- FROM THE DESK OF PEGGY NOONAN
TO: BOB DOLE
DATE: JUNE 10, 1996
This week you leave the Senate, with a goodbye speech on the floor that is sure to be moving. Whatever happens in November, you’ve closed a great chapter of your life.
Now what? The standard thing to do is what all modern presidential candidates do: get on a plane and hop like a mighty flea from one end of the continent to the other. Your advance team will get the schedule late and throw events together haphazardly. They’ll put you in the wrong room with the wrong crowd, with the TelePrompTer shading part of your face and with a bunch of nine-year-olds standing behind you at the lectern with faces that say, “Mama, whatever I did to get put here, I won’t do it again!” That is, it’ll all be like your Macomb County event last week.
What should you do? Let’s start with your problems and work from there. You’re out of money and will be until roughly the time of the G.O.P. convention, when you get an infusion of federal funds. Your campaign is also, at the moment, without a kind of physical context. When people think of Bill Clinton they think of a big white house with pillars on Pennsylvania Avenue. When people think of Dole they used to think of the Senate floor, the wrong place but a place nonetheless. Now you are—where? On a tarmac without a tie.
You’re rootless, moneyless, groping toward a message. Is there a way to make a virtue of these disadvantages? Yes. It’s an idea that’s just begun bubbling up from the Republican ranks. (Ted Stevens and Slade Gorton are talking about it in the Senate.) It is simple, cheap, so old it’s new, so hokey that it has a startling cleanness about it.
It’s this: go home to Russell, Kansas. Go back to the house you and your brother and sisters grew up in, the house in which you waged your lonely battle to recover from the wounds of war. Wage the last great front-porch campaign of the 20th century. Now and until the convention, make that house and that porch the locus of your last great battle. Let the word go forth that you’ll meet with any American or group of Americans that has the wherewithal to get there and the patience to stand in line. Get them all in—farmers, fishermen, enviros, ranchers, housewives, fire fighters—and listen to them. Ask them what they most need from the next President, listen to them, learn from them.
This will be the first real front-porch campaign since 1920, when Warren Harding oozed to effortless victory. But before him the great front-porch campaign, the one that caused the phrase to be coined, was in 1896, by William McKinley, who sat on his porch in Canton, Ohio, and met with whoever came by. As William Safire once noted, McKinley “had good reason to stay at home . . . he was not the stem-winding orator his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was.” He played to his strength, a strong personal presence. “I rang and walked in,” wrote an English journalist. “Mr. McKinley was sitting on a rocking chair not 10 feet from the door . . . he is gifted with a kindly courtesy that is plainly genuine and completely winning.”
Like you. You shrink in crowds and expand in private. Play to your strength. Sit on the porch with a glass of iced tea and have them come to you, as they should. Here are the reasons to do it:
It will give you place and context. Your campaign will reside in a place called Kansas, a square state in the middle of America. This is a good place to be.
It will give you a symbol—the old American porch, the kind people rocked on before the days of drive-by shootings. The symbol underscores a message: I stand for the heartland.
It will make you a better candidate. You’ll learn things you didn’t know. No matter how sensitive or astute, no man spends 36 years in Washington and doesn’t lose a sense of the texture of his country.
It will force the media to tell your story for you. Every major news outlet in America will send a crew and reporters. They’ll be forced to get to know Kansas towns and Kansas people. They’ll be forced to do feature stories on your life—this is where he played football, this is where they passed the cigar box to pay his hospital bills.
Every comedian in America will spoof it. Dennis Miller will rant, Al Franken will say Kansans are big fat idiots, Letterman will have a Top 10 Reasons I’m Really Sitting on This Porch. Fine. The more famous they make it, the more famous it becomes, the more present in the minds of people.
You’ve just begun thinking about this, as has your wife, but you haven’t really focused on it. But do.
By the way, McKinley and Harding won handily.