Bob Dole's Scars of Battle

April 11, 1995

"Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau accused Sen. Bob Dole of invoking his war wounds in his presidential campaign. This prompted former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a frequent critic of Senator Dole's policies, to respond, "In the 35 years that we have known each other, and been in daily contact for much of that time, I have never seen Bob Dole attempt to exploit his scars of battle." Others who know Senator Dole say the same thing.

But the senator's World War II heroism and suffering are in fact one of the distinguishing characteristics of his last presidential campaign, which he formally began yesterday. For he alone among the Republican and Democratic candidates and potential candidates is old enough to have been part of the United States' "good war." Most of his opponents for the nomination did not serve their country in uniform at all, in whatever conflict their generation confronted. That may not be an issue for some voters, but for many it will be. Senator Dole's scars of battle, though uninvoked, will be a plus for him with them.

However, Senator Dole has scars of political combat, too, and these may not be pluses. He has run for the nomination and lost twice, in 1980 and 1988. In 1976, as the Republican nominee for vice president, his bitter, biting broadsides at Democrats helped cost his ticket the election. The memory of all that is against him. So, too, is his age. He will be 73 in 1996, older than Ronald Reagan in 1980 (and older than Dwight Eisenhower in 1969, the year he left the presidency after two terms).

Senator Dole's position of leadership is a political war wound, too. It is hard to run for president when you are Senate majority or minority leader. Lyndon Johnson found that out in 1960. So did Howard Baker in 1980. Indeed, one reason Senator Dole failed in 1988 is that as a legislative leader he knew there had to be give and take and flexibility in the political process and indicated as much on the campaign trail. This allowed George Bush to paint him as unreliable on taxes and other hot-button issues. Sen. Phil Gramm has already started criticizing Senator Dole along these lines. Finally, his tenure in Congress, 34 years, is perhaps his most disabling scar. Much of the public is in the mood for newer, younger leadership, brash rather than reflective.

Senator Dole is the best known of the Republican candidates and thus the front-runner, and front-runners usually win in Republican primaries. But for him to win, he must overcome his many losing battles by convincing voters of what is probably true -- his scars are evidence of experiences that have made him more capable to lead his country now than at any time in his past.

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