The Dark Side: What You Need to Know About Bob Dole

A special Mother Jones series profiling 1996 presidential candidates

Bob Dole's bitter humor has caused him trouble through out his political career. But if Dole succeeds in his quest for the presidency, his nasty streak might be the only thing that will slow Newt Gingrich's conservative revolution.

"Gimme a D! Gimme an O!"

Two floors below the studios of WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire, the Granite Street Bar and Grille is rocking like a frat party on the eve of the big game. Tonight's debate among the Republican candidates for president, the first of the 1996 season, is set to kick off upstairs in a few minutes. The pledges in this room have come to cheer on their man, Bob Dole. The decor is spectacularly hideous: lime green walls, brown-orange carpet, white plastic pool chairs. At the podium, the Senate majority leader is roaring and swaggering like a sloshed campus jock. A comically oversized red, white, and blue tie drapes like a bib over his chest and dangles down below his knees.

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No, this isn't Dole. It's Dole's warm-up act, New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader Jack Barnes. Stone-faced with big, goofy glasses and wavy brown hair, Barnes looks like John Sununu on steroids. He tells his troops to "raise a lot of hell" and boasts that their man will "give a lickin' to those other guys." The grunts hoot their approval. Despite the campaign's reputation for caution, they're the rowdies here. In the mobbed street outside the studio, Dole's brigades, armed with a battery of megaphones, spent the hour before the rally bullying hapless supporters of Phil Gramm and Lamar Alexander.

Yet when Dole arrives, he disappoints the event's pugilistic spirit. The mischievous sparkle of his eyes is lost in a rosy, Reaganesque makeup job. Occasionally, he flashes his trademark wit, using Barnes as his straight man ("Did you have to buy that tie?... Well, we'll use it in the inaugural") and mocking his own preoccupation with New Hampshire ("Haven't been here since Monday. Won't be back until tomorrow"). But Dole refuses to turn his tart tongue on his rivals. His only negative quip concerns negativism itself: "President Clinton's already decided Halloween started last week. He scares a different group every day." Then, as though jerking the leash on his inner Doberman, Dole quickly adds, "Well, I don't want to say anything about that."

The hell he doesn't. Like the rest of his monologue, Dole's disclaimer reeks of irony. He'd like nothing more than to spend the next hour puncturing his competitors' ploys and pieties. But after two previous presidential campaigns in which his "dark side" got him into trouble, Dole is determined to be warm and sunny this time around.

That's a pity, because Dole's sunny side is prone to accommodating his allies and sponsors. His dark side, by contrast, is prone to skepticism, umbrage, and defiance. God help the politician who provokes Dole's dark side. Just ask Bill Clinton. Arm in arm with House Speaker Newt

Gingrich, Dole is doing everything possible to destroy Clinton's presidency. But if Dole were to capture the White House, he wouldn't have Clinton to kick around any more. The only remaining agenda would be Gingrich's doctrinaire counterrevolution. Would Dole continue to go along with that agenda? Or would his dark side turn against it?

The legend of Dole's dark side is as old as Mother Jones. In 1976, as President Ford's running mate, he blamed the deaths and injuries of 1.7 million American soldiers on "Democrat wars." He derided Jimmy Carter as "Southern-fried McGovern." Running for president in 1988, he told Vice President Bush, on live national television, to "stop lying about my record." He dismissed Bush as "a qualified loser" and ordered a sidewalk heckler to "get back in your cave."

Dole's anger wouldn't seem so dark if his appearance weren't so menacing. His left eyebrow hangs thick and low, so that when he tilts his head down and gazes forward, a dark pupil floats up to the shaggy ridge, glaring out of the hollow of its socket. His gravelly voice, an uninflected baritone, churns like a chain saw in low gear. His delivery style is a vicious deadpan. After firing off a volley, his lips, instead of curling into a kidding smile, hang open humorlessly and then swing shut like the torpedo door of a submarine.

Dole's advisers think the key to winning the presidential race is to smother his dark side. They've coached him to smile more. In his 1996 campaign, Dole is "better balanced within himself," says longtime friend and adviser David Keene. "The first big bump in the road was this Iowa straw poll [in which Phil Gramm unexpectedly tied Dole], and he handled that pretty well. In '88 he might have eaten the carpet and then blown up the headquarters."

But the dirty little secret about Dole's dark side is that, for all its brutality, it generally speaks the truth. "He is an old-style politician in the sense that he believes everybody's supposed to be honorable," explains Keene. "For example, his outburst in 1988 about 'stop lying about my record.' When he thinks somebody lies, somebody's being dishonest, he gets angry." Dole's pique is also known to flare up at the wealthy and privileged, as well as at radical ideologues such as Gingrich.

The danger of a Dole presidency isn't that he'll turn nasty. The danger is that he'll turn nice. When Dole decides to go along with the crowd, that crowd is generally conservative. He opposes labor laws, consumer protection legislation, medical price controls, environmental regulations, and campaign finance reform. His cultural orthodoxy is paleo-American, not Christian: He gets more exercised about rap music, bilingualism, and self-critical American history textbooks than about abortion. Likewise, on foreign policy, he's an ultrahawk and a frequent ally of Jesse Helms.

But the long list of proposals Dole has attacked says little about what affirmative agenda he might pursue as president. Dole himself seems to have no idea. "I think I fit the job description," he explained to Esquire. To other reporters, he's babbled that he's "been there" and that folks are telling him, "It's your turn." Dole told biographer Richard Ben Cramer, "I'm not goin' anywhere. It's not an agenda. I'm just gonna serve my country." Fuzzy notions like these leave Dole open to outside manipulation. His former speechwriter, George Gilder, summed up Dole's problem years ago in Life magazine: "Living by his reflexes, lacking a clear compass of principle, he is in danger of becoming dependent on the agenda of others."

In the past, the outside agenda that infected Dole generally came from private corporate interests. "There are scores of major Fortune 500 donors he has received money from and helped in various ways over the years," notes Chuck Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. In particular, Dole raises much of his campaign money from agribusiness, most notably from Archer Daniels Midland. Corporations such as ADM profit handsomely from the subsidies, tax breaks, and export deals Dole has orchestrated for grain and ethanol. Dole says he's just looking out for average farmers, but he's also acquired some not-so-average friends. He's been known to relax poolside at his Florida condo with ADM CEO Dwayne Andreas and Washington influence-peddler (and Andreas pal) Bob Strauss. There's no malice in Dole's attention to the concerns of such friends as he shapes federal legislation. He's just being nice.

Dole's only salvation from this insidious agreeableness is his dark side. Though he's now financially secure, Dole grew up poor and, unlike Gramm, nurses an undying grudge against the rich. Slamming shut tax loopholes in 1982, he swore that corporate lobbyists--"Gucci lawyers," he called them--"are going to be barefoot after this is done." Years later, Dole bragged in the New York Times about passing the 1982 bill over the objections of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In the 1988 presidential campaign, his most infamous broadsides were aimed at George Bush's family wealth. And lest anyone think him incapable of defying a corporate sponsor, Dole excoriated Time Warner last year for profiteering from gangsta rap, despite his history of receiving large donations from the company's executives.

Lately, Dole has succumbed more to ideological influences than to financial ones. His entire presidential candidacy has been a parade of naked prostrations to the right. He helped religious conservatives block the nomination of Henry Foster for surgeon general. He renounced affirmative action programs he once supported. He noisily regurgitated a campaign check from a gay Republican group. And he signed a pledge to resist any tax hike. "Most Republican candidates move to the right in a primary," notes Frank Luntz, a consultant to Gingrich and Gramm. "Dole's has been more of a leap than a slide."

Does Dole genuinely believe in these right-wing dogmas? You must be joking. He can't even pass the straight-face test. At the debate in Manchester, as in other forums, Dole manages only a rigor mortis grin and a painfully forced chuckle when asked about his obeisances to the religious right. During his campaign kickoff tour last April, he reverted to his true beliefs ("the American people want...someone who is no extremist") when his TelePrompTer crapped out.

Dole has been deliciously explicit about his cynical prostrations. In July, he told the Republican National Committee, "I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan if that's what you want." When Vice President Gore called him a right-wing extremist last fall, Dole deadpanned, "That may help me in some of the early primary states, but I don't think it's accurate." Discussing GOP Medicare cuts on television, he stops in midsentence to change his verbs, absent-mindedly quoting aloud from a Republican strategy memo: "preserve, strengthen, and protect Medicare, is the words I want to use." Later at a press conference celebrating passage of the Medicare cuts, Dole turns to thank the GOP's leading physician, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee: "We really appreciate your giving us some credibility."

Lately, the inner struggle between Dole's calculation and his candor has produced embarrassing reversals. Not long after Dole promised the National Rifle Association he would roll back the federal ban on assault weapons, an adviser told the Los Angeles Times that Dole had decided the promise "was a big mistake." Then the senator, who in 1988 had chastised his AIDS-bashing rivals before the New Hampshire primary ("There is, you know, such a thing as compassion"), spat out the contribution his campaign had just coaxed from the gay Republicans' group. After stammering through interrogations about the fiasco ("I think probably, uh--that was probably--that I sup--I, I, I support, uh...") and passing the buck ("My campaign sent it back"), he finally conceded that he "didn't agree" with the decision to return the check.

Dole's history almost entitles him to such pandering. He tried the honorable course eight years ago and paid dearly for it. In 1988, when Bush signed a no-tax pledge, Dole refused, protesting that the pledge would prevent him from closing loopholes. Just before the primary, Bush saturated New Hampshire with a TV ad gloating that Dole "won't promise not to raise taxes. And you know what that means." With that, Bush surged past Dole and snatched the nomination. Dole hasn't forgotten. "I did get killed on it," he lamented to the New York Times before signing the pledge this year. "I guess you don't commit suicide twice."

Ten days after the New Hampshire debate, Dole is on stage in Las Vegas, trying to arouse an audience of Western Republicans. He's thrusting passionately with his index finger, his chain-saw baritone revved up to a fiery tenor. The 1994 Republican takeover of Congress "was like the cavalry riding in," Dole tells the audience, his voice rising and trembling in awe. "And Commander Gingrich was in charge!" Up shoots Dole's good arm, a fist extended skyward as though hoisting a sword on horseback. "And here came Newt, riding to the rescue, all across America!" Dole's eyes are ablaze as he hits his crescendo. The crowd erupts in applause--and laughter. Dole's ardor and their own party loyalty cannot overcome the preposterousness of the image.

Why is Dole debasing himself this way? Kevin Phillips, a leading historian of the GOP, observes, "Dole has an obvious strategy to keep Gingrich and Gramm from having many arguments against him" and thereby "keep the hostility of the right from gelling." Luntz suspects a further motive: "If the revolution fails, the Senate will be blamed.... So it's in his own political interest to go along with Gingrich." For months, the two Republican leaders and their political aides have carefully synchronized their words and deeds. At the height of last fall's budget and tax deliberations, they met each morning behind closed doors to plot strategy, then frequently appeared together before the press.

As Dole and Gingrich collaborated during those weeks, their public body language changed. What began as an awkward navigation exercise between two rival potentates trapped at the same podium blossomed into a beautiful relationship. By the time their budget bills hit the floor in late October, they were finishing each other's sentences like a long-married couple.

Gingrich generally defers to Dole, allowing him to take the podium first. But once Dole says his piece, Gingrich takes over. Dole hangs back like a husband watching his wife work a cocktail party. Gingrich takes the questions, and, even when he offers to let Dole speak, often bounces back to the microphone to pre-empt him. When the two men are asked about their differences, Gingrich hastens to brush aside the nasty question. "We don't want to think negatively," he chides, eyes twinkling. Behind him, Dole smiles agreeably. Where's the old glint of malice? Is the dark side dead?

Don't count on it. These days, Dole is preoccupied with sacking Clinton. Once that's done, he may well turn on his fellow vandal. Dole casts a cold eye on self-styled prophets. Last year, a few months before aiming a Nixonian blast at "intellectual elites," the senator told U.S. News & World Report, "I'm not an intellectual and I think Newt probably borders on that." As for Gingrich's assertion that voters in the 1994 election were sending Congress a message to implement the "Contract With America," Dole scoffed that only 12 percent of them knew what the Contract entailed. "If anybody could tell me precisely what the message was," he told the New York Times, "I'll eat their hat."

Above all, Dole despises the neo-Republican fantasy that tax cuts will help balance the budget. "The good news is that a busload of supply-side economists went over a cliff, and everybody was killed," Dole often joked during the Reagan years. "The bad news is that two seats were empty." After the 1984 Republican convention, when Gingrich and his allies rammed a no-new-taxes pledge through the platform committee, Dole fumed to Time magazine that "we've lost our way." Three months later, when Dole was elected Senate majority leader, Gingrich branded him "the tax collector for the welfare state." That aspersion is often recalled these days, but Dole's comments are forgotten: While the impotent House Republicans were free to indulge in anti-tax posturing, Dole snapped, the governing Senate Republicans were obliged to be "responsible."

Dole never came around to Gingrich's rosy view of tax cuts. In 1990, he helped fashion the package of tax hikes and budget cuts that betrayed Bush's no-new-taxes pledge. Gingrich spurned the package, and Bush eventually repudiated it, but Dole won't budge. "I didn't think it was all that bad," he repeated to the Washington Post last year. Dole wants to slash taxes, but not without equal budget cuts. Last fall, Gingrich and Gramm went ballistic when Dole, with typical agnosticism, conceded that Congress might trim the $245 billion GOP tax cut. Dole quickly retracted his heresy but continued to act up in church. In Senate hearings, he chided his colleagues for rolling back taxes too far in 1981, and he made fun of their meaningless pledge to "lock up" the windfall from this year's Medicare cuts to separate it from their tax rebates.

Dole's old admonition to Gingrich about being tempered by the responsibility of governing will become particularly salient if Dole becomes president. Dole is reflexively negative. Gingrich likes to floor the accelerator of change; Dole likes to tap the brake. Dole did such a job of sabotage on Clinton's boldest initiatives--economic stimulus, deficit reduction, health care reform--that critics anointed him "Dr. Gridlock." Democrats discounted his motives as purely partisan, but in fact, Dole has always tried to subvert radical proposals, even when they came from the Reagan White House (see "On the Record," page 63).

Like Reagan, Gingrich exceeds Dole's notion of conservatism. While Gingrich hails the House Republican freshmen as "a third party," Dole remains faithful to the second party, the Grand Old Party that occupied the White House when Dole arrived in Washington, in the person of Dole's idol, Dwight Eisenhower. "I'm a conservative, not right-wing," Dole stipulated to USA Today just before launching his current presidential campaign. To Dole, that means taking things slowly and leaving most decisions to states, cities, and towns. "Midwesterners by their nature are not revolutionary," says Dole adviser Keene. "He has been around a long time, and he's seen the best of intentions go down the chute because of unintended consequences. So he tends to be less willing to remake the world on a sheet of paper than are a lot of these people."

If Dole decided to hit the brakes on Gingrich's revolution, he might be tough to override. Unlike Clinton, Dole doesn't need to be loved, so he's less susceptible to pressure. At 72, ripe with a lifetime of war and political leadership, he has stature and authority. Gingrich's best bet would be to stack Dole's Cabinet with his own people; but even if Gingrich succeeded in that, Dole wouldn't run the White House as loosely as Reagan did. Dole is a notorious workaholic and an incorrigible micromanager who trusts no one and seldom heeds the counsel of his aides. Last year, GOP hard-liners inserted their own man, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), as Dole's deputy in the Senate. So far, there's little evidence that Dole has delegated much authority to Lott.

Gingrich's strategists, following their boss' lead, refuse to speak ill of Dole. But they can't hide their worry that Dole may betray them. "A revolution is led by revolutionaries, by people with a fervor that is deep and crystal clear. I don't know anyone who would use those words to describe Bob Dole's vision," says Luntz. "I don't know where he really stands on affirmative action. I don't know where he really stands on assault weapons. I don't know where he really stands on taxes. I don't know where he really stands on Reaganomics. I don't know because he has stood in several places.... And that is why a number of conservatives have chosen not to support him."

Linda DiVall, who polls for Gingrich and Gramm, shares that doubt. "There already are many people who are asking themselves, 'What's going on in the Senate? How come they're blocking the progress of the Republican revolution?' The ultimate question that Bob Dole will be confronted with is whether people really agree that he is going to continue that revolution with Newt Gingrich or not."

Kevin Phillips suspects Dole is too tired and constrained by the party's rightward shift to resist Gingrich. But if he were finally elevated above the speaker, "Seventy-three-year-old man or not, that would be a little Geritol for the old Dole.... If the dark side of Bob Dole came into play zapping the dark side of Newt Gingrich, that could be a major triumph of a more serious politics. You shouldn't underestimate with Dole the extent to which he can be colored by disliking somebody. And people like Gingrich...used to be high on his list of dislikes."

Back in 1993, when Bill Clinton assumed control of the national agenda, Bob Dole joked, "The good news is he's getting a honeymoon in Washington. The bad news is that Bob Dole is going to be his chaperone." It turned out to be no joke. Perhaps a President Dole would perform the same service for Newt Gingrich.

William Saletan is a contributing writer to Mother Jones. He is currently writing a book on the politics of abortion.

For more on Dole's policies, read On the Record.

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