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She was first to love that Bob, but Dole’s first wife is happy to be out of political life

Jodi Enda Knight-Ridder

From a paleblue wingback chair in her tranquil townhouse living room, Phyllis Macey ponders the possibility she could have lived in the White House, hosted formal dinners in the State Dining Room, thrown grand dances in the East Room, laid claim to the title once held by Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy.

Delicately drawing on her Virginia Slims Luxury Light, Macey hastily rejects the notion.

“The thought of being first lady - no thank you,” says the former Mrs. Bob Dole. “I just wouldn’t be interested.”

As the man who was her husband for nearly a quarter-century secured the Republican presidential nomination, Macey watched with a sense of pride, understanding and relief. Pride because, after all, she helped him get started in Washington 35 years ago; understanding because she recognizes his singular determination; relief because she no longer has to share it.

“I’d hate to be in Elizabeth’s shoes,” she says of Dole’s current, and more famous, wife.

Now married to her high-school sweetheart after getting reacquainted at a 50th reunion four years ago, an ebullient Macey offered a charitable assessment of Dole during a recent interview.

“I think he’s the best candidate, myself,” she says of the Senate majority leader, the father of her only child.

Though they’ve been divorced 24 years - for a few months longer than they were married - Macey shares a history with Dole that provides her with an insight to his character and motivation that few voters have.

That a 72-year-old war hero, already one of the most powerful men in the nation, would sacrifice what could be a serene retirement for the ardor of the presidency is perplexing to many voters. But not to Macey.

“It all goes back to how he had to recuperate from such severe injuries,” says Macey, referring to the near-fatal gunshots that ripped through Dole 51 years ago in Italy, temporarily paralyzing him and rendering his right arm permanently useless.

His 39-month rehabilitation led to their meeting at an Army hospital.

“I think that the fact that he had the drive he did to recuperate from his physical condition is why he has the drive today,” Macey says. “I think it comes from being physically handicapped. … I don’t think people understand what it took for him to come back from being paralyzed from the neck down.”

Army doctors had sent Dole home to Kansas to die. But the 22-year-old former star in football, basketball and track refused to let go. There were several close calls, and he lost a kidney.

But eventually the paralysis receded and he struggled to relearn rudimentary tasks, such as eating, getting dressed, going to the bathroom.

He designed his own physical therapy, asking a friend to make a lead cast to weigh down his right arm, and having his father tether pulleys to the garage so he could build up strength.

Following several operations, Dole had nearly won his fight over his body when Phyllis Holden spotted him across the cafeteria at Percy Jones Army Medical Center in March 1948. He stood out, she says, because he was handsome, with dark, penetrating eyes and shiny hair - and because his right arm was up in a sling.

As an occupational therapist, she moved to Battle Creek, Mich., to work in the hospital’s psychiatric ward. After breaking up with Ben Macey from her New Hampshire high school, she became engaged to a man who had been severely infected with malaria while fighting on Guadalcanal.

But that relationship fell apart, and Phyllis Holden was making a new life for herself.

Then came Bob Dole. A few weeks after she eyed him in the cafeteria, Dole spied Phyllis at a party in the Officers’ Club. Now free of the sling, he asked her to dance.

“I just thought he was real nice-looking and he was very friendly,” she recalls. “Because I was an occupational therapist, I didn’t pay attention to handicaps the way (other) people do.”

But her mother paid attention, and she urged Phyllis to break up with the man she called a “lame duck.” Phyllis ignored her, and three months after their first dance, they were married in a church in Concord, N.H.

For a short time, they moved to Russell, Kan., the tiny town where Bobby Joe Dole grew up and where friends tossed nickels into a cigar box to pay for his hospitalization after World War II.

It was a poor Dust Bowl town ravaged by the Depression, and it had none of the inherent charm of hamlets in New Hampshire.

But the people were warm and welcoming, and Phyllis Dole immediately felt at home. She developed a close relationship with her mother-in-law, Bina - though she always called the elder woman “Mrs. Dole” - and made friends easily.

And she was good for Dole. She figured out he could look normal if he wore a pad beneath his T-shirts to conceal his badly damaged right shoulder. She made him feel normal by asking restaurant workers to cut up his food in the kitchen so she wouldn’t have to do it in public.

“I just figured he was normal,” she says now.

Before long, Dole decided to finish a college education interrupted by the war and to pursue a law degree. Because he couldn’t write very well - Dole had been right-handed before his injury - he used a large, primitive tape recorder to preserve lectures. He dictated his bar-exam answers to Phyllis, who wrote them down.

While he was in law school at Washburn University in Topeka, Dole entered politics, winning a seat in the state Legislature. To this day, Phyllis Macey isn’t sure how it happened.

“He made his own decisions,” she says. “We didn’t discuss things.”

The pattern held when Dole decided to return to Russell and run for county attorney and, in 1960, for Congress. By then, the couple’s daughter, Robin, was 6. Phyllis Dole threw herself into her husband’s campaigns, sewing felt skirts that said “Dolls for Dole,” designing Dole campaign buttons, painting Dole neckties and spooning out pineapple juice to give voters a palatable reminder of his name.

For the first few years, the family drove back and forth between Russell and Washington, keeping homes in both places. Once, their dog died on the trip west.

Washington, Macey says, “was kind of scary for me.” She tried to fit in by joining the congressional wives’ club and leading Robin’s Girl Scout troop. She enjoyed dinners at the White House and still has the engraved matchbook used by President Nixon to light her cigarette.

But politics held only a marginal interest for her. In 1968, Dole was elected to the Senate and, as time went on, his wife saw less and less of him.

Their relationship worsened in 1971 when President Nixon named Dole chairman of the Republican National Committee. To keep from waking his wife and daughter when he came home from work late at night, Dole began sleeping in the finished basement of their suburban Virginia house.

“He wasn’t a good husband the last couple years because he was never home,” his former wife says.

Still, Macey says, she had “no clue” they had serious problems - until the night Dole announced simply: “I want out.”

They were divorced Jan. 11, 1972, the day after her 48th birthday.

“He wanted out - and that was it,” Macey says as she fingers the diamond rings on her left hand. “I think a lot of people wonder why we’ve remained so friendly. Nobody thinks - we share a daughter.”

Despite the abrupt end to their marriage, Macey speaks tenderly of Dole, saying he was a good father to Robin, who now campaigns on his behalf. Five years after their divorce, Dole went to the funeral of his ex-wife’s second husband, Lon Buzick; he attended her mother’s funeral in 1992.

A campaign spokeswoman for Dole said the senator would not comment on his previous marriage.

Now retired from the occupational therapy job that she took here following the divorce, Macey spends her days painting, adorning sweat shirts with the cross-stitched faces of her two Himalayan cats, arranging the rows upon rows of antique glass that ornament her townhouse, and savoring time with her long-lost love, Ben Macey.

And while Dole never fully explained why he wanted the divorce, Macey says she is “thankful” that he did.

“I’ve got a much better life this way,” says the former Mrs. Dole. “I should never have let Ben get away the first time.”

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