Dole: Man Behind Stern Senate Mask

As he exits, colleagues sketch a softer portrait

It's 1973, and Jesse Helms is one of the new boys in the Senate. Bob Dole comes to him and asks a favor: Would he call Mrs. Hanford of North Carolina - whose daughter Elizabeth had caught his eye - and "tell her I'm an all right guy?" the North Carolina Republican recalls.

So he did. "Now, Mrs. Hanford is a very, very dear lady. But she gave me the third degree, questions like, 'Does he do this, does he do that?' " Helms continues, leaving the questions up to the imagination. "I was able to say, 'No, he does not.' ... I guess I played cupid a little bit."

And two years later, Mary Cathey Hanford's daughter became Mrs. Dole.

More than 27 years after Mr. Dole joined the United States Senate, just about everyone there has a story about the man, who leaves office tomorrow to run for president full-time. In Dole's final week as a member, colleagues reminisced happily to reporters - stories about Dole's skill as a legislator, or how hard he works, or how he's really a softie after all, despite his stern demeanor.

Beneath all the remembrances lies a common denominator: Dole is beloved and admired by his colleagues, Republican and Democrat alike, in a close-knit institution where playing the game straight and fair almost counts more than what side of an issue you're on. To be sure, it's an old-boys club where members protect their own. But none offers even an off-the-record hint of ill will.

What's curious is that outside the friendly confines of the Capitol, the book on Dole changes. Inside, he's Mr. Senate. Outside, he has an image for being dull or, worse, mean. Leading Republican strategists castigate Dole as an inept campaigner, unable to articulate a vision for the nation or the presidency. Some have practically conceded the race to President Clinton already.

"The interesting question is how this guy can have such a harsh public persona and such a warm private persona," says a former top Democratic Senate aide.

Lobbyist Tom Korologos, one of Dole's best friends, is clearly frustrated by the senator's image problem. Mr. Korologos recalls an event several years ago sponsored by the Dole Foundation for the disabled, where all the people in wheelchairs were sitting at a separate table.

Dole came in, and "he got madder'n hell," Korologos says. "He said, 'Why are they isolated like that? Move those people around! Their bodies may be broken but their minds aren't. They should be mixing in with other people.' And he was right.... I said to myself, by golly, this tough character has a soft spot in him."

How hot a temper?

Dole's infamous flashes of temper - such as his remark "stop lying about my record," directed at George Bush during the 1988 presidential campaign, or the time in 1976 when he blamed Democrats for this century's wars - are "isolated instances that have been blown way out of proportion," says Korologos.

Dole biographers have documented other instances of public pique. But Democrats and Republicans interviewed maintain that Dole has no more of a temper than the average person - though, like many in high-level positions, he does not suffer fools gladly - and less of a temper than Mr. Clinton.

When Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut was deciding last year whether to accept the post of Democratic Party chair, he consulted at length with Dole, the only other person he knew who had been a senator and party chairman at the same time.

"He gave me some great advice about the pitfalls, the time, and so forth. And he recommended I do it...," Dodd laughs. "I don't think he wanted me to do it very well. But he wanted me to do it. I think he thought it was a good experience."

Dole's advice: Don't let the White House keep you out of the loop. "They won't return your phone calls. They don't invite you to meetings," Dodd recalls Dole saying. "By 1974, he said, I was sort of glad they hadn't included me in a lot of things!"

Some colleagues remember Dole for his legislative achievements. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah notes "what a deft job" Dole did as chairman of the Finance Committee getting the Reagan tax cuts through - "a monumental sea change in how we were going to treat taxation in this country." Others mention the 1983 Social Security overhaul and the Voting Rights Act extension of 1982.

"He was always extremely good on legislative issues, very accurate in knowing what the issues are, what the relative strengths of people are," says former Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley. "He's pragmatic. He's trying to get some result."

Robert Merry, executive editor of the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly, writes that Dole's senatorial record "rises to a level of greatness with few equals, not only in our time, but in our era."

But the bad news for Dole is that the public holds Congress in low esteem - and the Dole campaign knows it. Democratic chairman Dodd chides the Dole campaign for producing a television spot that highlights Dole's war record, then skips to his announcement for the presidency.

"Instead of having sort of a 17-minute gap, we've got this 36-year gap," says Dodd, "and it's the most incredible part of his life, in many ways - the contribution he made here as a senator [and House member] over the years."

Dole after hours

Nancy Kassebaum (R) - Kansas' other senator, who is preparing her own retirement - tells a story about her first Senate campaign in 1978. It's Sunday night before the Tuesday election, and Mrs. Kassebaum is at home watching "The Sound of Music" with her children. The phone rings. It's Dole calling from northeast Kansas, where he has been campaigning for Kassebaum.

"He says, 'So what's up?' " Kassebaum recalls. "Boy, was I embarrassed. But he didn't care. He always worked hard."

After hours, the Doles are not big on socializing, though many senators recall a dinner or two out at a restaurant with Bob and Elizabeth. Rather, say the senator's friends, he prefers to go home and unwind in front of the television. "He's a C-Span junkie," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. "He also watches [Jay] Leno and [David] Letterman, just to keep up with the latest jokes."

Dole also keeps an active interest in sports; he was a basketball all-star in high school and played in college. To boost his image as a regular guy, he's been attending sporting events lately, including Saturday's National Basketball Association finals game and the Charlotte Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, where he told the crowd, "I love racing. I love country music."

A Vietnam secret

By nature, though, Dole is "kind of a private person," says Senator McCain, one of Dole's closer Senate friends and once a celebrated Vietnam prisoner of war. After 10 years together in the Senate, Dole recently revealed in an emotional speech that, during the Vietnam War, he wore a Lt. John McCain POW bracelet. McCain never knew this until now.

Dole is also reluctant to let others help him. Some senators recall instances of reaching to help him put on his coat - Dole's right arm is disabled from war injuries - and being brushed off. That independence sometimes carries into his legislative work.

"His biggest problem is that he has a difficult time asking anybody to help him, and that's been a problem to him, because people like to be asked to help," says Senator Hatch. "The problem is, he's been leader so long, among this crowd, anytime he asks them to help him, people say, OK, I helped you, now you help me. ... Therefore he doesn't owe anybody anything."

Often, it's Dole's humor that senators mention first, although he's been keeping it under wraps lately lest he be further typecast as acid-tongued. Sen. Hank Brown (R) of Colorado remembers showing off pictures of his Saint Bernards, calling them "his first grandchildren." Dole's comeback: "Look just like their granddaddy."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania and, like Dole, a native of Russell, Kan., recalls a story Dole tells about his days as a soda jerk in their local drugstore. Dole would throw the silver milkshake container up in the air and catch it behind his back. "And if the ice cream hit the floor, I'd call it chocolate," Dole said, according to Senator Specter.

Some of Dole's friends give as good as they get. Bob Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic Party, recalls his parting words to Dole at the end of a recent breakfast. "Senator," Mr. Strauss remembers saying, "I admire you, I respect you, I love you, and I hope we have breakfast again before I vote against you."

"I laughed and he laughed," Strauss says. "That's the kind of fella he is."

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