Go to Dole Profile
Go to Republican Convention
Dole's Ex-Wife Still Puzzled by DivorceBy Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 7, 1996; Page A01
"Own a piece of history."
J.P. Hoefling is into his sales pitch, guiding a visitor through his five-bedroom colonial with the two-car garage, screened porch, two fireplaces, huge deck off the kitchen and partially wooded back yard anchored by a towering maple.
This is the house where Robert J. Dole lived 30 years ago, before he took up residence at the Watergate, years before Elizabeth Hanford captured his heart. Located on Beachway Drive in a scenic Fairfax County neighborhood called Lake Barcroft, the home is a symbol of Dole's political rise and of a personal anguish he has rarely discussed.
More than anything, it is a landmark for a life that no longer exists.
In this former life, Dole was wedded to an occupational therapist named Phyllis who put her career on hold, dabbled in arts and crafts and helped her husband cope with the physical limitations he faced because of his World War II injuries.
In this former life, the Dole family of three vacationed on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, where Dole and his only child, Robin, would sneak off to get hamburgers and penny candy and play pinball.
But on Jan. 11, 1972, this life suddenly came to an end when the Doles were divorced in Shawnee County District Court in Topeka, Kan. -- the day after Phyllis's 47th birthday. Their relationship had long been deteriorating, especially that last year when the family had eaten fewer than five meals together as Sen. Dole traveled the country doubling as Republican national chairman.
Finally, one evening Dole came home and, in the living room Hoefling is now showing prospective buyers, abruptly stated his desire: "I want out."
Now married for a third time, to her high school sweetheart -- her second husband died -- Phyllis Macey remains puzzled by the suddenness of her breakup with Dole and the odd manner with which the divorce was executed. She is listed as filing for the divorce her husband initiated and it was granted immediately because of an "emergency" petition submitted by her attorneys, one of whom she assumes was hired by Dole.
"I don't know anybody who has ever heard that inside story," said Dean Banker, a Dole friend from childhood who says Dole never confided that he was even having trouble in his marriage.
Though she says she's not bitter and they remain friends, Phyllis Macey still doesn't know what triggered Dole's decision to end their 23 1/2-year union. "You'd have to ask him those questions," she said. "I was pretty stunned."
As he campaigns for president, the presumptive GOP nominee has willingly discussed his humble beginnings in Russell, Kan., and his struggle to recover from the war wounds that left him paralyzed for a time and made his right arm useless. But he has been less forthcoming with other chapters of his personal biography. His first marriage, its dissolution and his relationship with daughter Robin are rarely part of Dole's own retelling of his saga.
Although Robin will address next week's Republican National Convention, she is not mentioned in the campaign video that reintroduced Dole to the nation at the start of his campaign. "It sort of baffles me," she said in an interview at his campaign headquarters. "I'm not sure what to think."
The period from June 1948 to January 1972 was crucial in shaping Dole's persona and defining the candidate the public sees today. This period highlighted his ambition to succeed after his war injuries had sapped his strength and demoralized his spirit. It also was a period that exposed his obsession with politics, an obsession that contributed to the erosion of his family life and spurred him to consult President Richard M. Nixon and his campaign chairman, John Mitchell, about the potential fallout before proceeding with his plans to divorce Phyllis.
Issues such as marriage and family life have become more central to presidential campaigning since Dole entered politics in 1950. It is common now for the wives of presidential candidates to be rigorously scrutinized -- as both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Dole have discovered. Dole himself urged voters several months ago to look at the two major contenders and ask themselves: "Well, who would I trust my children to? If something happened to me, would I want them to be with Bob Dole or Bill Clinton?"
This story is about Dole's first life as husband and father and the key events leading up to his divorce. It is based on several dozen interviews with family members, friends, former neighbors and political acquaintances and an examination of court records, biographies and other public statements. In addition, Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward made available unpublished interviews with Phyllis Macey that he and journalist Karen Alexander conducted early last year for his book, "The Choice."
Repeated requests to interview Dole were either denied or unanswered. But in his updated autobiography, "Unlimited Partners," written with Elizabeth, Dole offered this explanation for his failed first marriage:
"For some time before 1972, Phyllis and I had been drifting apart. I was caught up in one life, whose demands were escalating, she in another. While Robin was still young, she helped keep us together, but it wasn't a happy time for either of us. I had been raised to believe that anyone who couldn't make his marriage work was a failure."
Still, he writes: "Mine was not the first or, sadly, the last marriage to founder on the political rocks."
From Russell to the Capitol
Wilma Marshall runs a beauty shop out of her home on Fossil Street in Russell, a gathering place for women to get a clip and pass on what they know.
On this afternoon, draping Lorene Hardin for a trim Hardin frets will be too short, Marshall is getting peeved just tapping her memory. They have been asked to talk about Phyllis Macey and her relationship with Bob Dole. Though both are longtime Dole supporters, they also are Macey's friends.
"I was mad from a woman's standpoint," Marshall said of the breakup. "After you do all that for a man and then he dumps you? What else could she have done? She stood behind her man. She was willing to sacrifice everything to be in his world. Women are raised to be that way."
"You don't know what goes through people's minds," said Hardin, softening Marshall's critique. "I'm sure she was crushed. I would be. But we like 'em both."
Until recently, Macey had been a regular at Marshall's shop, making the 2 1/2-hour drive from Topeka to her first husband's home town. It was a long way to get her hair done, but the outing was a chance to schmooze with old friends.
In Russell, they still have a soft spot for Bob Dole's first wife.
"I think she did a lot to help him get started," said friend Marjorie Kercher of Russell. "I just think they went in different directions." She noted that many of the Doles' Russell friends were kind of mute on the breakup. "It's one of those situations where you don't want to take sides."
The relationship began in the spring of 1948, when Lt. Dole asked Phyllis Holden to dance at an officers club function at Percy Jones Army Medical Center in Battle Creek, Mich. Dole was there for more therapy on his right arm, which was still in a splint after being reconstructed by surgeon Hampar Kelikian. Holden was an occupational therapist in the hospital's psychiatric ward, the daughter of New Hampshire parents who were active in Republican politics.
Two days later, Dole asked her out for coffee. Three months after that, they were married. Initially, Phyllis's parents had opposed the marriage because they didn't believe Dole was fit enough to take care of their daughter.
Phyllis didn't baby Dole; she gave him confidence, shook him out of his funk.
"Phyllis made me forget my injuries," Dole wrote in his autobiography. "She helped me think, not in terms of disability, but of ability. She treated me like everyone else."
When Dole resumed his college education at the University of Arizona for a year, Phyllis accompanied him to class, taking notes and writing test papers from Dole's dictation. Later, after receiving a law degree from Washburn University in Topeka, Dole took his Kansas bar exam by whispering the answers to his wife, who wrote them down.
"He struggled to be able to write again," she told Woodward. "It was even difficult for him to go out to dinner. He could not cut a steak, but we learned to have that done [in the kitchen] so he wouldn't have to do it."
She tied his ties. She had padding added to the right shoulders of his suit jackets so his shriveled arm and smaller shoulder would be less noticeable. She was by his side as he started his political climb when, at age 27, he was elected as one of the youngest state legislators in Kansas history. She took care of the home life.
Lois Glenn, who has lived in Russell since 1950, shared coffee with Phyllis on Mondays. Their girls played together on the jungle gyms. They put the childrens' toys together at Christmastime. "Of course, he worked late," Glenn said of Dole, "but all of our husbands did."
In her husband's first congressional race in 1960, Phyllis made 16 matching red-felt skirts for his volunteer female campaign troupe, "Dolls for Dole." For 6-year-old Robin, there was a special skirt, with lettering above the hem: "I'm for My Daddy -- Are You?"
Once in Washington, Dole ventured deeper into the world of politics.
"Bob was into his career," said Russell Townsley, a retired Russell newspaper publisher. "I would call his office [in Washington] and I could always get ahold of him. Because he was always there."
On the surface, it seemed like a splendid life. There were receptions and dinners at the White House. Phyllis still has the matchbook Nixon used to light her cigarette during one such occasion.
And Lake Barcroft, where the Doles lived, was an A-list neighborhood with a 135-acre lake and five private white-sand beaches. The Doles' neighbors included a host of other congressmen, Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall -- the first African American to integrate the neighborhood in the late '60s.
Lake Barcroft had a vibrant social scene -- still does -- but some former neighbors recalled that Dole seemed too preoccupied with work to enjoy it. "They weren't backyard barbecue people," said one former neighbor.
Garner Shriver, a former Republican congressman from Kansas and a Lake Barcroft resident back then, still recalls how uncomfortable Dole seemed at a rare dinner party he and his wife attended at the Doles' home. "I don't think he was really interested in socializing," Shriver said.
Meanwhile, Robin, a precocious child with her own telephone and an acute sense of politics, had developed a life of her own, mostly without her father around. He often got home too late to kiss her good-night, heading instead to a downstairs family room to sleep alone.
When he became Republican national chairman, the travel demands on Dole compounded his already heavy work schedule. In 1971, the year before the divorce, Dole flew hundreds of thousands of miles attending local party functions, trying to build the GOP.
Phyllis was asked by journalist Karen Alexander during a four-hour luncheon interview last winter whether Robin had missed her father's presence in the household. "How do you know if you've not had it?" she replied.
Today, Robin is a 41-year-old former lobbyist for Century 21, single and working full time as a volunteer in her father's campaign. She says her father's absences during her childhood should not be misconstrued as abandonment. "He's always been a good father," she said, ticking off some of their Kodak moments.
She recounted her first trip to Europe with him as a young teenager, his teaching her to drive on the Dulles Access Road and even his attempt to get the British Embassy to arrange a Beatles concert at her high school.
According to Phyllis, the couple had not slept in the same bedroom for at least a year before their divorce. But Robin insists she didn't see the end coming.
"I don't know that it ever occurred to me until my father told me," she said. "Any kid . . . has a fantasy that their parents will stay together and live happily ever after," she added. "But that wasn't the reality. They weren't happy together."
Phyllis told People magazine in 1976, "He wasn't the same man I had married. "I asked him, `Bob, is it another woman? Can we talk?' "
She concluded there was no other woman.
She believed they could reconcile their differences; Dole did not.
"I filed for the divorce at his insistence," she told Woodward. "The way I was raised people didn't divorce," she told Alexander.
The divorce was quickly granted in a courtroom in Topeka after closing hours on Jan. 11, 1972, with no court reporter present. Thus, no public record was made of the testimony. And property rights were settled in advance, court records show.
Phyllis's divorce petition said the basis for her action was "incompatibility." But as far as she was concerned, the whole thing was orchestrated by Dole. She was just going through the motions.
Two attorneys represented her in court that day. One was Bernard Fensterwald, a D.C. attorney whom she personally hired. He is now dead. The other was a man she did not recognize, Sam A. Crow, a law school classmate of Dole's who is now a U.S. district judge in Topeka. "I assumed he was Bob's lawyer," Macey said.
It was Crow who filed the "emergency" motion on her behalf to Judge Adrian J. Allen, who also went to law school with Dole and Crow. The motion asked that Allen waive the 60-day waiting period required by Kansas law and hold an immediate divorce proceeding because "it would work a hardship" on Phyllis to appear for a subsequent trial, according to court records.
The "hardship" has never been disclosed. But Allen granted the motion after hearing testimony from Phyllis on why she needed an "emergency" divorce, records indicate. Allen told the Kansas City Star at the time that he would not have allowed the divorce on that basis if there had not been complete agreement by both parties on all points.
In a recent phone interview, Macey said she couldn't remember what she had told Allen, only that he had asked her some questions and then quickly signed the divorce decree. "But I tend to put unpleasant things out of my mind," she said. A campaign aide said Dole, who was not present for the divorce proceeding and signed the necessary papers in Miami, would have no comment on these details. Calls to Crow and Allen were not returned.
Phyllis got custody of Robin, who was then 17 and a high school senior preparing to attend Virginia Tech. Dole paid for her education, Macey said. The settlement also called for Phyllis to get $1,500 a month in alimony, she said. On his 1972 tax return, Dole reported paying $18,000 in alimony; he claimed $15,750 in alimony payments on his 1973 return -- the year Phyllis remarried. In 1972 and 1973, he made an annual Senate salary of $42,500 plus a combined $72,400 in honoraria.
But the financial settlement was not Dole's major concern; politics were. He wondered how his divorce would play.
On Capitol Hill, Dole's chief of staff William Kats gathered the senator's aides to break the news. Many were shocked. "We had no idea it was coming," recalled William A. Taggart, a Dole Senate staff member from 1969 to 1979.
Dole, however, did consult Nixon and presidential campaign chairman Mitchell beforehand, even offering to resign as Republican chairman to spare the party embarrassment. Dole was told to stay on. He would later acknowledge to reporters that had he not been "concerned about my future, I think our divorce probably would have happened much earlier."
"The man was totally devoted to his job," Taggart said. "That was his problem with Phyllis."
Taggart, now a Washington lobbyist, knew what he was talking about. When he worked for Dole, his family didn't see much of him either. "I worked 6 1/2 days a week," he said. "I went home at noon on Sunday."
The months following the divorce were difficult for Dole and Phyllis, as their daughter went off to college and they contended with friends and associates.
Phyllis sought solace at the Congressional Club, a social club for the wives of members of Congress. Sympathetic to her circumstance, the club changed its rules so she could remain a member after the divorce.
Dole, meanwhile, had to deal with the news media. He found himself in the awkward position of publicly rebutting his ex-wife, who was not handling the breakup in silence. After she told reporters that she had "no choice" in the matter and filed for divorce at his "urgent request," Dole responded that his ex-wife had "made a mistake." She left Washington, she recalled, after Dole arranged a job for her at the Veterans Administration hospital in Topeka.
A month after the divorce, Dole was hit with rumors linking him romantically to several women. He responded that he had no plans to marry again, but expressed exasperation. "How do you handle something like this?" he told the Kansas City Star. "You can't issue a statement of denial every time a woman's name is mentioned."
The discord in his personal life was bad enough. But then came the Watergate break-in five months after his divorce, which coincided with tensions between the Republican National Committee and the Nixon campaign over election strategy, which was followed by Nixon forcing Dole out as party chair after the 1972 elections, which was followed by a tough Senate reelection race in 1974.
"I think his life was in a pretty rocky stage in his first term in the Senate," said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. "He was moving from being this farm-boy politician to the national stage."
Meanwhile, he also was trying to court Elizabeth Hanford, a Harvard Law School graduate who was a consumer affairs specialist in the Nixon White House. Like Dole, she was a fast climber, only 13 years younger. They met by chance several months after the divorce and were married in 1975. By that time, she was a federal trade commissioner and he was a second-term senator. They both had the fast-paced lives of Washington politicos.
"I think she and Bob have more of an understanding," said Dole's sister, Gloria Nelson. Phyllis, she added, just couldn't cope with her husband being "gone all the time, all the time, all the time."
After some initial friction following the divorce, Dole and Phyllis developed a cordial if awkward relationship. "Bob doesn't like friction," said Nelson. "Doesn't like being upset."
Macey, for instance, continues to support Dole's political aspirations. She and her husband, Ben, made wooden, hand-painted Dole-for-President buttons in 1988 and appeared with him in Kansas for his 1996 announcement for president.
In 1977, Dole attended the funeral of Macey's second husband, Lon Buzick. In 1983, she attended the funeral of Dole's mother, Bina.
And there is one enduring link that will always bind them -- daughter Robin.
"Well, the good news for me was that I didn't split from them," she said. "They split from each other."
A Special Place
The old home at Lake Barcroft is still for sale -- at seven times the $46,000 Dole paid for it in 1964.
Hoefling has been surprised there are no takers, even though "this might be a house where a future president used to live." As he gives the tour, Hoefling points out the Doles' master bedroom [now with skylight], the downstairs rec room where Dole often slept, and Robin's elementary school on the other side of the back yard.
And then he stops at a framed letter that hangs in a foyer, a memento from Dole himself. It suggests that, despite the agonies of a failed marriage, this house is still a special place for him.
"Your Falls Church house served me and my family well for many years," Dole wrote, "and I am pleased it is still remembered with fondness. Above all, I hope you and your family enjoy it, too."
Staff researcher Barbara J. Saffir and staff writer Charles R. Babcock contributed to this report.