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Dropping Stoicism About His War Wounds, Dole Reveals Their Strains on Daily Living
By Laura Blumenfeld
It's Bob Dole, examining his hand. He touches thumb to pinkie. "I have good feeling in this little finger," he says, patting the end. He jumps to the next finger, the ring finger, testing it for sensation, coaxing it open to the first knuckle. ". . . And about half of this finger. The radial nerve, or something, is damaged." His palm closes. End of inventory: 1 1/2 good fingers. The rest move freely, but are numb. They feel prickly, like sandpaper scratching cement.
This is Dole's good hand. The other one, his right hand, is useless.
Fifty years he's dreamed of repairing himself, and still the right arm hangs limp, emaciated, 2 1/2 inches shorter than the other arm, his fingers molded around a black felt-tip pen all day to keep them from spidering open.
"And of course my hands lost a lot of weight," the senator says, haltingly. "I never did recover the flesh or the muscle, and it makes them look a little old."
Sen. Robert J. Dole is not good at self-examination, at least not public self-examination. But the 1996 campaign has forced him into unfamiliar territory: himself. Men of Dole's generation, the war generation, believe in bearing their pain stoically. Theirs was not the era of Oprah. And so most people, even Kansans who have elected Dole nine times to Congress, have been unaware of the extent to which his war wounds limit his actions and hamstring his daily life.
But after three failed national campaigns, the man with the grouchy image, the man who unkindly has been called Darth Vader, and a vampire, and the Aya-Dole-ah, is trying something new, something awkward and risky. He has spent most of his career attempting to prove that his handicap means nothing; now the arm that doesn't work has a job. Tentatively, Dole has begun granting interviews like this one. He sits still, too still, like a man watching his blood being drawn into a syringe.
Campaign advisers have urged Dole to do this, to promote his human s ide and to highlight the difference between the Republican war hero wounded by the Germans, and President Clinton, who avoided the Vietnam-era draft. But others warn that the strategy is dangerous: Tying the 72-year-old Dole to World War II dates him, and the atrophied arm could be perceived as the ultimate cynical political prop.
"So it's very sensitive, you have to be very careful," Dole says. "I think -- um -- I don't have it down the way I want it to." Dole is gingerly feeling his way, testing for mines.
"I'm not looking for pity, but I want people to know," he says. His face is open and vulnerable. "Oh, you think about a lot of things you could do: push-ups, wrapping packages, buttoning your own shirt without a buttonhook, all kinds of little things."
He is not talking to me now, he is talking to the rug. "Riding horses always looked like a lot of fun." With a withered arm, you could fall on your face.
"Throwing out the opening pitch -- I don't know what I'd do if I get elected." Dole is speaking with a pinched, embarrassed smile. "Probably throw it underhanded with my left hand."
Daily, Not Routine
There were days when those hands would milk a cow, dig dandelions, deliver groceries, serve drugstore Cokes to sweating Kansas farmers, days when those athletic hands grabbed a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for a college prank and hauled it up three flights of stairs. That era ended April 14, 1945, in the hills of Italy, in the final weeks of the war in Europe, when a shell ripped through Dole's right shoulder and fractured his neck and spine. Today, if you want to know what it's like to have Bob Dole's disability, tie one hand -- the one you write with -- behind your back, and wear a glove on the other one. That's what Dole instructed his biographer, Jake Thompson, to do for a day.
"Every day you get up, it's a little bit of a challenge," Dole says. There is no self-pity or bitterness in his voice, just understatement. Dole was a 6 foot 2, 194-pound jock, with plans to become a doctor. Even now, decades later, the story unfolds like a humorless joke.
"I think, you just tell enough -- you just tell sort of a peek," Dole says. "You don't lay it all out, um, that you lost 70 pounds and that you had a temperature of 108.7. They'd probably think your brain is cooked," he says with a dry laugh.
Dole's long ordeal is known by now. It is campaign lore: how, during an Allied offensive near Florence, 2nd Lt. Dole led a platoon that was ordered to capture a hill; how, when his radio man was shot, Dole dragged him into a foxhole, not realizing he was dead; how, afterward, Dole was hit in the shoulder by a bullet or a shell fragment and lay face down on the battlefield, in dirt bloodied to mud, believing his arms had been shot clean out of their sockets; how the Army shipped him home in a plaster cast, crated like a piece of furniture; how the people of Russell, Kan., collected money to pay his medical bills in a Santa Fe cigar box that Dole stores in his desk drawer on top of a chunk of the Berlin Wall; how for 39 months he endured a second infancy, relearning how to eat, dress, bathe, walk and use the toilet; how an orthopedic surgeon who'd lost a brother in the war cobbled Dole back together for free; how Dole exercised tirelessly, using ropes and weights and pulleys in his back yard, to regain what limited arm strength he has; how he walked around with a 6-pound lead pipe on his arm that a former football teammate had molded for him and affixed with rubber bands in a scheme to straighten his right elbow and pry open his clawed fingers; how in college his first wife, Phyllis, took notes for him and wrote exam papers for him from dictation.
All this has been told before. What has not is the daily routine of being Bob Dole.
Dole wakes up each day holding the sawed-off top of a wooden crutch, a gauze-covered block. He grips it through the night to keep his right hand from cramping. He rolls off his bad arm, which he usually sleeps on, and starts to get ready, allowing 50 extra minutes for complications.
"I don't know what I would do if somebody yelled fire -- it would take you a while to get dressed," Dole says.
His clothes are laid out the evening before, the buttons buttoned to save time, except for the stubborn top one. That was Dole's daughter's job growing up. Robin Dole helped her father close his starchy collar. Cuff links relieve him of two extra buttons. For years, Dole resisted using a buttonhook; he wanted to do things himself. He couldn't feel the buttons, so he fastened them by sight and never in the dark. Breaking a nail was a minor catastrophe.
"I used to use Velcro on my shirts," says Dole, "and I wore these stupid ties that sort of hooked on. They looked like they felt: second-class."
He prefers ties of a thin material; they're easier to knot with one hand. He slips on loafers to avoid lacing, and snaps a shoulder pad into his undershirt to buttress his shattered frame. Elizabeth Hanford Dole buys her husband's suits at Brooks Brothers, where tailors alter the sleeves to their unequal lengths.
"He doesn't ever ask for any help," Elizabeth says. "He doesn't think about asking." She does some little things anyway, like peeling his fruit, or opening milk containers and childproof bottles before she puts them away. "I'll open orange juice cartons or I'll hear him struggling to get that little tab out."
Dole leaves the house with his suit jacket over his arm, so he doesn't have to wrestle it on and then off again when he arrives at the Senate. He'll tuck a couple of bills into his shirt pocket; no wallet to fumble with. He carries change in his left pants pocket, although he can't feel the difference between the coins. If it's raining, he'll take an umbrella that opens and closes with a button.
As Senate majority leader, Dole has a driver. But he can drive an automatic, and even taught Robin, now 41, to drive in their old Ford Falcon, which had a knob on its steering wheel to help him. For a birthday present, Elizabeth bought her husband power windows, replacing the hand-crank ones in his '87 Chevy Celebrity. Dole's main anxiety about driving, one that haunted him in the '70s as he crossed desolate stretches of Kansas while campaigning by himself: What if the car gets a flat?
At the office, Dole's phone is fitted with a shoulder cradle so he can talk while scribbling notes with his left hand. Mostly, he stores notes in his head. Dole's friend Tom Korologos recalls an hour-long session with Richard M. Nixon, where the former president ran down a list of ideas. Korologos took several pages of notes; Dole pointed to his temple and said, "I got it in here."
At the Senate, puzzled staffers sometimes pass around his scrawled messages to decipher. He prefers check-box memos that ask for yes/no replies. His writing travels at a slant down the page. His signature on a standard form letter passes through the "Sincerely yours," through the white space and comes out the bottom, beneath the typed "Bob Dole." For Republican National Committee fund-raising fliers and press releases, the printers cut out his signature and paste it on in the right direction.
"My handwriting isn't too good," Dole usually says under his breath when someone asks for an autograph. Mike Glassner, a senior adviser, is always there with a book or clipboard for the candidate to lean on. Dole calls Glassner his "portable office"; staffers call him "Dole's right arm."
Campaigning serves up another set of challenges. The most elementary political gestures are difficult for him: picking up babies, signing autographs, shaking hands. Dole deliberately keeps his right arm bent so the disparity in length isn't obvious. Advance men stick to his right side, and he holds his trademark pen, to prevent people from grabbing his hand. Dole pivots clockwise preemptively, a quarter-turn toward an approaching person. (He once told Korologos that Nixon was the only man in Washington who thought to offer Dole his left hand.)
At rallies, Dole applauds by knuckling his right fist into his left palm. Aides sheathe the pages of his speeches in plastic so they turn easily. Sometimes when he speaks outdoors, Elizabeth worries that the pages will blow away: "How do you hold a speech down and turn the page?"
Reporters on the campaign plane have noted that by evening the candidate's bad arm seems to ache, he lifts it up and kneads it. When asked about it, Dole says flatly: "It's just a little uncomfortable, I hardly notice it. It's not the kind of pain you have to take aspirin for or anything. A little pain in my right arm from time to time. Cold weather doesn't help." Which is why, whenever it's warm, Dole holds meetings on his office terrace, and why he loves sunning at his vacation home in Florida.
When Dole isn't working, he likes to exercise on his treadmill, wearing Nikes with Velcro straps and shorts with an elastic waistband. When he's photographed on the treadmill, he wears a long-sleeve dress shirt to cover his wasted arm. Elizabeth bought him a rowing machine for Christmas; the straight-back pulling motion is one of the few his arm can negotiate. He also likes to read, although leafing through a hardcover book with one hand is clumsy; paperbacks are easier.
He rarely dines out. Many nights, the Doles eat Chinese takeout on trays in front of the television set. He uses his fork as a knife. Foods that do not require cutting are his favorites: ice cream, sandwiches, cinnamon buns, soup and a shrimp jambalaya that Elizabeth cooks.
At public events, a staff aide asks the chef to cut Dole's meat in the kitchen, or a friend cuts his own steak, breaks a hard roll into bite-size pieces and then swaps plates. During his early campaigns, Dole developed a habit of leaving the dais and mixing with people out front, to avoid the embarrassment of asking someone to cut his food. Buffet lines are tricky and tuxedos stump him altogether.
"I can't get the little tie on, the last step when you got to put the little thing in that little thing," Dole says, and for the first time, frustration creeps into his voice. He is talking about a hook and eye. "I've hailed down waiters going by, or maids in hotel rooms, people on the elevator."
Over the years, there have been a few excruciating incidents, like the time Dole stumbled while boarding the Senate subway. He was holding papers in his left arm, and he couldn't break the fall. Dole smacked the concrete hard, bruising himself. His right arm began twitching uncontrollably. He grimaced and said, "It's okay." A man reached down to help him up, Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.).
A hundred times a day, in big and little ways, Dole is reminded of his limitations. Aside from his injuries, he has lost his prostate gland to cancer. Yet he says, "Compared to people with real disabilities, I think I'm very lucky." And the dozens of friends, relatives and colleagues interviewed for this article say the same thing: They notice his abilities, not his disabilities.
"You tend to forget he might have a disability," says Walt Riker, Dole's former press secretary. Riker still wears black loafers out of affection for his old boss, and walks around gripping a pen in his right fist.
Riker recalls that on his first trip with the senator, they stopped at an airport cafeteria, where Dole bought a sweet roll wrapped in cellophane. "He said, `Hey, will you open this for me?' and it shocked me," says Riker. "When you're around Bob Dole, he's so dynamic and a tremendous physical force, to be suddenly opening a sweet roll for him was stunning."
All day, Dole speeds around to make up for lost time, the extra minutes he's wasted just putting on a shirt. His tie may stay cinched up because it's hard to readjust, and he may be drinking cranberry juice instead of coffee because he lost a kidney in the war, but he's there, around the conference table, pressing his colleagues at 2 a.m.
"The bottom line is," says Riker, "we should all be so disabled as Bob Dole."
Is It an Issue?
So Bob Dole can't pick up coins off a countertop, and has to slide change sideways into his hand. So a presidential candidate predicts he'll die clutching a black felt-tip pen, and has asked to be buried with it. So?
For years, writers have doubled as armchair analysts, finding no end of psychological significance to Dole's injury. The crippled arm, depending on which Dole profile you consult, made Dole funny, angry, ambitious, mean or moderate on social issues.
Truth is, friends say, he's always been pretty much like he is. One change he claims rightfully, though, is that the wound sensitized him. In his first Senate speech, Dole described the disabled community as a shunned minority: "Maybe not exclusion from the front of the bus, but perhaps from even climbing aboard it." In 1984, he formed the Dole Foundation, which works to create employment for the handicapped.
When the senator travels, he scans local papers for people who've suffered serious accidents. In October 1993, three weeks after Florida dentist William Moon lost his right arm while trimming an oak tree, he sat in front of the television, brooding about his wrecked career, thinking about how he'd never again play pitching coach for his son's baseball team. The phone rang. It was Bob Dole, out of the blue.
"I was elated that he'd take the time to call a crazy old dentist who chopped his arm off in South Florida," says Moon. "He knows the terror of how an instant disability affects you. He said, `Have you got any career plans yet? Ever consider politics?' " They spoke for 30 minutes. Dole lined him up with a specialist for a prosthetic arm: "He said things happen to everybody; you can't give up." Before the call, Moon didn't even know the senator was disabled.
Even now, many people do not know. This isn't the first time Dole's war wound has come up in a campaign, but it is the first time it has been so central. In the late 1950s, Sen. Phil Hart (D-Mich.), a hospital buddy, encouraged Dole to pursue politics. Dole's first race was for county attorney. "On primary day," Dole wrote in "Unlimited Partners," "I scored a narrow win over Dean Ostrum, a Yale-educated lawyer whose professional credentials probably counted less than the local voters' sympathy for a banged-up veteran."
In Dole's 1974 campaign, his tightest Senate race, he distributed fliers detailing his recovery -- down to the blood clots and bone transplants -- with a close-up snapshot of his hand. In 1996, though, it has emerged as a theme not only in Dole's speeches but also in remarks from surrogates such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Last year and the year before, in Senate speeches, Dole compared today's political climate with that of another era: "Fifty years ago, we had a president, Franklin Roosevelt, who could not walk and believed it was necessary to disguise that fact from the American people. Today I trust that Americans would have no problem in electing as president a man or woman with a disability."
Most people didn't know that FDR's polio kept him from walking or that John F. Kennedy's back trouble was at times debilitating. But reticence is passe.
And so we learn from Dole and his family that when the candidate's eyes are bloodshot, his daughter squeezes the eyedrop bottle for him. We learn that a New York speech dynamics consultant taught Dole not to lean his bad arm on the lectern and call attention to it, but to let it hang nonchalantly at his side. We learn that Dole cannot hug.
"They're kind of dragging some of this stuff out of him," sighs Lyn Nofziger, a Reagan administration operative and longtime colleague of Dole's.
"It's something he's fought so hard to diminish," says Robin of her father's disability.
And yet Dole's official campaign video, "Bob Dole: An American Hero," features an "America's Most Wanted"-style recreation of the battlefield scene, with shaky, slow-motion footage of a rifle and an empty helmet rolling on the ground. His convalescence is conveyed with shots of a man from the knees down, shuffling forward. There is a packaged sheen to it that strikes some as vulgar. Last year, Garry Trudeau drew an acid "Doonesbury" strip in which Dole proudly introduces his war wound in a campaign speech, as though it were a character witness.
"It's unfortunate it's a campaign gimmick," says Mike Auberger, who runs the National Disability Rights Center. While Auberger is glad to see a disabled person run for president and says that Dole has always supported disability issues, in the past "he hasn't put himself out there to be seen. So here we are in campaign time, and the ad guys and the image guys are using his disability to soften his hard-nosed image. It's politically convenient for him to be disabled now; 20 years ago it wasn't."
Dole responds to the criticism: "I don't run around trying to gain points. I don't run around with an arm in a sling, or waving a bloody stump, like LBJ showing you my operations," he says. "But I think it does demonstrate, trying to get people to peek at it, that, you know, Bob Dole's had problems like we have in our family."
This is Dole's way to break Clinton's lock on empathy. In 1992, Clinton used the idea of personal suffering (battered mother, alcoholic stepfather) to connect with alienated voters. "He says I share your pain; well, I don't know, I think we all share people's pain," Dole says.
It is risky. Historically, presidential candidates who have benefited from their battle experience have run within 20 years of the war, says Kevin Phillips, a GOP analyst. "This is not going to resonate with people under 45 or 50."
In the past, Dole says, there were times when his arm actually hurt him politically. During the 1988 primaries, when George Bush romped through the snows of New Hampshire mugging for cameras while shoveling snow and pushing stranded cars, Dole had to watch.
The photo op is an essential part of the presidency: Think of Kennedy playing touch football, Clinton golfing, Bush hunting, Reagan throwing a pass on the White House lawn. Dole can't do any of those things. On Earth Day this year, while Dole was meeting with legislators from Hong Kong on his Senate office terrace, his political opponent was out posing on the C&O Canal, clearing deadwood. The next day newspapers splashed photos of Clinton and Vice President Gore hefting logs, biceps bulging with the strain of honest work.
Dole keeps his biceps hidden from the public. In fact, he keeps them hidden from himself. "When I look in the mirror, I generally have a towel draped over my shoulder," he says. The first time Dole got out of bed during his convalescence, the bathroom door was open and he caught a glimpse of himself on the medicine cabinet. He didn't recognize the gaunt figure.
To this day, Dole avoids mirrors, except to shave.
"Maybe it's kind of odd, and maybe it's kind of silly," he says. "But I don't have much of a shoulder there. That's why I'd just as soon not look at it."
Teeth marks nick Bob Dole's famous black pen. He holds it between his teeth while he shifts and tugs his suit jacket on, preparing to leave his Senate office. He maneuvers unself-consciously, making small, friendly talk.
The Purple Heart pin he wears every day is tacked to his lapel. A $20 bill shows through his crisp white shirt pocket. His black loafers shine, his socks are pulled high and tight. The black comb he carries in his back pocket has done its job. Though Dole has often talked about wishing he were "whole again," the man looks tanned, tall and handsome.
Yes, it takes Dole longer to do things, "but my mind's good, my eyes are good, ears are good. . . . " He is taking another inventory of sorts. "Did 3 1/2 miles on the treadmill yesterday and burned up about 500 calories. Trouble is you get hungry and you go down and eat a piece of candy; I had a piece of chocolate, that's a hundred calories."
In the room next door, neat, thin stacks of paper lie on his desk. His most treasured object, the Santa Fe cigar box that once sat on top of the lipstick showcase at Dawson's Drugstore in Russell, now rests in his bottom right desk drawer, next to a box of tissues. Inside, are names and pledges. From a woman named Edith Ruppenthal, dated July 29, 1947: "I am herewith enclosing a small contribution -- $1.00 of which is being sent by my friend, Mrs. Courtney, who heard me tell of Bob's terrible misfortune."
Buried under the slips is the fateful telegram: "THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON 2 LT DOLE ROBERT J WAS SERIOUSLY WOUNDED IN ITALY 14 APRIL 1945 . . ."
"When you join that group," Dole says, "you say, `Why me?' But after you've been there awhile, you have to decide what you're going to do with your life."
Hampar Kelikian, the Armenian surgeon from Chicago who operated on Dole seven times, urged him to let go of his former dreams, and to move forward. Kelikian told Dole before he died, according to the doctor's widow, Ovsanna: "I knew you were going to be a senator, but I won't be satisfied until you're in the White House."
There was a time in Dole's life when nothing made him happier than dribbling a basketball. After he lost the use of his right arm, he says, "I used to play basketball a lot at night in my dreams."
It is a recurring dream, one Dole still has, though less frequently as he grows older: "I'd stand around the free-throw line -- that's where I'd fire from in my dreams." He shoots baskets again and again; he never misses.
"And I'd always wake up and wonder. Did I dream using my right arm, my right hand?"
The question hangs for only a second. The answer is obvious to Bob Dole.
"I must have."