PRINT Summer 1996


Bob Dole’s War Story

HADN’T WE SAID GOOD-BYE to the World War II generation with George Bush? Hadn’t D-Day turned 50? It’s been years since Time ran the commemorative cover “So long soldier” . . . and thanks for the memories. But suddenly, like the thing that will not die, it’s 72-year-old vet Bob Dole seeking one last mission as your president.

As sumo wrestlers try to shove each other out of the ring, so Washington insiders Dole and Bill Clinton will bump and jostle for the presumed electoral center. Less a matter of party affiliation or ideology, their contest for possession of the national phallus can only be appreciated as generational. As Russell Baker articulated the two sides in The New York Times, “We are now being governed by the people we used to spank. We are now being threatened by the people who wouldn’t let us have the car on Saturday Night.”

Human nature being what it is, one can well imagine the taxpaying spankees voting for the Social Security–collecting car owners and vice versa. (In fact the Washington Post has noted that Dole’s contemporaries support Clinton by the greatest margin of any age group.) Nevertheless, the issue comes down to who’s Dad. Or, as a little girl says in the opening minute of the $167,000 campaign film Bob Dole: An American Hero, “The President is the most important person in the whole country.” Trying to outflank Clinton’s paternal strategy, Dole presents himself as Babysitter Bob. “If something happened along the route and you had to leave your children with Bob Dole or Bill Clinton,” he told a Pennsylvania rally, “I think you’d probably leave your children with Bob Dole.” Is that because we know Bob can’t spank?

Back in January, Time noted that, while Dole only exploited his war wounds after he began losing his quest for the Republican nomination in 1988, “now he’s practically flaunting them.” Indeed, once Dole clinched the nomination, The New York Times ran a detailed story to mark the 51st anniversary of Dole’s battlefield injury, headlined “War Wounds Still Mold Life, and Some Politics, for Dole.” Bob Dole brings back the World War II narrative, but with a difference: he would be the first physically disabled president since wartime leader Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dole’s right arm and hand remain useless: “I still use a buttonhook every day.”

No longer the saga of European appeasement and American freedom, Japanese sneak attack and Nazi evil, Dole’s war story is a talk-show spectacular of triumph over agony and mutilation. (“President Clinton says, I share your pain. I can say, I feel your pain, or whatever.”) A 22-year-old former high-school athlete, Lieutenant Bob Dole was hit by German mortar fire on April 14, 1945, near Bologna, Italy. The shrapnel crushed his spine and broke his collarbone, his right shoulder, and his right arm. Unable to move, he nearly bled to death on the battlefield and was shipped back to Kansas in a body cast on which, his mother would discover, other GIs used to stub out their cigarettes.

Paralyzed in both arms and legs, Dole spent 39 months in recovery. “I couldn’t feed myself, I couldn’t dress myself. I couldn’t walk.” Dole’s right arm was fused to his body at a 45-degree angle until an adventurous orthopedic surgeon carved a new ball and socket for his shoulder and, using transplanted thigh muscle, rehung the arm at Dole’s side. This prolonged hospitalization, involving years of therapy and nine operations, seems more than likely the source of Dole’s sardonic humor, his dark moods, his mirthless grin, his explosive bitterness, and who knows what bodily secrets. It is suggestive that his first wife and longtime executive aide were both former nurses; his high-powered second spouse is, of course, the head of the American Red Cross. (In Bob Dole: An American Hero, the second Mrs. Dole suggests that the senator signaled a proposal of marriage in part by unveiling his wound for the benefit of his prospective mother-in-law.)

Just as Bob Dole: An American Hero presents the candidate’s recovery as a miracle, so the Dole candidacy bids to arrest the flow of time and reconfigure the logic of our history, reinstall the vets, and send the Boomers back to school. The venerable High Noon (1952), Bill Clinton’s professed favorite movie (as it has been for most American presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower), would be replaced as a Rorschach test with an earlier Stanley Kramer/Carl Foreman/Fred Zinneman opus on the nature of the masculine imperative, namely, The Men (1950).

Marlon Brando’s first movie, The Men tells the story of a midwestern college sports hero (Brando) turned infantry lieutenant who, wounded and paralyzed from the waist down, must endure the nightmare of rehabilitation. Brando’s epochal performance aside, the movie is distinguished mainly by its unusual recognition of the ephemeral nature of life, the irrationality of existence, the situational nature of manhood, and the presence of suffering, as well as by the lack of an unambiguously happy ending. Shot in late 1949, The Men opened the following July—two weeks into the Korean War and a few months before the rebuilt Bob Dole successfully ran for the Kansas legislature.

A paraplegic Brando for president—or a galvanized cadaver? Despite his miraculous resilience, Dole embodies mortality. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Time called him “the National Mortician.” Even once his opposition in the primaries collapsed, the best the Washington Post could say was that Dole had “risen, if not from the grave, at least from his political sickbed to reclaim the mantle of front runner.”

The corpselike picture of the young Dole on a hospital bed (prominently displayed in his campaign film) was rhymed this spring by the much-remarked-on candid snap of Babysitter Bob splayed out in T-shirt and swimming trunks, phone glued to his ear as he “relaxed” by the pool at the Sea View hotel in Miami Beach. (Running this photo next to the headline “Dole’s Ideal Vacation: Doing Nothing, Or Close To It,” The New York Times portrayed the Sea View as a sort of nursing home with palm trees: “On any given day [there are] more people with canes or in wheelchairs than children.”)

Dole’s age and injury can only heighten public fascination with the presidential body. Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who has missed little opportunity to draw attention to the state of Dole’s torso (“Seeing a politician’s thighs is always alarming”), noted that his vacation reading was Richard Brookheiser’s George Washington biography Founding Father, which “breathlessly celebrates Washington’s physique.” In 1932, Roosevelt was photographed swimming, as was the cancer-surviving Paul Tsongas 60 years later. Ronald Reagan, who went topless and invited the media to document his capacity for yard work in 1980, went on to merge with Rambo as the national symbol of a restored national Hard Body. Still, the trauma of presidential mortality haunts the movies JFK, In the Line of Fire, Dave, and even The American President.

Bill Clinton may represent appetite, but Bob Dole signifies the void. If the president is as comfy as a Barcalounger, the Senate majority leader is as chilly as the grave. As much as we the people tried to resist it, there was an inevitability to this contest—a race that, in addition to setting World War II vet against Vietnam peacenik, would seem to pit Death against Taxes.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.