SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Without a Trace

Published June 11, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Bob Dole turned in his Beltway uniform today after 35 years of Washington service. After speaking to fellow Senators for the last time, the Kansan rode off, an average citizen vowing to return, Mr. Smith-like, on that "one last mission" as the nation's president. If the polls are to be believed, he has a long, uphill road to trek.

We spoke with Christopher Matthews, Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, an astute presence on political talk shows, and author of the just-published "Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America" (Simon & Schuster).

This is the first day of the rest of Bob Dole's political life, and he was supposed to have gotten a big poll boost from his dramatic decision to quit the Senate after 35 years. But that hasn't happened.

This election's over. We're just playing it out. A CNN-USA Today poll two weeks ago showed that 96 percent of the people have already made up their minds -- 56 percent for Clinton, 40 for Dole. That leaves only four percent to make up their mind in November.

Why hasn't Dole been able to get any traction at all, either from leaving the Senate or from the recent Whitewater convictions?

People get to vote just once in November. They don't care whether Bob Dole is working in the Senate or not. Nor are they going to use their vote to decide how they feel about Whitewater, or same-sex marriage or even abortion rights. In the end, most people make their decision on what a president has been held accountable for over the past 50 years -- the state of the economy. You can encapsulate all the other social issues into, "Is he in touch with me, does he really speak for me, does he know how my life is?"

And people see Clinton as connected; he seems to know what it's like to have a modern wife, and to have a child, and live in the world. I think Bob Dole is seen as a man who lives in an empty nest at the Watergate apartment complex with his wife who is head of the Red Cross. You don't really see him as a guy out there living the regular American life.

Will his call for "tolerance" on the abortion rights issue make any dent on the so-called "gender gap" between Dole and Clinton?

That might bring back some Republican women in the suburbs. But that's a small percentage of the electorate. Let's talk about the gender gap, because it's really dramatic -- a 22-point spread. I think it's real simple: Which candidate speaks to the concerns of the woman who is married and has kids and responsibilities, the one who keeps track of the shots the kids have had, and who feeds and clothes and gives medicine to her family on a daily basis? It's Bill Clinton. Over and over and over again, he talks about family leave, Medicare, child development, education. Whether it's the curfew or the V-chip or school uniforms, he's always getting back to those concerns of making ends meet and holding the family together.

Bob Dole -- what does he talk about? Immigration, crime, the budget. They seem remote. He seems remote. A woman said to me the other day, "He's a closed-minded old man." The last part's obviously unfair, its ageist, but it's the way people think. He's not connected. And Clinton, with his I-feel-your-pain approach -- you can mock it, you can do a "Doonesbury" on it, you can do "Saturday Night Live" on it -- makes those connections. Basically he's seen as a guy who if you told him your family problems, he'd go, "I know what you mean, it's a problem, here's what I'm trying to do." Always connected to the home front. Bob Dole is still fighting World War II. And it's a great war movie, but nobody wants to hear about it. War stories are not going to win this election.

So we can expect Dole to play up the "character" issue for all it's worth.

Bob Dole has a 35-year voting record which will come back to haunt him, regardless of his departure today. Remember, he was Richard Nixon's hand-picked chairman of the Republican National Committee, and his role was to flack Watergate, to say there's nothing there and to blame it on the Washington Post. How's he going to explain that today? And you know the White House cavalry is just waiting to hit him real hard on that. It also reminds people how long he's been around, how he's been part of the problem, and what a hack he's capable of being. I like the guy and respect him, but he has been a hack. Anyone who takes the job of party chairman is going to be a hack by definition.

Unlike various wishful thinkers in the GOP and the media, you don't see Whitewater as a threat to Bill Clinton's political fortunes?

Not to his reelection. I think it's a real threat to his second term. Next year, after the election, the choice won't be between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, but between Bill Clinton and the standard we set for the presidency. By that time, there could indictments of Clinton aides who were involved with him in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign, you could have the First Lady hauled into court, perhaps Clinton himself hauled into court on a criminal matter affecting his conduct of a campaign. It could get real close. The aggressive way (independent counsel) Ken Starr is proceeding leads me to believe that he won't let anything get by him. And my experience in politics tells me that almost all elections have wrongdoing in them.

Your book, "Kennedy & Nixon," is about a political rivalry that you say shaped the post-World War II world. Now we have Clinton and Dole playing out rivalries in the post-Cold War world. How strong are the similarities?

The fingernails keep growing on the story. In the book I write about a rivalry that slowed around 1974. But here you have Clinton running very much on the legacy of John F. Kennedy 33 years after his death -- showing pictures of him shaking hands with Kennedy, making a primary programmatic element of his administration a domestic peace corps. Every vacation he heads up to Martha's Vineyard, and he's out there with the Kennedys. But you also have
Bill Clinton the Democrat, who has some sympathy for this other poor kid, Nixon, who also started the hard way. Clinton was the first president to bring Nixon back into the White House and sort of ennoble him by allowing him so publicly to advise Clinton on Russia policy. I think that was one of his most generous acts.

Then you have this strong visceral connection between Bob Dole -- a true Nixonian if there ever was one in a political figure -- who was elected in 1960 and later went out there dodging bullets for Nixon. He gave that memorable eulogy to Nixon at the graveside in 1994, where he said -- passionately and quite sincerely -- that the past 50 years was the "age of Nixon." The most evocative link perhaps is the series of letters Nixon wrote to Dole before he died laying out how he could win the 1996 election -- including playing to the right in the primary season and moving back to the center for the general election -- as Dole is doing right now. In some ways, the 1996 election is the battle of the surrogates of Nixon and Kennedy.

You sound critical when you compare Clinton to Kennedy. Do you see him as just a pale imitation?

Jack Kennedy had something that Clinton isn't even attempting to have: a true, grand ambition. Kennedy, whatever his lifestyle, always had heroes -- Churchill, the great aristocrats of the last century who could fight battles then go home and make love all night -- he had a very romantic notion of what a leader could be. You also saw that in his presidency: the nuclear test ban treaty, going to the moon, keeping the peace in Europe -- he was thinking big. You'd have a hard time finding that in Clinton, as much as you might admire him. I mean, where is the ambition, not just to become president but to use the office for some grand and ennobling purpose?

Didn't he try that with health care reform?

He tried, and that's fine, but if it was truly a commitment, he'd still be trying. And if it had been a grand plan, rather than just an ambition, they might have organized it better. My own political analysis is that he could have got much more if, instead of "universal coverage," the slogan would have been "everyone pays" -- everyone contributes, everyone benefits, so we're all in this together. Like Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you." Instead, there was this kind of dreamy socialist notion, and people said, "Wait a minute, whose paying for this?"

But you also point out what a cold and consummate pol Kennedy was. Just like Clinton.

Willing to do whatever is necessary. Clinton's tactical successes are
undeniable. On every front he seems to be ringing the bells of the concerned middle. Had Bob Dole rang all these bells ahead of Clinton he might have been back in the game, but Clinton is much more astute about knowing what these are. Though I wouldn't want to claim greatness in an area which to a large extent is public relations.

I also think it's payback time for 1988, when the Republicans used bogus questions like Michael Dukakis' membership in the ACLU and Willie Horton. Clinton's advisers have learned this game. "Oh, you want to play symbolic cultural issues? We'll find some. And we'll use them to bring us into communion with the great American center, just as you used them to separate us from those people." Fair enough -- but this is gamesmanship. I don't think it's going to change this country one iota.

Could Clinton grow into some sort of grandeur in his second term?

I don't know. He's done pretty well with Haiti and Bosnia, although I fear the latter may wind up just being a political holding action. More harmful, I thought it was very irresponsible of Clinton to buckle to the Republican call for a repeal of the federal gasoline tax. I mean, if you're not going to fight that stuff, fight for some kind of conservation of energy, what are you doing there? Fifty years from now, we're going to look back and say, "You people took away the livelihood of this planet, you worsened things here. You had plenty of money and plenty of opportunity -- and you said no, we won't even ask people to pay one iota."

Instead we have people -- many of them liberals -- buying these big vans and sports utility vehicles, great adult toys, which are very fuel inefficient. Big cars, cheaper gas -- I mean, what are we thinking about? This is the worst aspect of Reaganism, this piggishness. Clinton should have said, "I'll take a couple of voter hits on this. I'm willing to sacrifice the vote in the Dakotas and Utah -- I'm not going to get them anyway -- but I'm going to hold fast on this gas tax. It's the responsible thing to do."

If Kennedy were alive and advising Clinton on the next four years, what might he say?

Hold fast on the economy. Say, "I'm the one politician who knew how to deal with the deficit and I'm holding to it. I'm not a big spendthrift Democrat and I'm not an isolationist Republican. I don't care who gets mad at me. I'll take on the unions on free trade and I'll take on the angry Left and Right, ignoring side issues like gay marriage and keep the focus on the main concern -- is this an opportunity economy, or isn't it? That's what I got elected to do, and that's what I'm gonna do."

All I know is the 1996 campaign is going to have a prominent effect on our lives for the next 10-20 years. Unfortunately, a lot of the important decisions may get made merely as pre-emptive strikes against the Republicans.

Quote of the day

No royalties treatment for Unabomber

"They took down his mailbox and moved his whole house, so I can't just pop it in the mail. Of course, if he cashes the check, he's admitting he's the author of the book. I talked with someone today who said he'd have to be crazy to cash it."

-- Krystan Lawson, owner of the Jolly Roger Press, publisher of "The Unabomber Manifesto." Mr. Lawson is having difficulties figuring out how to send a $1,200 royalty check to Theodore Kaczynski. The book, now in its third printing, has sold 12,000 copies. (From "Unabomber Is a Literary Sensation" in Tuesday's San Francisco Chronicle).

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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