Robin Dole takes guarded role Daughter: Bob Dole's only child deliberately seeks the shadows while the spotlight shines on her famous father.

Campaign 1996

May 19, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Her voice is a surprise.

First, because it is so deep and husky, older than her 41 years, the kind of voice that goes with a smoke and a Scotch, not a tailored, working-woman wardrobe and a perfect orb of camera-ready hair.

But second, because it is so remarkably unfamiliar.

After Bob Dole's four decades in public life, his repeated presidential campaigns and his just-capped career in Congress, his grown daughter, Robin, who has lived near him in the Washington area almost her entire life, has remained virtually unseen and unheard by the public.

Yet, by all accounts, her life has clearly been informed by her father's political career -- which began the year she was born. Last week, as the candidate delivered his resignation speech, she was by his side, swallowing hard, blinking a lot, trying to "hold on" as she heard her father's voice choke with emotion.

After all, Robin Dole, the gravel-voiced daughter of the Kansas senator and his first wife, Phyllis, has really known her father only as a man defined by the marble halls of the Capitol.

"My father has been in Congress 35 years," she said, in one of her first extended interviews about herself. "That's the majority of my life."

In some ways, it has been a strikingly ordinary life. She was a Girl Scout, a pre-teen who fantasized about dating a Beatle (Paul, of course), a mediocre high school and college student who was more interested in socializing than studying and who watched her parents divorce.

She vacations at Rehoboth Beach with a group of close friends, collects antiques, as her mother does, recently lost her job as a lobbyist and, as a single woman who loves kids, hopes to fill the "void" she feels in her life.

But as she has campaigned for her father since age 5 -- when, in pigtails, she wore a homemade skirt that said "I'm for my daddy, are you?" -- her life has been woven with political threads that make it anything but ordinary.

And even as she has struggled to create a life outside the spotlight and the senator's imposing shadow, she has remained anchored in his world, falling back on the family business when other dreams and aspirations don't work out and showing the flag for him whenever called upon.

"If I had to use a word to describe her, it would be a real 'trouper,' " says Walt Riker, a former Dole aide. "She's been very loyal to her father, his cause and his campaigns. She'll step into the Bob Dole arena when it's warranted or needed, but she's not consumed by it."

Indeed, politics, while something she says she absorbed "by osmosis," is not in her blood.

"When we're out with friends, we're fairly apolitical," says Roger Schwartz, Robin Dole's high school and college boyfriend who is still a close friend. "We talk about our lives, our jobs, our families. She kind of looks at us as a sanctuary away from politics. She's not, like, a really complicated person."

Though personable and outgoing with a hearty laugh and what friends call a down-to-earth manner, the slim, blue-eyed brunette is extremely guarded. She has her father's emotional reserve, friends say, and is apprehensive about the media, concerned about betraying imperfections, however incidental, in the Dole family portrait.

She declines even to answer a question about whether, as her mother said, she is a smoker. "Why don't we just skip it?" interjects her press aide, who monitors each of Ms. Dole's conversations with a reporter, including those on the phone. "It's a superfluous fact."

Many of her friends declined to talk about her for this article.

"We all grew up here in the fishbowl," says Ms. Dole, who lives in a townhouse in Alexandria, Va., offering an explanation for all the protectiveness. "We're much more attuned to the press. Nobody wants to have something misconstrued, nobody wants to be responsible for that kind of thing."

Least of all, she. Asked about one of the most sensitive issues with which the Republican Party is grappling -- abortion -- she treads carefully. She does acknowledge that it is the one issue where she parts company with her father, who opposes a woman's right to an abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.

"He's had a consistent conservative pro-life record his entire career, and I respect that," says the senator's daughter. "And I believe it to a certain degree -- I could never have an abortion myself, for instance. But I feel a little differently. I don't know that it should be a political issue. It's my hope that one day we can do away with the need for abortions through prevention. I just wish we would focus more on educating."

Although she doesn't put herself in the "pro-choice" camp, neither does she consider herself "pro-life."

"I guess I don't really think of myself as either," she says.

No absentee father

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