WHENEVER Robert Joseph Dole takes a crucial step, he comes back home to Russell, Kan. As a youngster, he soaked up the town's gritty prairie values. When he returned wounded from World War II, the town raised $1,800 to pay his medical bills. Throughout his political career, from the Kansas Legislature to the United States Senate, this small Republican town has given votes and campaign money.
So no one was surprised when Senator Dole returned here in November to announce his biggest race of all: for the presidency. If the theme of Mr. Dole's life is a rapid charge up the political ladder, then the story of Russell is how small-town roots continue to nourish the boy who left to seek his fame in Washington, D.C. If Dole ever makes it to the White House, he'll take a slice of western Kansas with him.
As across the Great Plains, the tallest things in Russell are its tales. It's easy to romanticize the place. In the 1920s, a group of wildcatters known as the ``Lucky Seven'' hit oil, bringing wealth for a few and racy honky-tonks for the rest.
A decade later huge dust storms and the Great Depression darkened the horizon for nearly everyone, including the Doles.
``You never had anything,'' recalls Kenny, Dole's younger brother. The four children, of whom Robert was the second, were always fed and clothed - their father, Doran, ran a cream-and-egg station, while their mother, Bina, sold sewing machines and gave sewing lessons. But Kenny remembers the poverty, remembers inserting cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes. One year the family moved into the basement and rented out the upstairs to avoid losing their house to foreclosure.
Russell in the '30s bred an ethic of hard work and obedience. ``If your dad said, `You're moving into the basement,' that's what you did,'' Kenny says.
That sense of duty and hard work played a large role in Dole's subsequent political career. In the 1950s, local shopkeepers closing up at 10 or 11 p.m. remember seeing the office of their young, ambitious county attorney still lit.
Russell taught other lessons as well. The townsfolk joked a lot, sometimes with a put-down humor. ``You had to laugh in those days. If you didn't you'd cry,'' says G.B. (Bub) Dawson.
Wry humor, for which Dole is famous, was also a defense. ``We were all taught not to wear our hearts on our sleeves,'' says Dean Banker, head of Banker's Department Store.
In his current campaign, though, the senator has put aside some of his typical Kansas reserve to talk openly about his humble beginnings and the time when, as county attorney, he approved the welfare checks for his grandparents.
``There are some people in this country with real problems and no place to go,'' Dole told his Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers at an Indianapolis convention last July. ``And they're not cheats and they're not lazy. ... And I must confess as a Republican that somehow we're perceived as worrying about the people at the top and not worrying much about the people at the bottom.'' He says he aims to change that perception.
If Russell sparked Dole's concern over the disadvantaged, it was World War II that forged it indelibly. Severely wounded in Italy in 1945, Dole spent 39 months in hospitals, sometimes barely surviving. He had to relearn how to use his limbs. To this day he has only limited use of his right arm.
``[S]uffering can do one of two things to someone,'' he writes in a new campaign autobiography written with his wife, Elizabeth. ``It can toughen him or it can harden him. It can make him more, or less, sensitive to the needs of those around him. He can say to himself: `I overcame this, the toughest challenge of my life. And if I did, then everyone else ought to be able to do the same thing.' Or he can develop a special bond with other sufferers....''
In Dole's case, the war injury appears to have intensified both instincts.
On the one hand, the senator retains a keen sympathy for the disadvantaged and, in particular, the disabled. Although a conservative, Dole in the 1970s worked closely with liberal Democrat George McGovern to write food-stamp legislation. In the 1980s, he led the fight in the Senate to establish Martin Luther King Day and succeeded in persuading a reluctant Reagan administration to accept the 1982 Voting Rights Act.
Without fanfare, Dole is also supporting four handicapped students at Washburn University Law School, his alma mater. Suggested funding for such scholarships ranges from $10,000 to $50,000 a year.
BUT the other side of Dole is ambitious, impatient, and - some would say - mean.
``He has a reservoir of anger that is burning within him,'' says Stanley Hilton, a Dole aide for a short time eight years ago and writer of an unauthorized biography of Dole due out in March. ``He was always a gentleman to me. However, he always seemed to have a whipping boy.''
``I never saw that,'' counters Richard Smith, a former staff aide and the researcher who helped the Doles put together the autobiography, due to be published next month. ``Bob Dole - he will never be a serene man. ... Here's someone who lost four years of his life and he's never forgotten it.''
Certainly as a senator, Dole has been on a perpetual fast track - and he expected his young, energetic staff to keep up with him.
``There was no grass growing under his feet,'' says Morgan Williams, a former Dole staff assistant. Unwilling to delegate authority, Dole would often communicate with staff members through one-page memos and then make his own contacts for a specific piece of legislation.
``He's not going to have two or three people filter things to him,'' says Mr. Williams, who is active with the Dole campaign. On the other hand, ``he liked people with ideas and he expected you to make things happen.'' When asked one morning how to honor Dole's ailing friend, Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D) of Minnesota, an aide suggested naming the new Health and Human Services building after Mr. Humphrey. The bill was drafted that afternoon.
Honoring the liberal Humphrey, working with Senator McGovern, supporting the Voting Rights Act - these are actions that would have been unthinkable for Dole as the fiercely partisan US representative in the mid-1960s or the very conservative freshman senator in 1968. As the GOP leader in the Senate, Dole has become known as a dealmaker and compromiser - a far cry from the days when, according to Mr. Smith, the fiercely loyal Republican was reluctant to watch the television series ``Bonanza'' because its principal actors were Democrats.
Dole supporters say these shifts represent growth. Critics charge he has mellowed his tone merely to climb further up the political ladder.
As Republican Party chairman from 1971 to 1973, Dole fiercely defended President Nixon in the midst of Watergate and nearly lost his 1974 Senate reelection race because of his stance. Dole eked out a hair-breadth victory after his opponent, Democrat Bill Roy, was accused of favoring unrestricted abortion. Critics charge that the Dole campaign was involved in the smear campaign.
Two years later as President Ford's running mate, Dole made his most famous political misstep. In a debate with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Walter Mondale, he blamed the last three US wars on the Democrats. The statement was roundly criticized and Dole was branded a ``hatchet man'' - an image he is still trying to live down.
WOULD Dole do anything to win? Suspicions were raised last year after the Senate confirmation hearings of conservative judge Daniel Manion. Dole reversed what looked like a defeat through a series of controversial deals in which two absent senators were said to support Manion when, in fact, they were uncommitted.
``Bob is not above using the power he has in reaching to get power and position,'' says Russ Townsley, editor of the Russell newspaper. But ``he's not unethical. He's not dishonest. And if he says he'll do something, he'll do it. ... I know he will make a great president.''
Adds Eugene DeForrest, researcher for the unauthorized biography: ``He was raised with a moral code, there's no question about it. And the moral code is: You live an honorable life, you work as hard as you can, and you take it as it comes. ... If he maintains that code that he learned in Russell, Kansas, and if he goes to the White House, he'll be a president with integrity.''
Fifth in a series. Wednesday: Jesse Jackson
Able to turn vision into concrete
ROBERT DOLE calls it the ``V word.''
The V stands for political vision - or, in Senator Dole's case, the lack of one.
``Ferocious Ambition Drives Political Junkie Dole, But Candidate Lacks Carefully Fixed Philosophy,'' said the Wall Street Journal headline in September. Two months later, U.S. News & World Report queried: ``Bob Dole: Ready to lead, but where?''
On two issues - cutting the federal budget deficit and caring for the disadvantaged - the Senate minority leader has voiced consistent themes.
The deficit. ``That's the single biggest threat,'' Mr. Dole said of the deficit in an interview. ``Either we're going to have to sacrifice or we're going to have to continue to ask our children to sacrifice. And the only problem with that is: Many of 'em aren't even old enough to vote.''
To an audience of mostly college students in Indianapolis last summer, Dole said: ``I just can't be serious enough about what we're about to dump into the laps of your generation, because we [Congress] haven't shown the courage or demonstrated the willingness to face up to the issue and to make hard decisions.''
Ambiguous on trims. Exactly how he would trim the deficit remains hazy. He still voices enthusiasm for an unsuccessful 1985 bill that aimed to trim $135 billion in federal spending over three years, eliminate 14 federal programs, and freeze spending for most other programs. Yet Dole has pushed through several programs that have ballooned the federal deficit to record levels, such as the 1981 tax-reduction bill and the 1985 farm bill.
The disadvantaged. ``I want the Republican Party to be accurately perceived as a more sensitive party, as far as disabled, blacks, and Hispanics, [and] poor people,'' Dole says. Although a conservative who has voted with the Right on such things as gun control and abortion, Dole since the mid-1970s has also pushed for such things as the food stamp program and help for the disabled.
Hard to pin down. A group of Kansas farmers met with Dole in early 1985 to urge higher agricultural price supports. ``He used the same old excuse that he uses all the time: `Well, you can't work with an urban Congress, but I'll do as much as I can,''' farmer Larry Matlack recalls of the meeting. But when farm legislation was crafted that year, Dole led the fight to reduce farm support prices. ``He was just the opposite of what he told us in the meeting,'' Mr. Matlack complains.
Supporters aren't surprised by such charges, though. They claim that one of Dole's great strengths is to listen to a lot of different outside views, make up his own mind, then shepherd through a compromise.
`Bill-by-bill guy.' Dole is a conservative, not an ideological, Republican, says David Keene, a political consultant for Dole, who could take the vision that President Reagan has set - the ``shining city on a hill'' - and make it concrete. But, say former aides, his personal instincts and legislative training make it difficult for the senator to paint the broad picture of where he would take the country. ``Given Dole's methods of operating, it does look like he's a program-by-program, bill-by-bill type of guy,'' says one longtime acquaintance.
Dole himself puts the vision question another way: ``Before you can know where someone wants to go, you ought to find out where he's coming from,'' he writes in an autobiography, which emphasizes his rural roots. ``Instead of a shining city on a hill, maybe we could emulate a typical prairie village.''
He doesn't make clear what the prairie village is, except that it has a large reservoir of common sense and, faced with a problem, would pull together and fix it. It remains to be seen whether, after eight years under Ronald Reagan, Americans are seeking a leader who's handy with a pipe wrench.
`I will be an active first lady'
IF her husband gets elected to the White House, someone may have to come up with a new title for Elizabeth Dole. ``First Lady'' might not be powerful enough.
Married to Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole, Mrs. Dole is a political force in her own right. In the last 20 years she has served in the White House Office of Consumer Affairs and the Federal Trade Commission, and headed the White House Office of Public Liaison. From 1983 until last September, she was secretary of transportation.
Those who know both Doles say she would play a broader, more strategic political role in the White House than most wives of presidents. ``I will be an active first lady, let's put it that way,'' Mrs. Dole said in a telephone interview.
Mrs. Dole has hit the campaign trail running, traveling in 40 states, giving speeches, raising funds. The travel doesn't allow her to sit in on weekly meetings to sketch out campaign strategy, she says, but ``most definitely I am involved in that.'' Campaign officials expect she will be particularly effective in the South, thanks to her North Carolina roots.
Mrs. Dole is 13 years younger than the senator, who was previously divorced (it is her first marriage).The Doles are Washington's ``power couple'' and share a hardworking dedication to government, but they sport contrasting styles. She is a perfectionist, reading all she can on a subject and setting agendas. He often wings it on the speech circuit, prefers one-page memos from his staff, and makes last-minute schedule changes.
Sundays are their only private time. In the mornings, they attend Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. Afternoons are usually spent browsing through newspapers, brunching with friends, or watching old movies. Senator Dole avidly watches the Sunday news shows, often pedaling on an exercise bicycle.