The discipline expected of a presidential candidate

July 08, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- ''I hope,'' the first Republican president supposedly said, with the fate of the Union at stake, ''to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.'' The man who aspires, in his distinctive way, to be the 18th Republican president feels likewise.

For weeks Bob Dole wasted time, alarmed supporters and squandered an asset -- his reputation for dignity and common sense -- because of a quarter-baked thought he uttered while campaigning for Kentucky's eight electoral votes.

He got into a spat with the personification of perkiness, the nation's favorite niece, the ''Today Show's'' Katie Couric. He got into another spat with the man who, since Walter Cronkite retired, has been the nation's idea of embodied trustworthiness -- America's family doctor, C. Everett Koop. The Dole campaign can take comfort from the fact that their man has not -- yet -- managed a trifecta by tangling with Michael Jordan.

The trouble that began in Kentucky with Mr. Dole's clumsy cultivation of tobacco interests is indicative of an indiscipline that raises a question and a possibility. The question is whether Mr. Dole appreciates the burden of responsibility that comes with the acceptance of a party's nomination. The possibility is that he might produce the first nominating convention in decades that is not merely a ratifying body but also a deliberative body.

Last month, responding to a reporter's question at what was supposed to be, in campaign argot, a ''photo opportunity,'' not a ''news availability,'' Senator Dole suggested that tobacco is not necessarily addictive, at least not to everyone, because many users quit. The media pounced on this non sequitur, and what began as merely unattractive and unnecessary pandering (for votes Mr. Dole probably would get anyway) became a protracted display of the candidate's stubbornness and his campaign's incompetence regarding damage control.

The Rule of Holes

If he had respected the Rule of Holes (''When in a hole, quit digging''), he would have said: ''Clumsy me, I got tangled up in a technical matter -- the nature of addiction -- when all I meant was . . . '' Instead he embarked on a transcontinental seminar, instructing the nation that milk, too, could be harmful, and informing the hitherto not famously carnivorous Ms. Couric that by her persistent questioning of him about this she might be ''violating the FCC regulations by always, you know, sticking up for Democrats and advertising their line on your show.''

Senator Dole, a veteran of 45 years in public life, did Ms. Couric a final favor by rising like a novice trout to her bait. His answer was ''probably a little bit'' when she asked if he thought Dr. Koop had been ''brainwashed'' by the media when Dr. Koop, the thinking person's Carry Nation of the anti-smoking forces, deplored Mr. Dole's remarks about tobacco.

Mr. Dole is a big boy. He should know enough about himself to know he is not nimble enough to go around improvising public statements, particularly during the heightened scrutiny of a national campaign. And he should know enough about the media not to be surprised when they make much of even minor and explicable verbal fender benders, such as his concerning addiction.

His failure to be more disciplined, and his refusal to cauterize a self-inflicted wound with a prompt explanation-cum-apology, indicate that he has not reached the requisite seriousness about his role as trustee of something valuable, a party's place on the presidential ballot.

That should not be treated as his private property, like a piece of furniture that he can abuse as he sees fit. If this continues, the party in convention assembled might reciprocate his aversion to discipline.

During the tobacco debacle would have been a good time to change the subject by, say, selecting a running mate. If he is not ready to do that, then he could have selected another subject.

Instead, he announced that his running mate could be a stench in the nostrils of his base -- right-to-life religious conservatives. His running mate could favor abortion. ''Fantastic!'' he exclaimed in praise of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who supported President Clinton's veto of a bill banning the form of infanticide called ''partial-birth abortion.''

The period before the conventions is usually the lull before the lull, when the known nominees suffer such advice as, ''Pick a running mate who will excite the center.'' (Centrists do not get excited. That is why they are in the center.) However, Senator Dole could excite the excitable if he is not careful.

Indiscipline can be contagious. If the convention believes the nominee accepts no saddle and bridle, neither will it. And if his choice of a running mate reflects a slapdash disregard for his base, he could have his choice rejected by the convention.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/08/96

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