World's Apart

ON SEPT. 2, NATIONAL-SECURITY ADVISER TONY Lake flew to Little Rock to brief the president on options for a cruise-missile attack on Iraq. The trip was secret; Lake was hustled through a back door of the Old State House. In the kind of room where Clinton had once greeted Boy Scouts, a general from the Joint Chiefs of Staff laid out charts and maps of the Persian Gulf, showing the deployment of U.S. warships. After a few minutes President Clinton swept into the room, flushed and excited from a political rally on the front steps. He quickly began firing questions at the national-security adviser, throwing around technical terms like ""target sets'' and ""BDAs'' (bomb-damage assessments). Lake could tell that the president, with all due regard for the gravity of the situation and the burden of his command, was having fun.

Clinton had always enjoyed politics, but he hadn't enjoyed the presidency, at least in the beginning. The first time he ordered a missile strike against Iraq, in the summer of '93, he had seemed tense and wobbly. He had asked up to the last minute, ""Are you sure this is the right thing to do?'' But over time, Clinton had become more comfortable in his role as commander in chief. He had mastered the arcana of national security and come to appreciate the military for its sense of duty. He observed that soldiers, unlike congressmen, generally do what they're told.

Badgered by his handlers in 1992 to act more ""presidential,'' Clinton had demanded, ""What is presidential?'' ""Less than papal but more than gubernatorial,'' answered Paul Begala, a political consultant. In fact, being presidential is hard to fake, even for a great actor. The fact that Clinton learned to be president, by a sometimes painful process of trial and error on the public stage, made his accomplishment that much more remarkable.

Last April a group of Republican pollsters sat in Knoxville, Tenn., watching a focus group talk about Bill Clinton. The voters were not flattering. They called the president ""slick'' and ""smooth.'' They recalled that Clinton was a draft dodger and an adulterer and had a ""loudmouth wife.'' And these were people who planned to vote for Clinton. The GOP pollsters were dumbfounded. ""Why are we down 15 points?'' one asked. The answer had something to do with the failings of Clinton's opponent, Bob Dole, but it may have had more to do with the way voters viewed the character issue in 1996.

Political commentators seemed vaguely disappointed that character, by which they usually mean defects of character, did not appear to count for much in this election. But ordinary Americans have a well-developed sense of the fallen state of man. In a tabloid culture, they are vividly aware of Bill Clinton's personal sins, but, as Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin remarked, ""they deeply don't want this election to be about that. They want it to be about them.'' It mattered less whether Bill Clinton had flashed Paula Jones than whether he cared about ordinary people and would stand up for them against the perceived excesses of the Republican Revolution.

VOTERS HAD ALWAYS GIVEN CLINTON credit for intelligence and empathy. The real character question was whether he had the strength for the job. His low ratings in the first two years reflected the suspicion that he did not. He was saved in part by luck. Great politicians, like great athletes, get good bounces, and Clinton had the good fortune to preside over a period of peace and prosperity that was only partly of his own making. But he was also rescued by his own inner fortitude.

Optimism and resilience had helped him bounce back before--from a fatherless home, from political defeat, from scandal and blunder. ""My God is the god of second chances,'' Clinton once told a religious broadcasting service. His deliverance came in the unlikely form of Newt Gingrich. It can be argued that the 1996 election was really decided in 1995, and that it was less about Clinton versus Dole than Clinton versus Gingrich. No political figure in modern time has done more to undermine the power of his message with the defects of his personality than the disastrously voluble speaker of the House. In contrast, Clinton ranked with Reagan and Kennedy as a pure politician. On the stump, he conveyed certainty and optimism, even when he had nothing very new or inspiring to say.

Bob Dole conveyed a different feeling altogether. He suffered from what the professionals call ""poor candidate skills.'' The verbless sentences, the cryptic asides, the blinking, haunted eyes revealed a politician who was uncomfortable about asking for votes. If Bill Clinton was a natural, Bob Dole was so ill-suited to the role of presidential candidate that it seems a wonder anyone let him try.

In part, Dole won the Republican nomination because there is a streak of royalism in the Grand Old Party, and Dole had waited patiently for his inheritance. But he also won by default. The Republican field was notable for those, like Colin Powell, who chose not to run. Bill Bennett, the conservative polemicist and author of ""The Book of Virtues,'' begged off running because he understood what he was getting into. ""When Phil Gramm said to me, "I'm going off to do 300 receptions in the next 40 days,' I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do less,'' said Bennett. ""I thought of that movie, "The Mosquito Coast.' I mean, this guy's sort of a charming nut, and he takes his family to this horrible place. That's what it's like in a presidential run--it's like taking your family to the Mosquito Coast.''

ON THE LAST WEEKEND OF September, as Bob Dole sat on the balcony of his 12th-floor condo in Bal Harbour, Fla., he must have felt as if he had come to the Mosquito Coast. With only six weeks to go, he trailed Bill Clinton by 15 points. His campaign had been a disaster, a floundering exercise in muddled messages, riven by conflict and dulled by low morale. For four days, Dole sat basking in the white tropical light. Aides tried to engage him in preparing for his first debate against Clinton, only a week away. Dole tried to study the issues, but he was famously indifferent to rehearsals. Between cramming, he would close his eyes and drift off to a place where only Bob Dole has dwelled.

Dole is an ardent sun worshiper. He will go to great lengths to get a tan. His front porch off the Senate majority leader's office was called ""the Beach'' because Dole would sit there for hours, even on humid summer days, to bring color back into his face. Dole hates pallor. He had been so pale and wasted after the war, lying helpless in a hospital bed, unable to feed himself or go to the bathroom. A suntan is a reminder of his survival, a measure of compensation for the shattered shoulder, the withered arm, the fist that can now only clutch a pen. He had learned how to dress himself (slowly, with a button hook), how to memorize what he could not write down. His stern Midwestern parents had taught him not to complain; war had made him truly stoic.

The result was a certain distance between Dole and his fellow men. When Andy Kohut, a nonpartisan pollster, asked voters what word came to mind when they thought of Bob Dole, the far-and-away winner was ""old.'' It wasn't just that Dole seemed old physically. His attitude was old. Dole's stiff upper lip seemed quaint in an age when people were casually spilling their guts to Oprah or Geraldo. Baby- boomer Clinton, all lip-biting soulfulness, seemed in touch with his feelings, and just about everyone else's as well. Dole just seemed crotchety, like an old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn.

The reality, of course, was a lot more complicated. Dole had often struggled not to cry. One reason Dole resisted talking about himself and his hardships was that he was afraid he would simply dissolve. The people of Russell, Kans., had seen it. When Dole had won the vice presidential nomination in 1976, he had thanked his hometown at a rally. ""I can recall the time when I needed help ... and the people of Russell helped ...'' he had said. And then he had stopped speaking. His left hand came up to cover his eyes, and he began to cry.

Those who knew Dole from his early days saw his human side. They sensed the warmth beneath his prairie cynicism, his empathy for others who, like him, had suffered. They knew that his heartland integrity was not an act. In a chamber full of blowhards, Dole was known as a great listener. He understood that politicians needed to posture, but when the showboating was over, he could get down to work.

But he had trouble asking for help. The public tends to think of politicians as puppets on a string, manipulated by their ""handlers.'' But Dole actually suffers from the opposite problem: he won't be handled. There is a willful stubbornness to his independence. Bob Dole's god is the god of self-reliance. He is not comfortable in an age when politicians have been so relentlessly focus-grouped, polled and packaged that every sound bite comes out sounding like Muzak and tasting like over-processed food. Clinton was perfectly comfortable spouting pabu-lum; Dole was not. This could have worked to his advantage if he had stuck to his plain-spoken prairie integrity. But Dole's speeches were more often a strange brew of old-fashioned pandering and mordant but often incomprehensible riffs on whatever popped into his mind.

CAMPAIGNING IS ALL ABOUT rote repetition. Dole was much too restless to stay ""on message.'' After the war, lying in bed day after day, his wounds healing with painful slowness, he had been driven nearly mad by boredom. Dole is a great listener--but never for too long. As Senate majority leader, he liked to conduct five meetings at once, moving back and forth between them, looking for the moment when the blathering was done and the dealing had begun.

The Senate was his natural habitat; a presidential campaign was not. He never mastered its arts. He never explained exactly why he wanted to be president, not to the American people and possibly not to himself. But reaching for the unattainable has long been Dole's way. He is not an impossible dreamer, but he has a kind of grim persistence. Once, Dole's mother, Bina, found him in the garage hanging from a rafter by his bad arm. He was drenched with sweat and in obvious pain. He was trying to straighten his arm so he could play basketball again. He never could, but he was going to damn well try.

Dole was accustomed to being down. He had run in vain for national office three times before. Throughout, his gallows humor rarely failed. Before the first debate in Hartford, Conn., a reporter spotted Dole up on a hotel balcony, where he had gone to soak up the sun. The reporter waved; Dole stood up and pretended to dive head first over the railing. Then he smiled, the giddy, ironic, isn't-life-absurd smile of a man who had been through ordeals even more terrible than a modern presidential campaign.

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