Master of hardball politics

After a quarter of a century spent at the centre of Republican politics – the party’s national chairman, its vice presidential candidate and a two-time contender for its presidential nomination – the caustic Robert (Bob) Joseph Dole has at last become the party’s most powerful official and potential 1996 presidential candidate. DERWIN PEREIRA of the Foreign Desk profiles the man.

FIREWORKS are expected when a man known for his tart tongue takes on Mr Bill Clinton in the 1996 United States presidential elections.

Hard-hitting Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, 71, is likely to be a candidate in the elections on the Republican ticket, having just been thrust into one of the most powerful roles in Congress as majority leader after the recent mid-term elections in the US.

A Republican tide swept 53 seats in the 100-member Senate and returned the Upper House to the party’s control for the first time since 1986.

His re-entry is guaranteed to create tremors at the White House. As minority leader, he was Mr Clinton’s sharpest critic during the first two years of the Clinton presidency.

This no-holds-barred politician put the nail in the coffin of Mr Clinton’s US$16-billion (S$23.5-billion) economic-stimulus plan.

He also played a leading role in killing health-care reform and led a Republican filibuster offensive which blocked Clinton-supported Bills in the last days of Congress.

Commenting on this relationship, an American political scientist said: “He’s been very rough on Clinton. I don’t think there’s a parallel for it in recent history.”

Even Mr Dole, for all his biting wit and instinct for the jugular, admits he and the Republican Party run the risk of seeming too negative. His caustic comments have been described as “acid rain drizzling on someone else’s parade”.

A veteran of the US Congress, he won election to the House of Representatives in 1960 before moving to the Senate in 1969.

His first shot at national office was in 1976 as vice-presidential candidate when President Gerald Ford lost to Mr Jimmy Carter. He sought the party’s presidential nomination in 1988 but lost to Mr George Bush.

His latest triumph bears the hallmark of a fighter and survivor.

From his first days in the Senate, he was seen by some senators as a “hatchet man” – a strong partisan supporter of Mr Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court appointment and Vietnam initiatives.

When Watergate broke, he emerged as one of Mr Nixon’s strongest backers, a reputation he had to put behind him during his 1974 campaign for Senate re-elections.

Such personality traits were not only seen on the political battlefield. Decorated in the wartime Italian campaign, Mr Dole was seriously wounded when he led an infantry charge on a machinegun nest. He spent 39 months in hospital.

He overcame near total paralysis from his war wounds – his right arm still remains useless – to work 12-hour days, six days a week, well past the normal age of retirement.

Trim and youthful-looking, he had surgery for prostate cancer in December 1991. In typical Dole fashion, he described this ailment as “that little health problem”.

The doctors said they caught it early enough, but it was nonetheless a reminder that not even Mr Dole, the survivor of a Nazi bullet that should have killed him, was immortal.

His wife is a well-known American personality too. Elizabeth Hanford Dole is a two-time Cabinet secretary who now heads the American Red Cross.

With a mandate through 1998, Mr Dole needs only the formality of a vote from his fellow party members in the Senate to become the Senate leader officially.

That will allow him to set the agenda of the body, shepherding through legislation he and his party favour or blocking legislative motions they do not.

His passion for the Senate prompted a colleague to say, rather extravagantly, but not inaccurately: “What the Globe Theatre was to William Shakespeare, the United States Senate is to Bob Dole.”

His survivalist and fighting instincts may be his strongest point when he takes on Mr Clinton. But he needs to work harder on projecting his image.

One critic said scornfully: “Bob Dole is interested in one thing, and that’s Bob Dole, period.”

Despite his witty and self-deprecating style, he is still perceived as having a take-no-prisoners mean streak, a personality trait that may have undercut him several times in his bid for the White House.

For example, his critics blame his uncharismatic style, when he was the running mate of President Ford, for the Republican defeat in the 1976 race for the White House.

But as Republicans gained the seven seats needed to win a Senate majority, Mr Dole sounded a conciliatory note, saying Republicans were ready to work with Mr Clinton.

“We intend to work with the President because we have only one president at a time,” he said. Conciliatory or hard-hitting, he is definitely back in the political forefront. As he said in an interview recently: “Other people like fishing. I like politics.”

* MR BOB DOLE was born in Kansas on July 22, 1923. He has a son, Doran, and daughter, Bina. He was educated at the universities of Kansas, Arizona and Washburn. 1943-48: Served as infantry officer with US Army, wounded badly in battle.
1960: Elected to House of Representatives.
1969: Elected to Senate.
1971: Appointed chairman for Republican Party by Mr Richard Nixon.
1980: Sought Republican nomination for vice-presidency.
1983-87: Secretary of Transportation.
1985-87: Senate majority leader.
1988: Sought Republican nomination for presidency but lost to Mr George Bush.
1992-94: Senate minority leader.
1994: Senate majority leader.

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