No, I’m not saying Bob Dole personally is causing a problem for John McCain. I’m saying his problem is that in this election, he’s playing the Bob Dole part — and Barack Obama is Bill Clinton (but don’t tell him that — the way he and Bill have been getting along, he’s likely to take it as an insult).
You remember Bob Dole — the other disabled war hero who couldn’t win the White House, the one who always referred to himself in the Third Person, by his full name ("Bob Dole doesn’t do that! Why would you say Bob Dole does that? Leave Bob Dole alone…") .
Dole ran a lousy campaign, lousy primarily in that it utterly failed to present convincingly why he should have been president. McCain is doing the same thing now.
The big difference between the two, for me, is that I started out liking McCain a whole lot more than I liked the guy that the NYT once called the Dark Prince of Gridlock. Bob Dole was a much more wholehearted partisan warrior than McCain. He was no maverick, not by a long shot. You don’t get to lead your party in the Senate by rebelling against it.
So with me, he started off in a hole. And in the end, I still think McCain should be president — while I no longer thought that of Bob Dole by the end of the 1996 campaign. I had thought it for awhile, though, comparing him and Bill Clinton. I had liked Clinton in 92, but he had disappointed me in a lot of ways by 96. The bottom line was that I just didn’t trust the guy anymore, based on a number of things. (I have no dramatic personal story about that, but I know someone who does: Hodding Carter III told me of going to see Bill Clinton with a delegation concerned about Bosnia. I forget what the delegation wanted — that the U.S. get involved, that the U.S. stay out, whatever — but whatever it wanted, Clinton promised bald-faced he would do. They left feeling confident. About a week later, Clinton did the exact opposite, and it came out that he had known that was what he was going to do when he met with the delegation. Carter felt personally betrayed by that. It seemed consistent with the impression I had formed by then.)
Early in the campaign, I wrote some columns — and editorials, too, I think — that pretty clearly expressed a preference for Dole over Clinton. But when the time approached to do our actual endorsement, I went to then-editor Tom McLean and told him I could not in good conscience write it, because I had become convinced that Dole couldn’t govern his way out of a wet paper bag. I knew by then that I couldn’t convince the board not to endorse Dole, but I declined the honor of writing it. (Of course, you didn’t hear all of this at the time because it was long before I became editor and adopted the policies of extreme transparency that you see today. The board was Old School in those days; you didn’t see the man behind the curtain.)
I never got to that point with McCain, but in the last weeks I thought about it. Those of you who insist that this endorsement was fully decided long ago don’t understand how much I thought about it. But in the end, for me, John McCain may not be good at communicating via a political campaign that he would be the better president, but I still believe he’d be the better president — based on Iraq, based on the Gang of 14 and judicial selection, on free trade, on immigration, etc., all that stuff I’ve already told you.
Now here’s a postscript to the story that will cause you to do a double-take: Despite what I’d said to Tom, I voted for Dole in 96. Why? For the exact same reason I voted for McGovern in 72. You probably don’t know many people who can say that, but I can. (Never doubt my deep devotion to UnParty unorthodoxy.) And I don’t regret either vote.
Essentially, both were protest votes. I thought McGovern would have been a disaster as president. But I wanted to register a protest against Nixon, mainly because of Watergate (even based on what little was known by then). If McGovern had had a chance to win, I’d have held my nose and voted for Nixon, because on the whole I thought the gummint would be in more capable hands that way. And I’d have regretted it forever. But McGovern’s hapless candidacy gave me the opportunity to make the gesture.
Same deal in 96. If I’d thought Dole had a prayer, I’d have held my nose and voted for Clinton — much as I distrusted him by that point, I thought him more competent. (Note that Nixon and Clinton had an advantage with me that Obama lacks — they had shown their competence in office, as president.) But Dole had no prayer, so I voted for him as a protest. And it felt exactly like voting for McGovern.
By the way, torn as I was, I made both of those decisions in the voting booth. So I can, indeed, identify with Cindi’s indecision.