A kinder, gentler Bob Dole leaves the Senate

June 14, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- A continuing puzzlement about Bob Dole is why a man who is so widely liked and admired by Democrats as well as Republicans in the Senate has had such a hard time conveying the most appealing side of himself to the general public.

The Bob Dole who was on display in his sometimes humorous and always moving farewell speech to his colleagues the other day bore no relationship to the dark and sometimes bitter figure you hear on the campaign stump and in occasional moments of pique.

Absent was any trace of disappointment about the gridlock that frustrated him to his final day as Senate majority leader, nor was there a smidgen of partisanship or ideological certitude. He talked feelingly of the camaraderie and civility of the Senate that had made it possible, in the old Gerald Ford phrase, to disagree without being disagreeable.

It sounded like the Bob Dole of pre-Gingrich days, when there was less revolution on Capitol Hill and more compromise, the achievement of which was always Mr. Dole's objective and quite often his success.

Remarking that the Senate is a place ''where you can have unlimited debate, where any senator on either side on any issue can stand up and talk until they drop,'' Mr. Dole cited Sen. Strom Thurmond as the record holder. When Senator Thurmond told him the record was ''24 hours and 18 minutes,'' Mr. Dole without a moment's hesitation shot back: ''And that's why you're seldom asked to be an after-dinner speaker.'' The senators roared.

Senator Dole had good things to say about liberal Democrats like Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, and in general he comported himself in the manner that voters keep saying they expect of members of Congress -- that is, like adults.

Mr. Dole has been getting a barrelful of advice on what he has to do as a presidential candidate to close the current gap between himself and President Clinton. The party's right wing would like him to continue hammering at character questions about Mr. Clinton and at his appointment of liberal judges, and otherwise toeing an ideological line.

Declaration of tolerance

He obliged them most of last year and much of this. And the right wing seemed not overly exercised when he disclosed last week that he wanted a ''declaration of tolerance'' in the party platform that would cover abortion and other issues.

But his latest statement that he wants it not in the preamble, as previously indicated, but in the abortion plank itself, has the anti-abortion bloc restless again. It may well be that in leaving the Senate he is turning in his legislator's union card as well and beginning to think and act like a decision-maker, which is the job description for the new position he's seeking.

Mr. Dole still needs to lay out in a more coherent fashion what his own agenda as president will be -- not Mr. Gingrich's or anybody else's. It would be a good start if he could manage to transform the Bob Dole who said goodbye to the Senate in such a warm, generous and civil way into candidate Dole.

Running for president cannot, to be sure, be a quiet and gentlemanly waltz around the dance floor. It is more akin these days, thanks to negative television advertising, to mud wrestling. But for too long Mr. Dole has been dragging around the image of Darth Vader -- brooding, not caring, mean. His recitation of the achievements that brought him most satisfaction in the Senate -- preserving civil rights, protecting the disabled, saving Social Security, the food-stamps program -- ought to be an effective antidote to the poisonous reputation that clings to him in many quarters.

Many of these achievements involve an activist government and cost money, and hence run against the grain of Republicanism according to the Gospel of St. Newt. Mr. Dole is the new general of an army that often wants to march in a different direction. But he is its commanding officer now, and it's up to him to say firmly where it's going to go, whether the issue is abortion or, as he likes to say, ''whatever.''

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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