Washington — Robert J. Dole presents a contradictory puzzle. His rapid-fire one-liners can send a crowd into gales of laughter, while he folds his arms in a deadpan pose and rolls his eyes mischievously. He says his comic skills come from his father, a grain elevator manager in his tiny hometown of Russell, Kan.
But behind the quips is an intensely serious man who fought back from a near-fatal wound in World War II to become a lawyer, then a congressman, and this year the Republican majority leader of the Senate. His zeal for work often astounds those who work with him.
He worries aloud and frequently about whether the economy is failing, and he watched impatiently as the White House put other issues in front of deficit reduction. Yet after watching him in the recent budget battle, his deputy Senate leader, Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, concludes, ``He's a patient and optimistic man.''
A fierce partisan combatant in his early days in Congress, he once thought the Farm Bureau was a ``bunch of left-leaning marshmallows,'' former aide William Taggart says. Now Dole holds to no strong political ideology. He's a ``pragmatist, not a philosophical purist,'' says former Kansas Gov. Robert Bennett.
It was his dedication to work that apparently caused the breakup of his first marriage. But even his divorce is contradictory. He and his former wife, Phyllis Buzick, who has since remarried, are said to have an amicable relationship. ``I think he's one of the finest Americans that this country will ever see,'' she said in an interview earlier this year.
Dole is now married to Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, whose life style is much like his own. When the two traveled to Topeka in January, many admirers sported ``Dole for President'' buttons that displayed pictures of both Doles. The buttons did not say which one should be president.
Secretary Dole describes their marriage as ``ships passing in the night'' and says that beyond reading and the theater, she and her husband have little time for hobbies. ``He's a sun-worshipper,'' she says. The couple takes short getaway trips to their Florida condominium, where he freshens up his year-round tan.
Dole jokes that in fact he and his wife do have a hobby -- ``watching the evening news.'' (He adds that his wife has an attachment to the TV show ``Dallas,'' which she does not deny.) But for the most part, this two-limousine couple has little time together, apart from Sundays, when they attend Foundry Methodist Church, go out to eat, and spend the day relaxing.
Both glamorous-looking and both holders of high-profile jobs, the Doles have been favorites of the news media. But as in other aspects of Senator Dole's character, his relations with the news media are complex.
As Senate majority leader, he has made it easier for the press to scrutinize senators. Even during the days of private sessions over the farm-credit crisis, an especially difficult issue for farm-stater Dole, he allowed reporters to wait outside meeting rooms. The quick-witted majority leader appears to revel in lively banter with reporters.
When a reporter suggested this week at a press breakfast that President Reagan may have lost clout in Congress, Dole shot back with a grin, ``You just handed me a rope. Do you want me to put it around my neck?''
Despite good press relations, Dole often finds the news media too pessimistic.
``As soon as there's a vote, they say it's a disaster,'' he said after he lost some preliminary votes on the budget package. He eventually won a major budget victory in the Senate. ``I think the press needs to look at the up side,'' he said after the win. ``You're always looking at the down side.'' After all, Dole is an optimist, for the most part.