MANY of us, particularly those of us with roots in the Midwest, watch Bob Dole as if he were kin, the kind of kin for whom we have more respect than love. We've known him a long time. We have not always understood him.
In 1970, at the age of 21, when the line between heroism and villainy seemed clear, I worked as an intern for James B. Pearson, the other Kansas senator. Senator Pearson, from an affluent Eastern Kansas suburb, and Bob Dole, from the hard-bitten Western Kansas oil-and-wheat town of Russell, were opposites, and they disliked each other.
A liberal Republican, Pearson opposed the Vietnam War, grimaced at the mention of Richard Nixon, and didn't have a clue when it came to farm policy. Dole, a hawk, considered Nixon his mentor and was so steeped in agriculture and oil that you could hear in his voice distant combines and cranking oil rigs and the endless, dry wind.
That summer, a few weeks after the killings at Kent State University in Ohio, my college town of Lawrence, Kan., with a long history of violence, was about to explode again. Two students, one black, one white, had been shot and killed by the National Guard and police. Blacks and whites, anti-war protesters and cops, were poised at each other's throats.
In a grandiose gesture, Kansas University's student-body officers flew east and lodged themselves in my Washington apartment. Their mission (which became mine, too) was to persuade members of the Scranton Commission on Student Violence to come to Lawrence and act as mediators.
With Pearson's help, we managed to arrange a meeting with the commission's staff. Somehow, Dole found out about the meeting and made other arrangements. The meeting, he dictated, would be in his office.
So we trouped downstairs. Dole emerged, tall and scowling. He ushered the Scranton staff into his inner sanctum but left us to cool our heels in the hallway for 40 minutes. Eventually, he allowed us into our own meeting. As we sat down, he propped his foot on an open drawer, looked at me, and said, ''Aren't you with Pearson?'' I nodded. ''You can go on back upstairs,'' he said. I declined, which was impolite but in the spirit of the time.
Dole humored me. We made our case to the commission staff. Then we were ushered out. Dole closed the door behind us and continued talking to the Scranton staff for another 20 minutes. We were outraged; our meeting had been hijacked.
At the time, we thought Dole was just trying to undercut Pearson and undo our efforts. But looking back at this event, many years later, I realize that something else was probably going on. My old friend Wayne Lee agrees. ''I'd bet money on the likelihood that Dole was fixing things, making arrangements for the staff to go to Lawrence,'' he said when I called him the other day.
A former political reporter for The Hutchinson News, the most powerful newspaper in western Kansas, Lee worked for a while as publisher of the Simi Valley, Calif., newspaper. But now he's back in God's country as editor and publisher of The Hutchinson News.
We recalled how, in the summer of '70, the Scranton Commission staff did, in fact, come to Lawrence to mediate, and helped cool the burning fuse.
''Pearson was a wonderful guy,'' he said. ''But the Scranton Commission wouldn't have come to Lawrence without Dole's blessing. That's the way things worked. You went to Dole to fix problems.''
If Dole did help us, he probably had political reasons for making it look otherwise. ''But Dole,'' said Lee, ''has always been uncomfortable with credit.''
Lee, once a liberal Democrat, now converted to Reaganism, remembered how Dole used to refer to the Hutchinson News as ''The Prairie Pravda,'' because it opposed the Vietnam War and supported grain sales to Russia. ''One time he summoned me and read me the riot act, but he was smiling when I left, and so was I. He's a worthy adversary.''
These days, Dole is identified more with Washington than Kansas, but Lee thinks that Dole's greatest strength and his greatest weakness is that he has never really left Kansas.
Watching Dole struggle through the early primaries, I was reminded of Ernie Pyle's description of that ''long, sad wind that blows so steadily across the thousands of miles of Midwest flatlands.... It comes from so far and blows so gently and yet so relentlessly; it rustles the leaves and the branches of the maple trees ... and it doesn't pass on and leave them still. It just keeps coming ... that wind of futility.''
'THERE are a lot of people like Dole in western Kansas,'' Lee said. ''They're doers. They don't talk about what they do. They're out there in the coffee shops, with their wry, dry humor, and their distaste for showy people who crowd in and start bragging. In western Kansas, which used to be called the Great American Desert, things got done with such difficulty that everybody had to be a doer, and nobody could rightfully take credit.''
In 1996, to win the presidency, Dole probably needs to get fancier and crowd in more and take some credit. But that tactic doesn't work well for him. Every time he stands up and starts crowing about his experience and leadership skills, it rings false and alien, and you can't hear his words for the wind.
''And when you are worn out and gone,'' wrote Pyle, ''the wind - still saying nothing, still so gentle and sad and timeless - is still blowing across the prairies, and will blow in the faces of the little men who follow you, forever.''