Dole shows Kansas roots Nominee: His run for the White House will introduce Americans to the heartland side of the Washington man.

Campaign 1996

Republican Convention

August 14, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RUSSELL, Kan. -- He's the ultimate Washington insider, with a power wife, a Watergate apartment and a well-deserved reputation as a master of the Capitol game.

Politics is the only profession he has known. For him, relaxation means a night at home watching C-SPAN, the network of the Congress, the place he spent more than half his adult life.

Gruff and gimlet-eyed, he's been called a rough campaigner -- and one of the most effective legislators this century. He was chosen by his Senate colleagues to be the Republican leader, a job he held longer than anyone in history. He also owns the record for guest appearances on that most Washington of institutions, the Sunday morning TV talk show.

This is the Bob Dole most Americans know, the man who, after climbing the political ranks for nearly half a century, will reach the highest point of his career tonight, when he officially becomes the Republican nominee for president of the United States.

But there is another Bob Dole -- far less familiar to the public -- who has been running for president this year.

A black-and-white blow-up of his face as a young man greets visitors at Dole campaign headquarters. Postcards bearing his slightly blurry portrait -- and his inspiring story of hardships surmounted -- are distributed at his campaign events. Now his tale will be told to the nation, starting with a film at the GOP convention tomorrow tonight.

He's Lt. Robert J. Dole, a fresh-faced Kansas kid in the uniform of the Army's 10th Mountain Division. He's the hard-working son of a farm community, way out on the Great Plains but dead center in the heart of the country.

This Bob Dole was a star athlete who became a handicapped veteran, a hero driven to overcome paralysis and near-fatal battlefield injuries. He's a small-town boy who married a nurse he met at an Army rehabilitation center and brought back home to live in Kansas.

A surprisingly emotional man, he has a tendency to break down in public, whether recalling the doctor and the neighbors who helped him recover, or eulogizing Richard M. Nixon, his mentor and political soul-mate.

When Dole began his career, his wartime service proved decisive at election time. But as he moved from the local to the national arena, he put increasing emphasis, at campaign time, on his vast experience in making government work.

Now, he is returning to the winning formula of his early days. The word Washington is an epithet to many today. And Dole's decades of government experience could do him more harm than good, especially as he attempts to appeal to independent swing voters.

As a result, his prowess as a canny operator in the Senate isn't being advertised this year. His service in World War II is. His campaign is also highlighting, and to some extent exaggerating, his humble beginnings in the place he left behind long ago.

But even his critics agree. There is a lot of Kansas in Bob Dole.

'Home of Bob Dole'

"Russell, Kansas. Home of Bob Dole" is painted in giant blue letters atop the grain elevator on Main Street.

In many ways, the cluster of wheat storage facilities beside the Union Pacific railroad tracks was the center of Dole's early life. The three-room bungalow where he was born, in 1923, the modest house he grew up in (and now owns) down the block, the stores where he worked as a youth, all were within 100 yards of that spot.

"Doley's" is what locals called the grain elevator, back when Bob's father, Doran Dole, ran it for the Norris Grain Co. of Chicago.

"He wore Old Spice and called women Sis," Bob Dole wrote of his father in his autobiography, "Unlimited Partners." "He cracked jokes and kept his dignity."

Farmers would come to town, to shop or to unload their wheat, and drop in to the stone building where Doran Dole worked. They'd pour a cup of coffee from the big pot he always had brewing, or grab a soda pop or a beer.

Doley would invite them to pull up a chair. He'd insult them in his wisecracking way, telling them, for instance, that their government farm payment, their "Fare well check," would be in soon.

At home, he was a man of few words.

"Students of Freud might find repression in Dad's habit of greeting a loved one with a handshake rather than a hug. Not I," wrote Bob Dole. "Around the Dole house, we were taught that gestures, like words, have an emotional currency, that compliments can be devalued by overuse. So if you mowed the lawn to perfection, on time and with every blade of grass in place, you treasured Dad's 'Pretty good.' "

Bob's mother, Bina, was the disciplinarian, and by all accounts a severe one. (She "was pretty good with a belt," Dole has said).

She was also a working mother, forced by the family's near poverty to go door-to-door selling Singer sewing machines. A perfectionist, she kept the two-bedroom house (all four Dole kids slept in the same room) immaculate. She even waxed the wooden front porch.

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