Features: Election Preview '96, November 1996
Little-known fact: Bob Dole was once a demon on roller skates --the steel-wheeled, strap-on, tighten-with-a-metal-key kind. Bob would tear off his shirt after school and scrape noisily up and down the rough blacktops of Russell, Kansas, as if these flat byways were the glittery sidewalks of Venice Beach. Picture it: the sea of wheat about him, bending in the wind like breaking waves, the harsh Plains sun pinking his shoulders. You can almost hear the solon-to-be barking orders. "Outta my way! Coming through! Bob Dole here!"
Ah, the halcyon days, the salad days. Back then, Dole didn't just skate. He was Mr. Outdoors. In winter, he'd tramp over scruffy wheat stubble in search of rabbit for the frying pan. The Doles, who husbanded away household items like string, or tinfoil, or rubber bands (never know when the price of rubber is going to shoot through the roof), found proper midwestern use for the whole rabbit, even the feet, which were crafted into good-luck charms. In summertime, when he wasn't working for his dad down at the dairy shack, Bob lay in the Bermuda grass, plucking dandelions, wanting to smell the flowers and profit from them--a hint of policies to come. ("The going rate was five cents a bushel if you got the roots," recalls Dean Banker, a longtime friend of Dole's who operated his own dandelion-picking business.) As a teen, he ran track, specializing in the half-mile. "I'm told he looked like a bronze Adonis when he wore that track suit," says a cheery Dole aide. These days, if you squint when Dole's working the crowd, he still looks Adonislike--if Adonis lathered up with Coppertone. Dole is nuts about the sun, which, of course, is the fundamental life-source of everything on the planet--the flora, the fauna, and yes, even presidents.
So there you have it: Bob Dole is at one with the earth.
It feels good to say that, doesn't it? Doesn't it? You can take it a step further: Bob Dole wouldn't make the most god-awful commander-in-chief of our nation's environmental policy. At least, he wouldn't be the end of the world.
The proof is everywhere.
Dole, who sometimes wears a white button-down with extra starch while speed-walking on the treadmill, wouldn't mar the natural beauty of our nation's capital by going for a jog in those skimpy Laker-Girl-style shorts the current president used to be so fond of. And since Dole doesn't swim, jog, camp, ski, or play tennis, we, the American people, would be saved from the ubiquitous made-for-TV photo ops showing the current president bear-hugging the American landscape. In a Dole administration, there will be no surf casting in the mist off Kennebunkport. No fly-fishing in a quaint Appalachian rivulet. No sailing off Martha's Vineyard with James Taylor and John-John. If President Dole were ever to go canoeing--admittedly a long shot--he would not be scared within an inch of his life, like a certain "outdoorsman" from Georgia, by a rabbit that flashes its teeth and threatens to light into his canoe like so much corn on the cob. Dole, unable to mask his welling anger, would stand in that tippy canoe and, like Charlton Heston atop Sinai, deliver a single, chilling phrase to that unhinged lapin: N-R-A.
And the trouble would pass.
Of course, Dole does have a few skeletons in his closet when it comes to the environment. Dole voted "against" the environment 81 percent of the time during his 35 years on Capitol Hill, according to the League of Conservation Voters. And last year, he sent shivers up the spines of Democrats and Republicans alike when he attached his name to a skein of bills aimed at maiming environmental law enforcement pretty much across the board: clean water, clean air, pesticides, endangered species. Yeah, yeah. Bob Dole has heard that crap before from liberals. And while it may seem damning, he has an answer. He is, so recent campaign propaganda proclaims, "the only presidential candidate ever to have voted for and help [sic] pass every major piece of environmental protection legislation in the past 25 years."
On the other hand, the environmental skeletons aren't found only on Capitol Hill. While the Doles' schnauzer, Leader, seems to be treated with love and dignity, back in the sixties Bob's dog mysteriously died in the backseat of the car during a trip from D.C. to Kansas. The stated cause was heat exhaustion, though no investigation followed. Curiously, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has not seized this as a major campaign issue.
But Dole's solid, family-values-packed upbringing in Russell has been seized--and dished out and sprinkled with extra jimmies --along the campaign trail. By now it's more than clear that it was tough growing up in western Kansas. And it must have been tougher for an aspiring environmentalist. The place is nice country for skating, but it's never inspired the weepy "nature writing" of Montana, say. How could it? The usual components of scenic beauty--mountains, forests, lakes, oceans--simply aren't there. There isn't a national park or forest anywhere in the state. Neither of Kansas's most inspiring tourist attractions, the World's Largest Ball of Twine and the World's Largest Prairie Dog, has been named so much as a state monument. Frankly, the great outdoors around Russell is a huge pain in the butt, and so you work, planting crops and drilling for oil in hopes of making the place a tad more hospitable and less like some Methodist outpost on Mars.
Despite this history, the candidate has attracted some unexpected environmental support. At the rustic digs of the Earth First! Journal in Oregon, a staffer declared during a recent phone conversation, "Man, Clinton sucks; he's a traitor. I just might vote for Dole." Granted, he admitted later that he and his friends would probably vote for Ralph Nader and the Green Party. But he never said Bob Dole sucks. That could make a decent bumper sticker, one that might be a hit with today's youth: Bob Dole Doesn't Suck.
Marketing directors for environmental groups also might consider a vote for Dole: He would be good for business. Republican administrations, with their tough talk about how hard clean air and water laws are on poor, oppressed factory owners, inspire people to fill the coffers of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. James Watt, for instance, was wonderful for environmentalism. So even if activists won't be able to see the forest for the logging of the trees, business will be booming back at the home office.
In a bold, playing-against-type move, however, the tall Kansan has actually been trying to sound green lately. As election day approaches, the e-word is being squeezed into Dole's speeches, nestled cozily between "firearms," "family," and "whatever." Known in the campaign business as "neutralizing," the idea is to show voters you care about a particular key issue without upsetting the apple cart among your political homeboys. It's unwise for Dole to sound too green, or he risks ruffling the feathers of Big Business and Big Ag, two crucial supporters. So we wind up with something like the following, which comes from a speech Dole made in California a few months ago: "I don't believe we need to choose between a strong economy and a safe environment," he said. "We can have both." You could mistake the sound bite for Bill Clinton, a charter member of the I'll-Tell-You-What-You-Want-To-Hear Club, were it not for the prairie monotone, the fixed grin, and the unfortunate shade of walnut that Dole's hairdresser opted for that day.
Of course, of all the candidate's charms, it's the savage suntan that is perhaps Bob Dole's greatest eco-credential. Flash forward to next summer in the Rose Garden, where the soft drinks are flowing and Sam Donaldson, his favorite lotion buddy, is over to gossip about Orrin Hatch's recent turn on Larry King Live. Just the two of them, sprawled on sticky chaise longues, passing the cocoa butter and soaking in those radiant electron streams. With a slow-cooked tan like that, how could Bob Dole say no to protecting the ozone layer?
Brad Wetzler, a senior editor of Outside, was born and raised in Prairie Village, Kansas.