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The Politics of Personality Destruction

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The Corn Queen: Hillary Clinton wonders if it's popcorn.  

He tells this story so matter-of-factly it’s easy to miss the punch line—and its implications. As a wounded World War II veteran, Dole went an entire presidential campaign giving people the impression he was afraid of small kids.

“You know, people want you to kiss the babies, hold the babies,” says Dole. “It’s fine. But, uh, I remember that very well. I was scared to death.”

Not that Dole ever had much of a chance. The economy was thriving; Clinton’s popularity was high. He says it took a toll on him sometimes, having to pretend the election was winnable. “I said at my convention that I’m the most optimistic man in America,” he says. “But privately … you know. When you kinda have that cloud hangin’ over, it doesn’t look good.

Dole had to exit political life in order to bring his backstage and front-stage personas into alignment. Today, he’s everything his advisers wished he were then: open about his disability, sunny, funny. Like Gore, he just needed a different kind of media experience—appearances on Letterman, commercials about Viagra and Pepsi—to get him there.

“I can remember the Secret Service dropping me off on Election Night,” he concludes. “You know—good-bye!” He gives a little wave. “And then you say, ‘What do I do tomorrow?’” He smiles, and I notice that his right arm, which he’d always taken such enormous care to hike up and close around a pen, now rests, relaxed, at his right side. The pen’s still there. But the tension’s gone. “But somebody has to win,” he says. “And somebody has to lose.”

“This Lady came rushing out and handed me her baby. But I don’t use my right arm. And my left is not too strong. So, uh, I’m just scared to death.” Dole never says what happened to the child. He simply says what happened next. “Somebody next to me got under me right away and caught the baby.”

Years ago, while they were serving together in the Senate, Bob Kerrey and John McCain both worked on the POW/MIA committee. It was an extremely sensitive assignment for both of them, but even more so for McCain, who’d been a prisoner of war. Over the course of the year, Kerrey recalls, McCain got so incensed at a fellow senator—an Iowa farmer named Chuck Grassley—he was convinced McCain was going to bodily harm him during a meeting with colleagues and staff. “I knew he wasn’t going to stand up and hit Grassley,” says Kerrey, “because when John came out of the plane in Vietnam, his arms were ripped out of his sockets, and they rebroke them several times when he was in prison. But I am thinking, He’s going to head-butt Grassley and drive the cartilage in his nose into his brain. I’m going to watch a colleague kill a colleague. That’ll give me something to remember on this day.”

McCain didn’t head-butt his colleague. Instead, he kept repeating, “You know what your problem is, Senator? You don’t listen,” until the two men were nose-to-nose. Then McCain revised his opinion: “But that’s not your problem. Your problem is, you’re a fucking jerk.”

“John hates when I tell this story,” says Kerrey. “But I like that anger. When he got mad, I liked that he became Shiva.” Shiva is the Hindu god of destruction, the destroyer of worlds. “I have a very high regard for John McCain,” he adds. “But in a campaign, that temperament becomes an issue.”

Straight talk, in other words, may be hazardous to a political career, as welcome as it may be.

Hello? Hi, Brian. When do you want to come over? I’ve got a meeting from 3:30 to 4:30; otherwise I’m clear …

I am sitting in Michael Dukakis’s office at Northeastern University, where he is, ever the retail politician, answering his own phone. He finishes, looks up, and apologizes. “I loved the primary,” he begins, recalling the golden days of 1988, before his campaign ended in an electoral rout. “Because I’m a guy who loves campaigning on the ground. I wouldn’t have been made dogcatcher if I weren’t a grass-roots, precinct-based sort of guy. But once you’re the nominee … then you get security. I never had it as governor”—of Massachusetts, his day job at the time—“so I was the last candidate on either side to say yes to the Secret Service. And if it hadn’t been for 15,000 absolutely insane Greeks in Astoria that almost trampled us to death with their enthusiasm … ” Kitty, his wife, remembers it well. They were shaking the car with such vigor she thought they were going to turn it over. “Once you say yes to the Secret Service, a kind of walling off takes place,” he says. “And I found it difficult.”

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Dukakis came across as cold, academic, and overly righteous. It is shocking how different he comes across in a small setting. In his office, his style is warm and unfussy; he’s a careful listener and questioner. Even the famous Velcro eyebrows make sense. They give his eyes depth.


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