- MEMO FROM THE DESK OF PEGGY NOONAN
TO: BOB DOLE
DATE: MAY 27, 1996
Your Senate leave taking provided that most satisfying of political moments, when the words are as big as the event. Forget the June departure date, leave now and for good. You made a dramatic exit. To go back in the next three weeks and haggle is to blur the picture and confuse the public. Don’t step on your own applause line: it’s over, the tie is off, go West ol’ man.
Now you go to the people. What they need from you is a clear new picture. Like Bush in 1988, you’re famous but unknown; people know your face and name but aren’t sure what you believe in. This is not a disadvantage but an opportunity. Now you get to reintroduce yourself, and on your terms.
Start with what people know. They know you’re experienced, they know you’re an adult, they can see the flintiness. But they don’t know if you have the presidential temperament, that you’re a big, good-natured, stable, tough-minded optimist. You also need to show that you’re genuinely thoughtful, that you have been watching and thinking about America for a half-century and have come to conclusions that are now convictions about how to preserve and protect her.
All year your aides and friends have been telling you to show your passion. But after three years of sentiments and feelings from the White House, the whole country hungers for logic. (And in any case, every time your staff tried to make you show passion, you wound up pounding the lectern—”Have you no shame, Hollywood?” “Liberal judges!”—and looking not serious but fierce, dark, censorious.) You can demonstrate the quality of your thinking and temperament by spending the next six months speaking clearly to the American people—by trusting them with your thoughts. Which is not something you’re used to.
Talk about the things that have happened in America since 1961, when you entered Congress, and what your thoughts are about what worked, what didn’t and what you’ve learned in a party split on issues and a country going to extremes. In the past 27 years you’ve straddled, which may have been the only way for a Republican Senate leader to survive. You’ve had your paleoconservative moments—”Democrat wars!”—and an old-style, Midwestern aversion to deficits. You’ve also pushed through tax increases, and if you think you were wrong about some of your votes and views from 10 and 20 years ago, then explain where you were and where you are. If you think you were right then, say that too, and amplify. People respect it when politicians try hard to speak truth.
To do all this, you will have to overcome a lifetime habit of thinking words are the enemy. Up until now they have seemed that way. Words muck up deals, create divisions, draw battle lines, are misunderstood. When you are a legislator, silence is your friend. The unspoken word never has to be taken back. (And dust-bowl Kansas wasn’t exactly a place for airy chat; you grew up in the last age of yup and nope. “Lost the farm.” “Bad.” “Still tryin’.” “Good.”) Now it’s all different. When you run for President, words are your friend, your only friend. You must “martial them to fight for you,’’ in Margaret Thatcher’s phrase. This will be a psychic shift, and it won’t happen overnight. But it’s your job now; if you win the presidency, it will be your job then.
Don’t let your advisers tell you that the right loves cheap, nasty issues, and you have to be cheap and nasty to please them. This is a common misconception of moderate conservatives. Reagan spoke to the right as if they were equals; he never had to throw them raw meat because he never thought they were animals. And don’t let the liberals in the party fuzz up the message. The conservatives are still small town and small pocket; the liberals are the moneybags of Team 100 who used to be entrepreneurs and lately are lobbyists. They’re proabortion and disdain the icky Christians. (This kind of snobbery is as old as America itself.) Take their money and thank them, but do not let them dictate policy.
You have a gender-gap problem. The way to ease it is to bring up the real women’s issue of this campaign: the fact that more and more women are entrepreneurs—dry-cleaner’s owners, real estate-agency owners—and taxes and regulation are killing them. Show women who are breaking their backs pursuing economic freedom that you’re on their side.
Your wit is natural to you, almost compulsive, deeply mordant. They’re telling you to squelch the one-liners. Don’t. It’s you, and it’s a relief. The pious conniver in the White House lacks the cool tragic sense that produces irony. So go with it, knowing wit is not a substitute for thought but an adornment of it.
So go out there, speak, be famous and known.