• U.S.

ELECTION ’96: CAMPAIGN: TWO MEN, TWO VISIONS

15 minute read
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

It has been said that a man’s life can be understood only at the moment of his death, and so too, maybe, with a presidential campaign. The 1996 race has been a study in change–what started for Bill Clinton as a long shot looks like a rout two years later. But that’s because it has also been a study in change of another kind, the kind we’re living through every day. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton have ended up conducting a public version of a private conversation we all have, about how to keep up, get fit, make money, do good and be ready for a future that we fear has already begun.

So this presidential campaign has been less about policy than about progress. Dole sees change as an ordeal, a test of his toughness; Clinton sees it as an opportunity, a test of his flexibility. Clinton has learned to welcome uncertainty for the gifts it might bring; Dole has learned to put it through a metal detector. And so with a week to go and a 20-point spread in the polls, it may not be much of a race anymore; but it certainly is a choice.

Dole doesn’t like change much, in himself or the world around him. In his experience, change was often something to fend off; it was born of forces of nature–the weather changed in the 1930s, turned Kansas into powder–or forces of history, the war that injured him. He thinks of the U.S. as a constant, a fixed polar star of unchanged and unchanging values, like duty, honor, country, God. And he is proud of being much the same way. The places he knows best and loves most are not in flux; certainly not Russell, Kansas, not Bal Harbour, Florida, or even the U.S. Senate, where spittoons can still be spied.

Clinton, a restless man defined by his energy and appetites, concludes that the only constant about life today is its unremitting motion. For his generation even the revolutions came from within and aren’t over yet–civil rights, sexual freedom and now the one under way, driven by silicon and imagination. And so the beautiful thing about Clinton and the horrible thing about him too is that he moves with these changes almost daily, modulating his positions to fit the changing moods. If Dole, in his style and syntax, often seems strangely off-key, Clinton is a tuning fork, banging himself again and again against the edge of the table to see if he can get even closer to perfect pitch.

Their particular qualities have helped and hurt them along the way. But if Clinton ends Dole’s political life next week, the President’s victory will reflect how well he managed to turn his own inconstancy into a virtue and how Dole has converted his steadfastness into a liability.

When these two men talk about the issues in this race, they disagree more than they differ. They both favor balancing the budget by 2002, slowing the growth of Medicare, aiming tax cuts at families, allowing for more choice in education, pushing for tougher criminal penalties, promoting freer trade, spending millions on antimissile defense research, and talking about campaign-finance reform but not doing anything about it. The differences are essentially of degree or speed or enthusiasm. Their most passionate fights are over such issues as late-term abortion, which disturb many people but affect very few.

Their common ideas reflect some shared experiences–two poor sons of different generations who each became icons of them. Both are suspicious of ideology, more loyal to government itself than any particular thing it does. The loyalty is almost familial; their parents may have reared them but government raised them, paid them practically since the day they started working, and will bury them when they die. It was the government that gave Dole his left-hand-shift car and a tape recorder so the injured vet could go to law school. Clinton worked his way through college moonlighting as a congressional staff member for Senator William Fulbright; the closest he ever came to working in the private sector was teaching at a state school.

At the start of their race, both men faced a decision: how much change would they make in themselves? Would they present themselves naked before the voters, run on the records and beliefs that had long been in full view, and ask to be loved for who they were? Or would they make themselves over, new wardrobe, new ideas?

For Clinton it was an easy call; his first two years had left his approval ratings in the low 40s and the Congress in Republican hands. And besides, personal reinvention came easily to a man for whom changing his ways to please other people was an essential part of his nature. He had a lot of practice, and as the race unfolded, it showed. The trick was to turn that into a reason to vote for him, rather than a reason to vote against him.

His repositioning had a steady, almost stately feel. He endorsed a balanced budget in June 1995, long before his party could pronounce the words, thus removing the issue eight months before the G.O.P. had a nominee. And late one night in 1995, he tried repentance; he tried to erase the tax increases he had signed into law two years earlier. “Probably there are people in this room still mad at me…because you think I raised your taxes too much. It might surprise you to know that I think I raised them too much too.”

By mid-1995 Clinton had come to see the nation as poised at a crossroads. When he began talking about the “big changes” that lie in front of us, he was referring to everything from the way we organize our lives, the way we work and play, how we think about raising our children. We could make change our friend if we had some help. If you lost your job, you could get tax credits for job training. If you changed your job, you could take your health insurance with you. He offered to be the block parent for a latchkey nation. Curfews, V chips, meat inspection, school uniforms and school computers and stronger school roofs even; testing kids for drugs before they apply for a driver’s license; cell phones for your neighborhood watch group.

The single most important sentence in Bill Clinton’s speech is the one that reads, “Our job is to give people the tools to make the most of their own lives.” It helped that while he was trying to give people those tools, Newt Gingrich seemed intent on taking them away. Clinton’s theme was pure empowerment. The models are the G.I. Bill, the Homestead Act, land-grant colleges and the mortgage insurance of the 1930s. The risk was that even if these themes were not entirely new to Clinton, they were embedded like tissue in Bob Dole. Kansas was a homesteader’s paradise; he remade himself with the G.I. Bill. He was the living embodiment of a government that helped those who needed it to succeed.

But to the amazement of many in the White House, Dole never played to his greatest strength. “The remarkable thing,” admits a White House official, “is that he was ready-made and loaded to be the guy to do this, to be the one to make this case. If he had said, ‘Let me, as the last member of that generation to serve, be the leader for the next, to show our children and our grandchildren the bounty of America and how to sacrifice for that bounty,’ well, that would have been something.”

That might have come naturally to Dole; but instead he tried something harder. He tried to change. For the entire first half of the race, his fear of Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan was enough to shake his faith in running as himself, a pragmatist against the ideologues, one who was willing to “downsize government, [but] not devastate it,” as he said in May 1995. When Buchanan started peeling the paint off the walls with his talk of America’s greedy corporations, Dole was suddenly George Meany, denouncing corporate layoffs. Soon his campaign was a battleground state all its own, in which Dole and his advisers and just about everybody else argued not just about how to reinvent Bob Dole but whether to try to at all.

A top aide once said he didn’t expect voters to fall in love with Bob Dole. “But they might,” he said, “fall in love with the archetype he represents.” Likening himself to Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Dole said, “We’re not articulate or whatever, but we like to tell the truth, and we feel bad if we don’t tell the truth.” He may have been a true Washington insider, but he could have argued for his record of being able to get things done. He may have shifted positions over the years where expediency and vote counting demanded it, but he had a record on hard issues, like civil rights, entitlement reform, budget balancing, that spoke to political courage. He had a personal story to tell that gave weight to his claim to “stand fast in the hard places.”

But as a candidate, Dole could hardly market his essential nature when he was so busy repackaging it. By the time he had dispensed with Gramm and the rest, he had abandoned his long-standing support for affirmative action and taken a much harder line on illegal immigration. He had led the fight to repeal the ban on assault weapons, then shifted positions a year later. He had morphed into a movie critic, of films he hadn’t seen. He had called Steve Forbes’ flat tax “snake oil” in February but by August had become a born-again supply-sider. “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that’s what you want.”

Dole made enough calculated changes to sacrifice his claim to constancy. Just when a majority of voters came to view the deficit as more important than tax cuts, Dole abandoned fiscal prudence and tried bribery. Having boasted that he voted against its creation, he announced that he wanted to be the “President who saves Medicare.” He wound up pandering just as crudely as Clinton, only not nearly so well.

It was an unpleasant business, and sometimes Dole shrank from it, retreating to more ancient, hallowed ground. There, Dole spoke almost defiantly to voters, never about what he would do as President, but where he came from and who he was and how they just had to trust him. And underneath there lay a challenge: Clinton was traveling the country, holding up a mirror and asking, “How can I be more like you?”; Dole was asking, “Why aren’t you more like me?”

It explains why he could never get the words right about tobacco; whatever the experts might think, he had quit after years, so why couldn’t everyone else? It also explains that detour, in the middle of a campaign swing, to visit the grave of Richard Nixon–the one man whom many in his party would gladly disown, but who Dole felt understood him best. As the rallies got smaller and the poll numbers bleaker and he couldn’t find himself in the crowd, the anger showed. “I wonder sometimes what people are thinking about,” he said last week in Pensacola, Florida, “or if people are thinking at all.” But when he did come upon someone whose story mirrored his own, he gave them a hero’s welcome. In July he could not tell the story of injured gymnast Kerri Strug, sticking one last vault for her country, without breaking into tears. “There was a lot of autobiography in that,” said a Dole aide.

It felt like two campaigns; the one Dole’s advisers were scripting, and the one Dole seemed to be secretly running on the side. The struggle came to a head in San Diego, when he finally had the prime-time spotlight to tell voters who he was and what he meant and where he was going. His acceptance speech, the most important of his life, chronicled the civil war between the archetype and the pretender. It barely stuck to the page; the original drafts by novelist Mark Helprin were worked over by hacks, as a Dole intimate put it. There were the overrich supply-side desserts, 32 flavors of tax cuts and toppings, and tough talk about immigrants and teachers’ unions and litmus tests for federal judges. But the most genuine, unvarnished and devastating moment of his entire campaign was one that came not from focus groups or think tanks or lobbyists but from a novelist’s reading of Dole’s essential spirit. “Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquillity, faith and confidence in action,” Dole said. “And to those who say it was never so, that America’s not been better, I say you’re wrong. And I know because I was there. And I have seen it. And I remember.”

By the time Clinton swept into Chicago, he was able to frame the race as a choice between building a bridge to the past or building a bridge to the future. And Dole never seemed to get his footing after that. One man talked about giving women an extra 24 hours in the hospital after birth, and another saw children by the side of the road in New Jersey and said out loud, “There’s a tax cut. There’s another. $500.” On the day Dole invoked the “Brooklyn Dodgers,” Clinton went to the Grand Canyon–and with the stroke of a pen made it bigger. Clinton toured nursery schools, talked about putting the Internet in the classroom. Dole visited graveyards, and talked about estate taxes. When he dispatched top aide Scott Reed to Dallas last week to ask Ross Perot to quit the race and endorse him, Perot could sit back, savor the spotlight for one brief second, and call Dole’s gambit “weird and inconsequential.”

Even the late-breaking run at Clinton’s character was wrong from the start, not because it was unfair but because Dole never quite believed in doing it. Clinton aides, trying to anticipate where the President was most vulnerable, had shown footage to focus groups of him shifting ground on health-care reform and tax cuts and whether he had inhaled. The reaction was so devastating, the consultants burned the videocassettes. But the man who said his word is his bond could never find the right words to attack Clinton’s character.

Now, with a week left, Bill Clinton knows where he’s going on election night. He’ll be heading to Little Rock, where the theme song four years ago on election night was Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow), played over and over, all through the cold, cloudless, starry night, until tomorrow came.

Dole knows exactly where he’s going too. For once, it’s all scheduled well in advance. On election night he will hold a rally at a Washington hotel called the Renaissance. At midnight he will get on a plane for Florida, and either start thinking about whom to put in his Cabinet, or start thinking about what to do with the rest of his life.

But first on Monday night, Dole will go home to one of those places only the unknowing call myth. A flag big enough to gift wrap a house will roll above the Interstate leading into Russell; the marquee of the Dream Cinema on Main Street will welcome him home. After the fourth campaign, it is almost a scripted event; the original Dolls for Dole will be there, along with the band and the drill team and the junior rotc and the guys from the VFW post. The people of Russell will all come out, glad to do what they have done before, to welcome him home and, if need be, put him back together.

He already issued the invitations, back in March on the eve of clinching the nomination at last. “I’ll be thankful, whatever happens in November,” he said. They had all gathered in Russell then to share the high point of his campaign, the moment when he came closest to getting everything he wanted. “At this moment,” he said, when he took the stage in the high school gym, “I wanted to be here…” His voice cracked, and he had to stop several times, looking down so no one could see him on the verge of tears, and gathering himself with a hurled thumbs-up and a quick finish, “…to see all my friends.” When Dole couldn’t get the words out, and the gym hushed, someone in the crowd–maybe the son or grandson of someone who helped with a few dollars after the war–anyway, someone knew just what to do and threw him a lifeline and said, “We love you, Bob,” and it was just enough and he punched out the line.

In that gym, on that day, he found his bridge to the past. And if he can’t lead America across it, he’ll just go alone.

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