Mission without a message

February 22, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- I had my own Dole Moment a week before the New Hampshire primary. A student I'd assigned to produce a 90-second commentary in support of a designated presidential candidate stood up to do her best for the man from Kansas.

She described him as ''an American of modest beginnings who has seen his own bad fortune get worse.'' This was the case for Senator Dole.

Of course, she was describing his origins in dust-bowl Kansas and his war wounds -- not his whole life. But it was a line that resonated with the soberness of this campaign. A turn of phrase that suits the man's own dark wit.

Life never promised Bob Dole the Rose Garden. From the very beginning, this ''front-runner's'' campaign for the Republican nomination has been bathed in the aura of his fatalism, his count-on-nothing-ism.

Maybe this was the lifelong after-effect of the crippling wound that came just two weeks before the end of the war in Italy. Maybe it was baggage from failed presidential campaigns over the past 20 years. But a grayness has hung over Senator Dole and his rallies like a winter New Hampshire sky.

Now in the aftermath of the disappointing second-place finish in New Hampshire, he has offered another Dole Moment: ''Everyone who knows Bob Dole knows things haven't come easy for me.''

Every presidential campaign has its winners and losers, and its human stories. This year's melo- drama doesn't revolve around Lamar Alexander's plaid-shirt campaign or the anger of Pat Buchanan whose ''new ideas'' have not even caught up to Darwin.

''Final mission''

The story that captures the human emotions is Bob Dole on a self-described ''final mission'' -- the last warrior of his generation still running, or slogging, for the presidency.

In the words of the computer generation, Senator Dole has become everyone's default candidate. He is the ''someone'' against whom they look for the ''else.''

More than that, this Senate leader cannot make voters understand why he is still on the quest for the presidency at 72 years old. What is this mission without a message? Is it sheer habit or tenacity, die-hard ambition or the need to win after so many losses?

We cannot use the word ''old'' in this country without it sounding like a pejorative. Lamar Alexander talks in euphemisms of old ideas, not old men, saying ''He's of one generation, I'm of another.'' Pat Buchanan talks of Mr. Dole's ''declining years'' and the politics of ''yesterday.'' A third of the voters in New Hampshire also said that his age was a negative factor. It was a negative unmitigated by any positive sense of what he wants to do in the White House.

For his own part, the senior candidate tries to sell age as experience. He tells the country that he has been ''tested and tested and tested.'' He presents himself as the man to whom the torch should be passed -- back. ''I thought my generation might have something the country needs right now, someone who knows what made America great,'' he has said, asking the baby-boom generation -- now turning 50 -- to give back the keys to the car.

But in one of the more awkward moments of this drama, the veteran told MTV that ''our generation has a lot of juice left.'' And with uncomfortable regularity he has undercut his own promise of senior steadiness and experience by trying on a series of new hip messages to appeal to the young.

Like a dignified elder appearing in a gold chain and open shirt, he has repeatedly dressed himself in the latest political fashion. The most ill-fitting garment for this establishment figure is that of an economic populist. ''This may be the best of times for Wall Street,'' he said more than once, ''But . . . they are also the worst of times for many who live and work on Main Street.'' Worse than the Depression of his childhood?

Bob Dole plays these campaign scenes like a man out of time, and date. He's a politician who believes in seniority in an era when the voters are searching for new faces. He's a private man forced to tell his life story in an up-close-and-personal age. A proud man forced to tell voters ''I have good genes and good health.''

Watching this man still trying to make CEO at 72 is the stuff of drama. An old soldier and leader is running dutifully, joylessly for president. He's campaigning for no apparent reason except that president is the next rung on a ladder he can't stop climbing. No, it's not a good Dole Moment.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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