ONE SOLDIER'S STORY
By Bob Dole
Bob Dole leading a tour last spring of the World War II Memorial on the Mall.
(Lauren Burke -- AP)
HarperCollins. 287 pp. $25.95
Bob Dole has spent the nearly nine years since his not entirely voluntary retirement from political office busily, even frantically, cashing in. What seemed like only minutes after his defeat by Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election, Dole rushed off in any direction where a dollar beckoned. He did so many commercials it was difficult to keep track: Visa, Target, Dunkin' Donuts, Pepsi, Air France and, most notoriously, Viagra. Never mind that at least some of his haul was donated to charity; the overall impression was of someone turning a public career into a springboard for private gain in ways that brought no credit to that career, or to the many Americans who placed their faith in Dole.
Now he's come forth with a book, the product of many ghostly hands. "One Soldier's Story" is an account of Dole's boyhood in Kansas during the 1920s and the Depression, his service in World War II, the terrible wounds he suffered in combat in the European war's final weeks and his long, hard, determined and courageous recovery. To say that it is a familiar story is understatement; during nearly half a century in politics, Dole and his acolytes told it over and over and over again, not so much ennobling Dole as trivializing a very human and very powerful story.
Precisely what is served by telling it once again in book form is difficult to determine. Certainly it is self-serving for Dole to thank his publisher "for recognizing that my story represents an entire generation of heroes who endured World War II, and for seeing the need to pass on a legacy to the next generation." In truth, Dole's story can be said to "represent" only the stories of soldiers who were traumatically wounded yet managed, through their own steadfastness and the selfless help of others, to achieve some measure of healing. Dole's phrasing, though, suggests that he is trying to climb aboard the highly lucrative "Greatest Generation" bandwagon, putting himself forth as its emblematic and heroic figure.
What makes this undertaking even harder to accept as anything but another raid on the money tree is that Dole told pretty much the same story (except for some previously unpublished letters he sent home from training camp and the front), in "Unlimited Partners: Our American Story," written with his wife, Elizabeth Dole, with the helping hand of Richard Norton Smith, who also "provided enormous editorial assistance as well as his unique perspectives on my story" in the production of the new book. The collaboration with Elizabeth Dole was originally published in 1988, as part of Dole's effort to secure a Republican presidential nomination, and revised subsequently to include the story of the 1996 campaign.
All of which makes "One Soldier's Story" a difficult book to review. To raise objections to the motives apparently behind it and its flat, assembly-line prose doubtless will be taken in some quarters as an attempt to belittle what happened to Dole and how he overcame it. Nothing of the sort is intended. As one who finds much to admire in Dole's political career and who voted for him in 1996, I am inclined to wink at his lapses in taste, judgment and rhetoric -- of which, alas, there have been a good many over the years. But even after every benefit of the doubt is extended to Dole, "One Soldier's Story" has little to recommend it.
You know the story. In April 1945, the newly minted second lieutenant (a "90-Day Wonder," as those young, green officers were called) was hit by a "mortar round, exploding shell, or machine gun blast -- whatever it was, I'll never know" -- in action in the Italian Apennine Mountains. "I didn't know it at the time, but whatever it was that hit me had ripped apart my shoulder, breaking my collarbone and my right arm, smashing down into my vertebrae, and damaging my spinal cord." It is a miracle that Dole survived the several hours before medics reached him, then the excruciating trip to a hospital, then the transatlantic flight, then the years of treatment, surgery and therapy.
Even told for the umpteenth time, the story retains its power. "On the morning of April 14, 1945, I could raise my right hand high in the air and motion the men in my platoon to follow me. It's been more than sixty years since that morning, and I've not raised my right hand over my head since." And, after seeing himself for the first time in a mirror, a sight that "horrified" him: "It's been more than sixty years since I first saw that image in the bathroom mirror. In the past sixty years, I've glanced at my full body in a mirror less than half a dozen times. Except to shave and comb my hair, I still avoid looking in mirrors. After showering in the morning, the first thing I do is put on a T-shirt. I don't need any more reminders."
Dole is quick to acknowledge those who helped him and is generous in his thanks. His entire family pitched in, but the "unconditional love" of his mother was crucial. Many doctors counseled and operated on him; the most important was "Dr. K," Hampar Kelikian, "an Armenian refugee who . . . understood the horrors of war all too well" and who "inspired within me a new attitude, a new way of looking at my life, urging me to focus on what I had left and what I could do with it, rather than complaining about what had been lost and could never be repaired." Many nurses attended him as well, by far the most important being Phyllis Holden, whom he married in 1948; she "refused to treat me as a cripple; she knew that the best way I could be happy was to do things for myself."
Dole went back to college, then to law school and soon enough into politics. He thinks that he'd have done much the same had he returned from the war unscathed, but that seems unlikely. The war was the shaping experience of his life, and everything that followed it must be seen in that light. This includes his lifelong sympathy for others who have suffered, as well as the conflict that often surfaced during his political career between this sympathy and his belief in individual self-reliance unencumbered by governmental assistance.
As has been remarked elsewhere, it also no doubt helps explain the bitterness and meanness he cannot always control. A man who has spent six decades asking "Why me? Why did it happen?" would have to be a saint to avoid anger and self-pity, and Dole is no saint. Unfortunately, there is evidence of this in the closing pages, in which Dole pats himself on the back for his role in placing the World War II Memorial in the middle of the Mall. With regard to an organization called Save the Mall, which fought hard and fair against the memorial, Dole says: "We already saved it once. . . . We saved it and everything else in World War II." Not merely is that breathtakingly self-righteous, it also condescends to a group of serious, public-spirited citizens and shows little but contempt for what one would expect a Great Plains conservative to hold dear: the right of Americans to hold and express differing points of view.
The ways in which Dole engineered the World War II Memorial did him little credit. Unfortunately the principal effect of the final pages of "One Soldier's Story" is merely to remind us of this, bringing to an unfortunate end a book that would best have gone unwritten.