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When Bob Dole Said No

By Noel Koch
Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page A23

"They want me to head Veterans," Bob Dole said. "They" meant the Bush White House. His tone said there were things he would rather do.

I asked him whether he was going to do it -- take on the campaign role of going after the veterans' vote. "Probably have to," he said, although he added that he knew the Bush campaign would want him to attack John Kerry, and he didn't intend to do that. He didn't have anything against Kerry, he said.

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The conversation in my old friend's Pennsylvania Avenue office took me back decades. In the 1970 off-year elections, Bob Dole, freshman senator from Kansas, campaigned so aggressively for Republican candidates that he was awarded the position of chairman of the Republican National Committee. It looked like one more giant step forward for the man whose war wound in April 1945 brought him near death on three separate occasions and kept him bedridden for years while other young veterans were starting careers. When he finally learned to walk again, he did it with a vow: "I'm going to get those years back," he told his brother Kenny.

But the RNC job was a poisoned apple. It came from the White House, and Dole was expected to pay an extravagant price for it. I was, in the way of things, the bill collector. For a brief period, I worked for Charles Colson. Chuck was one day to found an important prison ministry, but before his pilgrimage took him there he styled himself a hatchet man for Richard Nixon.

Colson ran a political operation in the White House, with outreach programs to various constituencies. My "constituency" was Congress, and my job was to get Republican members to laud the president and savage Democrats -- particularly House and Senate Democrats. The idea was to keep White House enemies on the defensive. Sometimes it worked. When it didn't work, it was because the members refused to be mustered into Colson's attack machine. They valued their independence.

No one valued his independence more than Bob Dole, who had struggled for so long to regain it after years of dependency on others. Colson never understood that; he felt Dole should pay for the chairmanship, and it was assumed I could persuade him to do things he preferred not to do -- such as launching gratuitous attacks on his colleagues. "They want me to get out there and accuse Teddy Kennedy of all kinds of stuff," he would complain. "I'm not going to do that. I have to work with the guy. Besides, I like him."

Dole was no shrinking violet; he was willing to attack -- indeed, his reputation for it shadowed his career for years. But he was not willing to be manipulated. He refused to be used, and Colson swore Dole would pay for his defiance. After the 1972 election Dole was fired as party chairman. His bitterness was palpable: "They invited me up the mountain [Camp David] and threw me off."

Dole is part of a political generation that took national service for granted. What separated his service from that of so many of his congressional colleagues was that he nearly died and then spent the remainder of a remarkable life overcoming challenges that most people can't imagine -- e.g., simply getting dressed.

No one is better placed than Dole to know how arbitrary are the fortunes of war. It is not surprising to hear John Kerry's wounds belittled by men who have avoided all risk of being wounded. Someday perhaps we will be able to plumb the neuroses of those who avoided Vietnam and have ever after had difficulty living with the choice. But it is surprising to hear Bob Dole doing it. Kerry not hospitalized for his wounds? Bob Dole was not hospitalized for his first Purple Heart either.

"It was just a scratch," he later recalled. "I think one of our grenades hit a tree and bounced back." He received a Bronze Star, but that came much later, and was a bureaucratic exercise having little to do with his service as a platoon leader in the extraordinary 10th Mountain Division on April 14, 1945, the day his war ended, in Italy.

Bob Dole knows as well as any person how capricious is the gleaning of medals. Some men deserve what they don't get; some get what they don't deserve. And who should know better than he that it is craven to belittle a man's service because it didn't extend over some arbitrary stretch of time?

Bob Dole spent little time in combat. But as a result of the time he did spend, he lay on his back for years, recovering, and helping others to recover.

I spent a year in Vietnam and came home without a scratch. My brother served two tours in Vietnam, earned three Purple Hearts (and was hospitalized, and does draw disability -- weird yardsticks used to measure John Kerry's alleged shortfall), and yet spent far less time than I did in-country. Indeed, his first "tour" lasted about 15 minutes, ending on the beach near Danang in the midst of the U.S. Marines' first amphibious assault in Vietnam.

Time in-country, how often a man was wounded, how much blood he shed when he was wounded -- it is hurtful that those who served in Vietnam are being split in so vile a fashion, and that the wounds of that war are reopened at the instigation of people who avoided serving at all. It is hurtful that a man of Bob Dole's stature should lend himself to the effort to dishonor a fellow American veteran in the service of politics at its cheapest.

There was a time when he would have refused. I know. I was there.

The writer was special assistant to President Richard Nixon from 1971 to 1974. He was assistant secretary of defense and director for special planning at the Defense Department from 1981 to 1986.

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