In defense of a tough guy

A former aide remembers a Bob Dole that most Americans don't.

By Nancy Smith

Published October 30, 1996 8:45PM (EST)

i ask myself, why do I want to protect Bob Dole? Because he's a tough

He knows from the Depression how people lost everything, including a neighbor who first shot his own livestock, then himself. He knows how machine-gun bullets can rip through a body, blowing chunks of bone and muscle from his neck, arm, and shoulder. He knows what it's like to be paralyzed, his blood
seeping into the earth, believing his limbs were gone, left for dead — except for a medic who tended to him and marked a bloody M, for morphine, on his forehead.

Nobody, least of all Bob Dole, asked me to be his bodyguard. Yet I feel like throwing myself in front of the speeding train of public opinion, yelling "Wait a minute!"

I worked for Senator Dole in his Wichita, Kansas office from 1974 until
1984 — the last time I had contact with him. One of my duties was to pick him up at the airport whenever he arrived, whether it was in the dead of night or on a holiday weekend. I dreaded
those times. He would arrive from Washington tense as a prairie
rattler. He didn't want to chat. All he wanted was for you to do your
job, and do it right. Foul-ups aggravated Dole. He was a man determined to make every minute count — spurred no doubt by the memories of those bedridden post-war hospital years when he was told that he was dying.

But he would relax as he met with fellow Kansans. Even local businessmen who had warned me that they intended to chew him out about something would greet him with ingratiating cheers of "Yer doin' a great job, Bob." Women wearing elephant earrings would pass out paper cups of Dole pineapple juice at gatherings, beaming proudly as though he were their son.

He wowed them with his speeches. He was funny. Downright
hilarious, with a self-deprecating style and comic's timing. He told
them he wanted to be re-elected because the Senate offered indoor work
with no heavy lifting. He told about a radio broadcaster who had
introduced him by saying, "Bob Dole was going to be a doctor until he
suffered a head injury and went into politics."

He was also an emotional man, with deep memories. A once-handsome athlete, after the war he came home to Russell, Kansas, shriveled and disabled, a man whose future would only be
what he would make it. He would weep remembering his
father's legs, swollen from standing on the train he took to see his
son in a veteran's hospital. As a candidate for vice-president in 1976, he would be
overcome, recalling the townspeople who had donated monies
for surgeries to improve the use of his withered arm.

Dole doesn't often eat meals in public because he can't
cut his food. I was sitting by him at a barbeque once when he was served a
pork chop. "This is the way ya oughta eat these things," he said,
waving the meat in one hand, then taking a bite. I felt awkward,
didn't know what to do, and kept on eating with my utensils. I'll
never forgive myself for that.

During the years I worked for him, Dole's greatest talent was his ability to juggle special, regional, and election interests, as well as large egos, and to effect
consensus and compromise. On the day that Dole walked away from his life in the Senate, one commentator said he believed that if it were up to them, all those present in the Senate chamber would elect Bob Dole president.

I regret that most people still don't know much about Bob Dole. His
strengths aren't easily portrayed, and he isn't good at fabricating an
image. I rarely tell people I meet that I worked for Dole, fearing that they
will dislike me because they favor another candidate, or because Republicans are so often depicted as heartless money-grubbers, or self-righteous prigs. I'm not a very brave bodyguard.

Most often I undertake his defense in the anonymity of the
Internet. There, under my assumed moniker, I try to reason with people
in the political chat rooms. To most of them, the presidential race is
only a sporting event, like the Super Bowl. Their most astute
political observations run to either "Dole sucks," or "Clinton sucks."
Sometimes you have to ask why anyone would want to be president of
these people.

Still, I want to be a bodyguard for this man. I
think it's the right thing to do.

Nancy Smith worked as a regional assistant in charge of Sen. Dole's Wichita office from 1974 until 1984.

Quote of the day


"They look you in the eye and say — we're going to give you targeted tax cuts if you keep your room clean and eat your vegetables and do all the other things the government wants you to do. And if you eat your vegetables, you could live as long as Sen. [Strom] Thurmond, who is going to be re-elected without any problems. I used to follow him around. When he ate a banana, I ate a banana.
Whatever worked."

— Bob Dole, on the campaign trail in Orange County, Calif. (From "Dole Says Vow to Trim Taxes Means Victory," in Wednesday's New York Times)

Nancy Smith

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