Struggling to move from losing to winning lane

April 07, 1995|By Cokie & Steven V. Roberts

Russell, Kansas -- IN LARGE, faded blue letters, the grain elevator in the center of Russell proclaims this to be the hometown of Sen. Bob Dole, and there's no doubt about that. Bob Dole's two sisters still live here. An engine at the volunteer fire department is named for the senator's father, Doran, and for many years the "Dole Building" on Main Street housed the oil-leasing business run by his late brother, Kenny. Across the street is the yellow sandstone courthouse where Bob served eight years as county attorney. In 1976, the local boy was nominated for vice president, and there is a small plaque on the courthouse lawn, marking the spot where Gerald Ford and his running mate launched their failed campaign.

Bob Dole will be back here again later this month, as part of a national tour announcing his third run for the presidency, and that marker in front of the courthouse symbolizes both the strengths and weaknesses of his campaign. Unlike our last two presidents, Bob Dole has a clear idea of who he is and where he is from. But he is hardly a fresh face. It's been more than 34 years since he left here for Washington and almost 19 since his run for vice president. The man from Russell still has to prove that he's right for these times, and the current mood of the country.

No one can accuse Bob Dole of being a country club Republican. His grandfather was a tenant farmer who spent time on welfare. His father quit school young and could barely support his family running the grain elevator and selling cream and eggs. His sister, Norma Jean Steele, recalls: "We ate a lot of beans." Bob Dole says he's the only college graduate in the family and adds: "I'm not an intellectual. I work hard. I think I'm smart, but I think I'm just an ordinary person who's had a lot of breaks and my share of tough luck, too."

An ordinary person, perhaps, but with an extraordinary story. Severely wounded in Italy 50 years ago this month, Bob Dole came home so crippled that his own mother "couldn't tell it was her son," Norma Jean recalls. Day by painful day, over 39 months, he recovered his strength and his confidence. Even now, he will always take time to raise money for the disabled and counsel injured youngsters.

Bob Dole is running as a representative of the World War II generation, and in a sense he is the nostalgia candidate, evoking a mythic time when boys from Kansas and Kentucky, Brooklyn and Boise, fought side by side for their country. That is also the generation that took power after the war, and Bob Dole is clearly running as the candidate of experience, of judgment, of what he calls "adult leadership."

We think Bob Dole has a point, that the country needs the perspective of his generation, that the phrase "professional politician" should be a compliment, not a condemnation. But in the House last week, more than 80 percent of the Republicans voted for term limits, and in many of their speeches derided the whole notion that experience is a virtue in public life. And Bob Dole, in an act of palpable hypocrisy, says he supports term limits for Congress at the same time he is running for president on the basis of his longevity. This contortion recalls George Bush's devastating description of Bob Dole during the 1988 campaign as "Senator Straddle," and points up some of the obstacles facing Russell's favorite son.

Even here, some people wonder whether he's "gone Washington" and lost touch. One of them is farm wife Rita Maupin, having a rare lunch out with a friend from the local bowling league: "Back East, they don't know anything about real farming, and I don't know whether Bob Dole does either, come to think of it." There's also his age -- he'd be 73 on Inauguration Day, the oldest man ever to become president -- and Bob Dole's niece, Nancy Poche, who runs a beauty shop in Russell, is apprehensive: "You see presidents after they get in there and they all age so fast."

Bob Dole and his generation were shaped not just by the war, but by the Depression. His hard childhood seems to have left him a bit pinched, even a bit gloomy when it comes to economics. He calls to mind the late Sen. Robert Taft, a fellow Midwesterner and former Republican leader whose picture hangs in Bob Dole's Capitol office. Taft was known as "Mr. Republican," but he never won his party's nomination, in part because he lacked the buoyancy and optimism of an Eisenhower.

As Bob Dole comes home to launch another campaign, many questions remain. Can he tell the story of his past and still be a man of the future? Can he evoke the virtues of a small Midwestern town and also offer a broad vision of national purpose? Can he run as a pillar of the Establishment while rebellion is in the air? The answers will help determine what the next marker on the courthouse lawn in Russell says about Doran Dole's boy.

Cokie Roberts is a commentator for ABC News. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

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