public eye, Bob Dole rolled the dice in the high-risk game called “the White House or home.”

Suddenly, there is poignancy in the word “home.”


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