The Captain Of His Soul

On the stump those last days, Bob Dole’s campaign was more local than national—the taped Sousa marches, the town bigwig at the mike vamping in front of an audience in elephant hats. Then Dole would come out from behind the stage, parting the polyester-blue curtain, and enact the body language of victory—thumb up, quick-flash smile, the arm that doesn’t hold the pen punching the air in a go-get-’em arc. The crowd would always stand and applaud. “We love you, Bob!” someone would yell, and the unmuffled sound would echo too well, because the hall was always half empty.

He didn’t look bitter or lost that last week, didn’t look—concussed, as big losers of past history have. He just looked like a man who was enacting a campaign rather than waging it. And I stood in the back of the hall and thought, He’s losing with grace because losing is something he knows how to do. I thought of the old poem Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed.

I think that’s how he saw himself at the end. Invictus, one of F.D.R.’s favorite poems, was popular in the storm-tossed 1940s and would have been known to a lieutenant named Dole. It is a poem about fierce human will, a poem you might call proud or braying, depending on your taste. And you could say the Dole campaign at the end was a similar kind of poem.

He drew the party faithful. A Dole campaign stop was not Reaganesque (20,000 adoring college students) or Bushian (mom and pop and the kids in the city square). Dole’s crowds were 400 and 600, often at small, third-tier colleges, and they were Republican believers. One night, on the Wednesday before the voting, at the Pontchartrain Center outside New Orleans, about 700 people showed up, a big crowd. It was dinnertime, after work, and they could have been home relaxing, watching TV, helping with homework, but instead they got in the van and drove on the highway to stand and cheer for a man who they knew would give a bad speech and who in a week would be an asterisk in a boring book.

The faithful lived up to their name. At Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, there was the young mother in jeans, hair frosted blonde, a baby in her arms and a toddler in a stroller. She came late to the speech, flustered, and she was excited to be there to see a man who was running for President. When Dole was moving along the side of the gym talking and shaking hands, she saw the top of his head, his tanned brow and his combed, sprayed hair, and she said to someone, “That’s him—oh, I’ll never get there with the kids …” I turned and motioned to the stroller. “Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll watch him.” She looked at me as her brain rolled out the possibilities—the young mother said she last saw her son at a Dole rally when a member of the press offered to stay with him—and she jerked the stroller softly and barreled toward Dole, who was turning now and disappearing in a small sea of suits. “Oh,” she said as he left, “oooooooh!”

Those twilight days Dole took to talking about Dwight Eisenhower. He would tell crowds, I want you to be proud of your vote, just as I was proud years ago when I voted for General Eisenhower. Hearing him refer to his fellow Kansan, I realized Eisenhower was to Dole what F.D.R. was to Reagan—the prototype, the vivid President of his youth, the one who set the standard and the style. Do you remember Ike’s philosophy from the ‘52 campaign? Neither does anyone else. He didn’t have a philosophy; he barely had a discernible point of view. What he had was himself: I’m Ike. I ran the war, and I can run the White House, because I am me. The buttons said it all: I LIKE IKE.

Dole ran the same kind of campaign: I’m Bob Dole, and you know me: I ran the Senate; I’ve been here for 30 years; I’m solid and competent, the Big Bobster. But that won’t do anymore. The candidate must be himself, and more than himself: he must be the carrier of a point of view, the expression of certain assumptions. He must have a philosophy. You may say, but Clinton didn’t have a philosophy! And the answer is, sure he did—he had plenty of them.

Dole ran like Ike but without Ike’s air of inevitability, and without his sunny good fortune. But then Dole never saw himself as a fortunate son, and if you know his history, you know why. The story of his devastating war wound and recovery is so moving because trauma was at the heart of Dole, not only of the physical kind but in so much of his life that would follow. For he would enter the Republican Party just as the great wave of modern liberalism was washing across the American continent. He would rise to head the Republican National Committee just in time to see victory washed away with Watergate. He rose to lead his party in the Senate—only to find his time going not to securing victory but to limiting loss. He would run for President twice and lose and keep running.

It was a political life of great triumph—he did, after all, go for the very top job—but his victories obscured its persistent theme. And now here, in the last days of his last campaign, at the end of another long losing haul, he stood alone, with the faithful, the master of his fate, as the old poem says, the captain of his soul.