WASHINGTON — "Let me tell you about those," Elizabeth Dole said cheerily, pointing to a dozen red roses in the office where she has served as the first woman secretary of transportation.
Dole had just taken part in an outdoor ceremony celebrating the Constitution, returned to her office, gobbled lunch in 15 minutes and greeted a reporter. She looked perfect. She was already at full throttle.
She picked up a tiny greeting card from her massive, orderly desk. "It says, 'We're going to miss you dearly. May God bless you and the senator. Love,' and then it's signed from all the people from the Coast Guard mess," she said.
"Isn't that sweet that they would do that? People do a lot of thoughtful things. It pulls at the heartstrings because we're a family here."
Heartstrings have been going twang around Dole for years. She is both a Harvard-trained lawyer and a former campus beauty queen from Duke University in her native North Carolina. At 51, she continues to mesh those distinctly different attributes into a uniquely popular political presence. She has been making friends and climbing the political ladder to increasingly better jobs since she hit Washington, working for President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.
And so it seemed to be something of a career departure for her this week when Dole, the Reagan Administration's only female Cabinet officer and a political force in her own right, announced that she will resign Oct. 1 to hit the campaign trail for her husband, Kansas Republican Bob Dole, who happens to be GOP leader of the Senate.
"I instinctively want to be with my husband when he makes his announcement and really officially becomes a candidate," she said Wednesday.
If some feminists view that as a dispiriting bow to the traditional wifely role in political campaigns, Dole doesn't agree.
"We're talking about who is going to be the leader of the Free World, the person who is going to sit across from Mr. Gorbachev," she argued. "That's a challenge. That's something I believe in strongly."
She insists she finds great similarity in that task and the job she is wrapping up--overseeing a department that is grappling with such heavyweight issues as airline and automobile safety.
"There is no joy, no reward like going home from work and saying, 'We saved some lives today,' " she maintained, talking and smiling at the same time like a beauty pageant contestant answering the Big Question.
Her husband's supporters, she explained, had been pressuring her to give the campaign more of her attention. They literally could not wait to launch her considerable charm to destinations all over America--to farms, suburbs, colleges and business meetings where she already has proven to be an irresistible campaigner.
Finally she decided they were right. It was time to go full-bore on the campaign trail. Her campaigning skills are simply too good to waste. A few thousand votes in a critical state can sometimes make the difference, she indicated, and she would never forgive herself if she hadn't gone out and tried to get those votes for her husband.
"This is not giving up my career just to sort of stand by his side," Dole said. "I mean, this is going to be a very active role that I'll be playing in the campaign. And to me it's giving up one cause and taking up another.
"My feeling always has been that there are many ways in which you move forward. You don't have to be in a paid position . . . to learn, to grow, to have challenging experiences."
Some feminists disagree. "I think it's sexism rearing its head one more time," fumed Irene Natividad, president of the bipartisan National Women's Political Caucus. "Why should she have to resign (from the Administration) and (Vice President George) Bush not have to, just because she's a spouse and a dynamite weapon for the campaign?"
But aren't the opportunities offered a First Lady equally important as those of a high government official?
"Maybe in Elizabeth Dole's mind," said Natividad, "but for me, no. To me it looks like a tremendous sacrifice."
But former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro thinks Dole made the right decision--and a predictable one. "I think it's a situation that if reversed--if he were the Cabinet secretary and she were running--I don't doubt they would have exerted the same pressure on him to resign."
William Schneider, a political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, said it was appropriate for Dole to resign to avoid a conflict of interest. The difference between her and Bush, a candidate for President himself, is that "he's elected and she's appointed," he said.
It's not the first time Dole has quit a high post to campaign for her husband: In 1979, she resigned as a member of the Federal Trade Commission as Bob Dole prepared for the 1980 presidential campaign. So she knows from experience that even an unsuccessful presidential bid will not mean the derailment of her career.