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Liddy Makes Perfect

While looking to move to the White House, Elizabeth Dole must find a compromise between her ambition and her faith

By Richard Stengel/Winston-salem
Photographs by P.F. Bentley

[Elizabeth Dole]

(TIME, July 1) -- In her speeches to religious groups, Elizabeth Dole tells the story of Esther, the Old Testament heroine confronted with a harrowing choice. When Esther, the wife of the Persian King Xerxes, learns of a plot to kill all the Jews in the kingdom, she has a decision to make: To try to save her people, should she risk her life by revealing to the king that she is a Jewess? Or should she remain silent, deny her faith and preserve her wifely prestige and power? After much soul searching, Esther chooses faith.

Like Esther, Mrs. Dole says, "there came a time when I had to confront what commitment to God is all about." Dole's identification with Esther is curious. Some parallels are obvious. Esther revels in her proximity to the King. She is one of the shrewdest and most political women in the Bible. But what has Elizabeth Dole risked compared with Esther? What has this two-time Cabinet Secretary, this former high-level White House aide, this $200,000-a-year president of the American Red Cross, this potential First Lady, sacrificed in her own life?

Yes, time and again, Elizabeth Dole has put her own career on hold to help her husband's. She has modified her more moderate views on issues like affirmative action to complement her husband's more conservative ones. She may even have given up having children to pursue larger political ambitions. But none of these represent Elizabeth Dole's sacrifice. Like Esther, she tells religious audiences, there came a time 14 years ago when "my life was threatened with spiritual starvation," when she confronted her own choice between worldly ambition and spiritual devotion.

From the outside it looks as if ambition won out--her career appears to be a seamless succession of secular triumphs, from being student-body president of her college to being the first woman ever to speak at Washington's Gridiron Banquet. But polished as she is at giving speeches, at charming strangers with her broad smile and soft manners, Dole's public pursuits are a daily burden. She has confided to an aide that she can imagine herself one day entering a cloistered religious order. She has admitted that her happiest moment on the campaign trail is when she shuts her hotel door at night. "Her sacrifice," says a former aide, "is being in the public eye when she doesn't want to be."

Yes, she wants Bob Dole to be President--but some around her wonder how much she wants to be First Lady. "The Scripture often describes Jonah as a reluctant prophet," says Charles Colson, the former Nixon aide, who has been her spiritual mentor. "I think of her as a reluctant politician." Says the Rev. Edward Bauman, the Methodist minister Dole credits with helping her rediscover her spirituality: "She believes that God is calling her to do this at this time." If so, it may be a temporary assignment. "God doesn't want worldly successes," Elizabeth Dole says in her speech. "He wants my heart in submission. He wants me." But he cannot have her just yet.

Nothing Less Than Perfect

For such a political powerhouse, she can come across as surprisingly insecure. With strangers, her eyes seek out approval. Her charm is palpable, her graciousness as carefully applied as her glue-gun red lipstick. Yet when a journalist prepares to ask her a question, she tenses up as though waiting for a blow. Her answers are often so resolutely bland as to suggest a terror of revealing anything human. Her relentless and self-confessed perfectionism seems to hide a fear of being perceived as something less than the sum of her resume. Why does a woman who has been Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Labor (the only woman ever to hold two Cabinet positions in different administrations), feel the need to begin an interview with a journalist riding in the back seat of a car by saying, "I was elected president of the third-grade bird club and in the seventh grade, I started the junior book club and made myself president"? And to say those words straight, without irony.

[Elizabeth Dole]

Elizabeth Dole's life is always on message. Her syrupy charm and perfect manners do exactly what charm and manners are meant to do: persuade people to like her but not let them get too close. Her persona artfully conceals what she prefers to be hidden, namely that she is an opportunistic political infighter who has skillfully maneuvered for every job she's ever had. She arrived in the capital as a Great Society Democrat, became an independent during the Nixon years and converted to the Republican Party when she married Bob Dole. (Bedfellows make strange politics.) Her ideological transformations were perfectly in synch with each of her moves up the Washington hierarchy.

Some say she could use her own truth-in-packaging label. "People see him as the mean Bob Dole," says a veteran Dole staff member, "but up close he is the kind of guy who goes out of his way to be kind to people. The public perception of her is the Southern belle. She can be that, but at heart she is a tough, no-nonsense, focused Washington bureaucrat." Colleagues cite three reasons for her success: preparation, preparation, preparation. "When she goes into a meeting," says Mari Will, a longtime associate and Bob Dole's former communications director, "she expects to be better prepared than anyone else there." Mrs. Dole holds others to the same exacting standard. If a staff member is lax, the unlucky individual gets the Look--set jaw, icy stare--and is frozen out. "It usually happens only once," says Will. And heaven forbid, don't call her Liddy--that's only for those who knew her when she was in pigtails. Lesley Stahl got the Look that chills when she made that fatal error on 60 Minutes.

Though she has been in public life for nearly three decades, Elizabeth Dole remains a kind of political cameo, not a full-fledged portrait. Few people know her well. She has no children. No house. No hobbies. Her 95-year-old mother is her best friend. She has little interest in cultural events. None in entertaining. "We don't have time to have little dinner parties," she says. Or the space. The Doles still live in the four-room, first-floor bachelor pad at the charm-free Watergate complex that he first moved into after his divorce. Decorating? Mrs. Dole allows that she did it using samples from a book.

Even her public life is compartmentalized. On the campaign trail, when she speaks to Republican audiences about her commitment to Bob Dole, she does not mention God. And when she talks to religious audiences about her commitment to God, she does not mention Bob Dole. But sometimes even the perfectly lacquered shell of Elizabeth Dole cracks open. At the end of a long day on the campaign trail, she has been known to burst into vexed tears and exclaim, "What do they expect of me?" She knows what God wants from her, so the real question is, What does Elizabeth Dole want from herself?

Portrait Of The Bureaucrat As A Young Girl

Elizabeth Hanford grew up in a world of ease that her husband never knew. The child of a prosperous flower wholesaler from picture-book Salisbury, North Carolina, she was raised in a spacious Tudor-style home and provided with all the finishing-school touches: piano lessons, horseback riding, French club and debutante balls. Little Liddy Hanford seemed to be ambitious by nature, but her striving also had another source: her parents.

In the living room of Liddy's childhood home, her plainspoken, white-haired mother takes out her daughter's baby book and proudly surveys the highlights. When Liddy was one year old, her mother wrote in her album: "She is very willful and insists on having her own way." Mrs. Hanford, for her part, seemed to insist that her headstrong daughter not always have it. Under the heading "Two Years," Mrs. Hanford wrote, "Went to Sunday school for first time ... Had to be spanked afterwards for misbehavior, but after repeating this twice, mother found she was more generous with the toys." Here's how Liddy learned to stop scribbling on her pink-and-blue bedroom wall, recalls her older brother John, now 73: "When she finally owned up to it, Dad took a little switch, led her to each picture and tapped her legs. Afterwards Liddy cried and cried."

In high school, when Liddy finished her homework, her mother would tell her to use the extra time before she went to bed to practice the piano or enter an essay contest. The Hanfords did not cut corners. Before Sunday school, Mrs. Hanford says, "'if Liddy was not waiting outside, the driver would go on without her."

When Likable Liddy (a hometown moniker) graduated from high school, where she was voted Most Likely to Succeed, she chose to attend Duke, like her older brother. (She recalls that the freshman handbook advised coeds: "Write thank-you notes to your date." She did.) Despite her mother's advice to study home economics, she chose political science. At Duke, there doesn't seem to be an office she didn't run for. When she graduated, she was Phi Beta Kappa, student-body president and May Queen--the Triple Crown of prefeminist female achievement.

After earning a master's degree in education at Harvard, she set her sights on Harvard Law. Dole recalls that when she told her mother of her decision to go to law school, it literally caused her mother to be sick, throwing up in the bathroom. "Don't you want to be a wife, mother and hostess for your husband?" her mother asked. Mrs. Hanford had forsaken a Juilliard education and a musical career to marry and have a family. Elizabeth would not forswear her ambition for any man. She entered Harvard Law School in 1962, one of 24 women in a class of 550.

Elizabeth Dole knew how to network before it became a verb. In her first job after Harvard, she joined the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and buttonholed its Secretary in the halls to ask ingratiating questions about Washington. Next she set her sights on consumer advocacy, lobbying James Goddard, head of HEW's Food and Drug Administration, to put her on President Lyndon Johnson's Committee on Consumer Affairs. In that role, she helped the committee's chairwoman, consumer advocate Betty Furness, write new laws demanding truth in packaging.

When Richard Nixon took office, Dole stayed on at the consumer office, which had moved to the White House, though the new President's policies were oriented more toward manufacturers than consumers. The enterprising Dole visited the home of the new director, Virginia Knauer, and gave her a detailed, unsolicited briefing on the department. Knauer made Dole deputy director of the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, where she looked for common ground between consumers and manufacturers, and helped persuade supermarkets to date products for freshness.

Knauer took a shine to her unmarried but very eligible deputy, and in the spring of 1972 arranged for Elizabeth to meet a certain recently divorced Senator from Kansas. In her memoir, Mrs. Dole remarks that she found the Senator "awfully attractive" but he didn't call her and she wouldn't call him. She ran into Dole again at the 1972 Republican Convention, and this time he did call. Their romance progressed with all the speed of an omnibus budget resolution wending its way through committee, and they were married in 1975. Elizabeth finally had her trophy husband.

Playing In The Big Leagues

The Doles have always endured good-natured ribbing about the antitrust implications of so powerful a merger as theirs, but those barbs seemed real when Dole was named Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976. Mrs. Dole took a leave from the ftc to campaign for him, and returned to her job after Carter's victory. She resigned in 1979 when her husband ran for the 1980 election, and campaigned vigorously for Ronald Reagan after Dole dropped out. Some feminists have criticized her for suspending her own career to help her husband's. Her response: "What we women fought for was the ability to make decisions as to what we feel is best for ourselves and our family."

When the job of Secretary of Transportation opened up in the Reagan Administration, she lobbied for the position and got it. It didn't hurt that the Reagan Administration had recently been assailed for its lack of senior women. As Secretary of Transportation, Dole is credited with two significant advances in auto safety--a brake light nicknamed the Dole light, and air bags--as well as a savvy p.r. campaign in which she billed herself as the "Safety Secretary." (She once greeted employees in the parking lot with a stop sign so that she could check if they were wearing their seat belts.) The little brake light at the bottom of the rear window already had been thoroughly tested. She says she "took it off the shelf" and made it a high priority.

The debate over air bags pitted her convictions against her bureaucratic instincts. In 1983 the Supreme Court ruled that the Transportation Department had to enforce a federal rule requiring air bags or other passive restraints in cars, or make an argument why it should not have to. The auto industry campaigned fiercely against air bags. As the drag race between Detroit and safety advocates accelerated, Dole made an artful compromise: she issued a new plan stipulating that unless states with two-thirds of the nation's population passed seat-belt laws by 1986, manufacturers would have to begin installing passenger restraints in 1987-model cars. With the zeal of the newly converted, automakers undertook an expensive campaign to get seat-belt laws passed across the nation. Some consumer advocates saw Dole's solution as a devil's bargain. "She did not do the strong thing," says Benjamin Kelley, who was then senior vice president of the Insurance Institute. "She did the politically astute thing." In the end, the air-bag rule survived and more states passed seat-belt laws. "Exactly what we wanted," Dole says proudly. Whether the happy result arose from expedience, foresight or providence--or some combination of all three--no one can say.

[Elizabeth Dole]

As her husband prepared to enter the 1988 Republican presidential race, she resigned as Transportation Secretary. During that campaign, Bush operatives tweaked the press into examining the Doles' financial mini-scandal: the handling of Mrs. Dole's finances by David Owen, a former top Dole fund raiser who was later convicted for unrelated tax fraud. Questions were raised concerning a $50,000 loan she made to her husband's 1980 presidential campaign (the Federal Election Commission said it was "in excess of the contribution limit") and Owen's use of Mrs. Dole's blind trust to finance a business deal with a company that had received a Small Business Administration contract lobbied for by Dole's office. No charges were filed in either incident.

Elizabeth Dole had become the Republican Party's designated female Cabinet Secretary. After stumping for Bush, she was named Secretary of Labor, the only woman in Bush's original Cabinet. But she seemed restless. So when the directors of the Red Cross approached her about becoming president of the organization, it seemed to her a job made in heaven--a perfect way of doing well by doing good, of satisfying the inner longings that had brought her to the edge of a spiritual breakdown a few years before.

Awakenings

Dole says that by 1982, when she was working in the Reagan White House, her "career had become the center of my life." In theological terms, to lose oneself in ambition is a form of idolatry; for Dole, ambition had become her golden calf. Her private life seemed to provide scant consolation. Her husband was self-sufficient, and she had not been blessed with children. Instead of seeing a therapist, she sought out the Christian version: she began to attend Monday-night meetings at a church near Dupont Circle in Washington, where a small group of people discussed their spiritual quests. It was probably the first time that Elizabeth Dole had let her hair down in front of a stranger.

She says she had no epiphany, no revelation, but found solace in a theological solution. The restless, driven heart can find peace only when focused on God, and that is what Elizabeth Dole attempted to do. Now, on the campaign trail, she travels with a turquoise leather Bible that she tries to devote 30 minutes every day to reading. Says Robin Dole, the Senator's only daughter, who has been a regular on the road: "God is the most important thing in her life."

Dole cites her maternal grandmother as her spiritual archetype. "Grandmother Cathey read us Bible stories," recalls Liddy's brother John. "I would go around the block to avoid them, but Liddy ate them up." Her grandmother practiced what she preached. When her son was killed, she used the insurance money to fund a new wing for a mission hospital in Pakistan.

What triggered Dole's spiritual rebirth remains shrouded. In an interview, her sister-in-law Bunny, who is married to John, is asked whether it had anything to do with her not having children. Bunny, who is religious and also childless, says softly, "We've discussed this off and on. She loves children, but she took not having them in stride. She never breathed the idea that God had another plan." Bunny pauses before finishing her thought, adding, "But women's arms are made to hold children. There's always an emptiness." When asked the same question about her daughter, Mrs. Dole's mother says flat out, "I don't think she grieves about that at all."

Whatever its provenance, Elizabeth Dole's Christian commitment also yields political dividends. Charles Black, former chairman of Senator Phil Gramm's presidential campaign, affirms that "she has tremendous appeal to Christian conservatives and people in the evangelical movement because they know she's active in the movement." They may have doubts about Bob Dole, who sometimes seems to regard God as a junior Senator from an unimportant state, but they don't harbor any about his wife. Even within the Dole household, politics and religion have not mixed perfectly. When a new minister joined the Foundry Methodist Church and the Doles realized that his views were more liberal than theirs--he was pro-abortion rights--they switched to a more traditional Presbyterian church in Washington, in 1994.

Although Elizabeth Dole is intensely private, she doesn't always wear her piety lightly. Last January, in the middle of a long day on the road, she turned to a reporter riding with her. "May I ask you a personal question?" Sure. "Is God important in your life?" It was the only question she asked.

the Private Dole-Dole Ticket

For someone who professes not to be a politician, Dole is a helluva campaigner. At her speaking engagements, she leaps out from behind the lectern and wades into the audience, Oprah-style. But the spontaneity is well rehearsed. Her campaign manner is Southern-fried Kabuki: every line, every smile, every knowing aside, every haa-haa-haa has been tested and practiced until the timing is just so.

If campaigning is the poetry of politics and governing the prose, Dole prefers the prose. She'd rather be poring over briefing books than pressing the flesh. "She's not a political person," says Mari Will. "He loves to talk about politics. She doesn't. She is very much a public servant."

For Elizabeth Dole, one of the occupational hazards of campaigning is the media. She doesn't seem to understand why journalists are not just stenographers. While on vacation in Florida, the Senator would take a moment to jaw with a group of reporters, while she would ostentatiously get inside the car and wait impatiently.

But she seems to thaw out in her husband's presence, and there is sweetness in their silent campaign interplay. Coming off the campaign plane two weeks ago in Birmingham, Alabama, she grabbed his arm and made him gaze for a moment at the spectacular red sunset on the horizon. At the end of a long day, she kneads his shoulders, rubs his arm in encouragement, shoots him a supportive smile. Dole, the good Midwesterner, is allergic to public displays of affection--except from his Elizabeth. They seem to share a secret code of gestures: Elizabeth pats him on the lower back ("Bob, we need to get going"); she rubs his hand ("Don't look so glum--smile!"); she loops her arm around his waist and firmly tugs ("Quit talking to these reporters, and don't make any of your smart-aleck jokes"). On the podium, she will nudge him gently toward a better camera angle or come to his aid by grasping an unwieldy gooseneck mike that he can't.

When they are both on the road separately, which is most of the time, they check in with each other's schedulers. "Did you give Elizabeth time to eat?" he will ask. "Make sure you fit in some time for Bob to rest," she will say. He gets her itinerary faxed to him daily, including the type of plane she is flying in. He insists that she always fly with two pilots and avoid helicopters. When she slipped and fell in January, he sent her roses and ordered her a pepperoni pizza. For her part, she tries to protect her husband from himself. While on vacation at their condominium in Bal Harbour, Florida, this spring, he agreed to have a TV crew shoot him while he was working out on a treadmill. But Elizabeth asked the crew not to film his skinny legs. When they have free time, they like to spend it alone, with a Chinese takeout dinner and an old movie. "We share thoughts and ideas. I call it 'visiting on the issues,'" is her account of their time together. Elizabeth Dole's pillow talk consists of talking points.

But even as the person closest to him ("she is the only one around for whom the mask comes off," says a Dole official), Elizabeth often comes up against his inscrutability. Campaign aides say she was initially resistant and displeased by his decision to leave the Senate, and it took considerable persuading for her to get with the program. But Elizabeth is better at reading character than her husband, so she often detects hidden agendas and advises him on whom to trust and whom to bust. Her regular lament is that there are not enough "grownups" on the campaign. (She is partly responsible for bringing former Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld aboard three weeks ago.) Ultimately, she is a combination coach, copywriter and stage manager. She urges her husband on, provides him with some of his best lines (the candidate's riff on "vetoing Bill Clinton" was a Liddy-tested favorite) and gets him to put his best face forward.

Strait Is The Gate, Narrow Is The Way

Just as Liddy Dole has been a pioneer in government, she plans to be a pioneer as First Lady. In fact, her prescription is a radical one. She intends to return to her full-time job as head of the Red Cross, which would make her the first working First Lady. Traditionalists may wonder, How highly does she regard the role of First Lady if she won't quit her day job?

She sees the job of First Lady as a kind of spiritual bully pulpit. While Jackie Kennedy wanted to beautify the White House and Lady Bird Johnson wanted to beautify America's highways, Elizabeth Dole wants to beautify America's soul. She says that as First Lady she would organize a campaign called Give Five, which would encourage Americans to donate 5% of their income to charity and 5% of their time to volunteerism. "It would be a massive program," she says, "and dovetail nicely with my work at the Red Cross."

Elizabeth Dole has not plotted out her future. While her husband seems carved in stone, she is a work in progress. She regards herself as a recovering perfectionist. "It is something that can take a lifetime to overcome," she has written, and she still has a way to go. "I'm very different than I was 10 years ago," she says evenly. "I thought I had to do everything 100% perfect. Now 98% works nicely." Despite her protestations, Elizabeth Dole cannot stop striving for a perfect solution to her spiritual quandary. A close associate, asked what it is that Dole is ultimately seeking, laughs at the question as if the answer is obvious. "Salvation," this person says. "Salvation is what she really wants." Perfection. At last.

--Reported by Ann Blackman with Elizabeth Dole and Erik Larson/New York


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