Good Man . . . Wrong Job?

When democrats were thinking of offering their 1948 presidential nomination to Dwight Eisenhower, taciturn Speaker Sam Rayburn said of him, "good man, but wrong business." Does Rayburn's estimate of Eisenhower suit Bob Dole? Rayburn, who later revised his assessment of Eisenhower sharply upward, worried that the soldier, shaped by the military's command environment, might not be sufficiently rhetorical and wily for the political environment of persuasion and negotiation. Today even many people who wish Dole's candidacy well worry that his lifetime as a legislator -- he was elected to Congress when Eisenhower was president, in 1960 -- has revealed, or developed, proclivities that would be disabilities in a president.

Dole is one of the large figures of America's legislative history. However, the gravamen of the argument against him is this: one thing that has made him effective -- the ideological fuzziness that helps him build legislating coalitions by rubbing the sharp edges off issues -- would prevent him from reaching presidential greatness, one ingredient of which is a zest for polarizing conflicts over principles. Of course greatness in the presidency is not necessary, which is fortunate, considering its scarcity. And a subliminal theme of any campaign against Bill Clinton is bound to be "let's bring back the grown-ups." That is one reason Dole's age -- he will be 73 in 1996, older than anyone ever elected to a first presidential term -- will not matter.

Another reason is his almost alarming energy. He is (as John Updike describes a character in one of his novels) "an athlete of the clock." It is said talent is a species of vigor. Dole is immensely talented at many political crafts. It also is the case that, like a lot of politicians, he can't sit still. It almost seems that a kind of attention deficit disorder is an occupational hazard of -- or an advantage in -- high-level politics.

In his public speaking (at least until now; he seems to be trying to reform) he has had the disconcerting habit of improvising, which requires a fluency not natural to him. His aversion to written texts reflects, among other things, the fact that he, like many legislators, is comfortable only with the conversational, unstructured, almost cryptic discourse by which colleagues in a small, face-to-face legislative setting communicate with each other. His capacity for rhetoric that is even coherent, let alone inspiriting, either has atrophied from disuse or never existed. Whichever, this could be a problem in the presidency and will be perhaps his principal defect as a candidate.

After four years of the oppressively talkative current president, Americans may want an anesthetizing reticence rather than the ointment of presidential eloquence. But before Dole can be president, he must be a candidate who has the steely will to stay "on message." That is doubly difficult for Dole, because he does not have the restraining bridle of a clear agenda dictated by a crisp ideology, and because he is a proud and intelligent man who bridles at attempts to subdue his spirit, of which his untamable wit is an admirable manifestation. There may be admirable aspects to the obduracy of a candidate who refuses to be broken to the saddle of campaign discipline, but there also may be arrogance -- and the laziness of someone who is indefatigable when doing what he enjoys, but only when doing that.

Dole, this unrhetorical, almost anti-rhetorical man, is seeking an office whose constitutional powers are weak but whose rhetorical potential is great. Of necessity he will try to stress what has been called "the charisma of competence." But the presidential election will occur two years after the most ideological off-year elections in American history. And the Republican Party is more ideological than at any time in its history. The 1996 political season will not be hospitable to the dotty notion that served Michael Dukakis so poorly -- that we should have an election "about competence, not ideology." Dole's message must be that all God's Republican children now have essentially the same ideology -- that of limited government -- but that he is especially competent to implement it. That may ring true.

Dole's preeminence at the moment may reflect a yearning for surcease from the manifold incompetence of the incumbent president and from the unceasing eruptions of the human Vesuvius who is Speaker. Can the country learn to yearn for someone sometimes described as acidic? Dole does have a "dark side," but the idea that it defines him illustrates the axiom that fame is the accumulation of misunderstandings around a well-known name.

He does have some grievances against life's close calls. If he had been a few yards away from where he was on that Italian hill on April 14, 1945, or if the war in Europe had ended 25 days sooner, he would not have endured the horror of the wounding, the long agonies of rehabilitation, or the daily pain ever since. A wafer-thin margin of votes cost him the vice presidency in 1976. And if he had stayed on his conservative message in the week before the 1988 New Hampshire primary, he would have beaten Bush there and today might be midway through his second presidential term.

Yet far from being bleak about life, he may be, if anything, too sanguine to suit the nation's mood of the moment, and especially the mood of the Republican nominating electorate. Although he is unlike Reagan in many ways, they both are Midwestern boys, fated to a fundamental cheerfulness about America's possibilities. He seems to have only a faint notion of the anger and anxiety many people feel about the coarsening of American life. He has no feel for the intellectual currents in today's controversies about the deleterious consequences government is having on the culture and on the character of the individual. He does not dislike the city where he has worked for 34 years. Others may talk of turning the ship of state hard to starboard. Dole thinks a better touch on the tiller should suffice.

Say what you will about this fixture in our national life, he is not one of those puffed-up politicians who always act as though they are unveiling statues of themselves. It has been well said (by Beryl Markham) that "if a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work." Dole has no flamboyant hours, but his ledger of work is long and honorable and its bottom line is not yet written.

Good Man . . . Wrong Job? | News