BOSTON -- Elizabeth Dole is taking off ahead of schedule. This itself is a unique event in the annals of modern transportation. The woman is leaving Washington in order to become -- heaven help her -- a frequent flier in the presidential campaign of her husband, Robert.
But the secretary of transportation is taking more than the usual amount of carry-on baggage for this trip. She is bearing some ambivalence in her trip from secretary to spouse. And in the way of the world, she's also bearing some heavy symbolism. Elizabeth Dole is being seen as one case study of a near-collision between two soaring careers. She took a dive just in the nick of time.
On the night of her announcement, Peter Jennings led the ABC evening news with the line, ''One of the most important women in government has given up her job for a man.'' It was a warning calculated to send tremors of anxiety throughout the entire dual-career passenger list. If Liddy can't do it, we'd all better buckle up for a bumpy ride.
Even a GOP loyalist like Mary Louise Smith, former head of the Republican National Committee, had to say wistfully: ''I guess that's the downside. She's going from a very visible, powerful position to being a helper.'' A Democratic strategist, Ann Lewis, puts it more directly: ''It gets back to the idea that the job a woman holds is just a little more expendable. How do you put it on your re'sume', 'Left job for husband's sake'? It's something a number of women have had to face.''
Just weeks ago, under pressure to choose, Dole asked out loud why a spouse was expected to give up her job to campaign, when a candidate wasn't: ''It does begin to sound to me as if there's something different if you're a spouse.'' She carefully said the word ''spouse,'' but she meant the word ''wife.''
Lest we get carried away with this, Secretary Dole is not a model of Every Workingwoman whose husband has just gotten a job opportunity 1,500 miles away. If she isn't exactly co-piloting this campaign, she has her eyes fixed on the same destination: the White House. Dole is one woman who would turn the First Lady from a role into a job. Her re'sume' is hardly at risk.
The double standard here is of a somewhat different order. An updated order.
For the past five years, the Doles have been the quintessential Washington power couple. The secretary and the senator have appeared together on everything from placards to People magazine as a daring modern duo. They joke that they are the only lawyers in Washington who talk to each other.
Elizabeth has never been the sort of wife who laid her husband's shirts and socks out at night. They have been a team, a fact her husband happily acknowledges: ''She is probably the greatest resource in my campaign.'' Together at any event, Dole and Dole are a fund-raising dream. When she's on her own, the senator refers to his North Carolina-born wife as his ''southern strategy.''
Indeed, much of Elizabeth Dole's value to her husband is tied to her success. Much of the reason aides wanted her as a full-time campaign asset is perversely tied to their image as real partners. As Ed Rogers, a senior aide in the Bush campaign, has said, ''She's a great asset, an excellent role model, and her independent success is very appealing to people these days.''
It is Elizabeth Dole who makes many moderate Republicans, especially women, say such things as, ''How conservative could Bob Dole be with a wife like that?'' When his image tips too far to the right wing, she pulls in the flaps. In the language of image makers, she softens the senator's reputation, both politically and personally. Bob has a reputation for acidity, Elizabeth neutralizes it.
How ironic then that the senator wins credits for being half of a modern partnership marriage, while also winning the benefits of a full-service political wife. Even if he doesn't win the race, he has won the secret envy of many a modern man. He has all the perks of having a successful wife with none of the problems, all the assets and none of the debits.
Elizabeth Dole had good reasons for making her choice, but Bob Dole had the better choices. Did she give it all up for a man? Not exactly. Did he get it all? You betcha.