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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Two Very Different Takes on Bob Dole : SENATOR FOR SALE: An Unauthorized Biography of Bob Dole by Stanley G. Hilton ; St. Martin's Press $22.95, 298 pages : BOB DOLE by Richard Ben Cramer ; Vintage Books $11 paperback, 163 pages

November 01, 1995|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Next year's presidential election, like it or not, may well pit Bob Dole against Bill Clinton. Many voters will shudder at the prospect, forced to choose the lesser of two evils, but political journalists and commentators will have a field day.

How often is there so stark a contrast between candidates? It could be the skeletal premise to a '70s movie: in one corner the outgoing, fair-haired, Kennedy-esque, womanizing, draft-avoiding Rhodes scholar who waffles because he sees a grain of truth in every point of view; in the other, the shy, dark, Nixonian, workaholic, indifferent student war hero who's more comfortable attacking others' ideas than articulating his own. Godzilla and Mothra have nothing on Bob and Bill.

Clinton's prospects aren't favorable at the moment, but they can only be enhanced by the publication of "Senator for Sale," a slashing biography. It's not a good book--former Dole assistant Stanley Hilton has a deep and puzzling animus toward his ex-employer--but it's nonetheless instructive, for the author lays out in detail the many quotidian corruptions of one political life.

Hilton, now an attorney in San Francisco, has put together a reasonable case against Kansas' senior senator, but never makes clear whether Dole's failings are appreciably worse than those of most long-lived, center-stage politicians. At bottom, Hilton's book is an indictment of modern American politics, which allows the moneyed class to buy inordinate influence over elections, legislation and overall government policy.

The cardinal problem with "Senator for Sale" is its indiscriminateness. Hilton, who writes that he worked as an aide to Dole "back in 1979 and 1980," disparages Dole at every possible opportunity: He dismisses the idea that Dole ever had principles while condemning him for taking ideological stands, attacks him personally for making personal attacks and loves to call Dole names--among Hilton's characterizations of him (some borrowed, others coined) are "Viper Bob," "Nixon Lite" and "Senator Flip-Flop."

The first half of "Senator for Sale" reads like an attack manual assembled by a Democratic Lee Atwater: much juice, little meat. The second half is better, focusing on Dole's record as a politician and a campaigner. Dole the politician was indubitably Nixon's hatchet man; continues to shovel money into the Kansas pork barrel, and blows with the prevailing political winds, having changed his mind about taxes, Israel and Saddam Hussein. The trouble with such criticisms is that they are prototypal--they could apply, with a few details altered, to most any congressional leader.

Hilton is on firmer ground when he goes after Dole the campaigner. Here the senator shows himself to be deeply cynical, willing to exploit every avenue that increases his political clout or advances his presidential aspirations. Hilton doesn't nail down his allegations beyond doubt, but if there is any truth to them, Dole would certainly be stretching ethical behavior beyond the breaking point.

According to Hilton, Dole has been in bed far too often with the Archer-Daniels-Midland company, on whose jets Dole constantly flies; is unconcerned about his campaign's breaking federal election laws; has proved all too willing to support special-interest legislation, and has sent not-so-veiled threats to organizations that fail to support his political allies.

Many of the facts and quotes found in "Senator for Sale" can also be found in Richard Ben Cramer's "Bob Dole," a sketchy biography borrowed wholesale from "What It Takes" (Random House), Cramer's massive 1992 book on the last presidential campaign. (That's no surprise, since "What It Takes" was obviously one of Hilton's sources.)

Cramer's Dole is a sympathetic, even benign figure: The reporter stresses Dole's work ethic, his impoverished youth, his sacrifices for both country and fellow Republicans. It's easy to believe, on shutting this book, that Dole would make a pretty good President: What's not to like about a man who recovered from near-fatal war wounds through sheer willpower, whose mother waxed the front porch, who as a young district attorney would work all day and evening, grab a late bite for dinner, then return to the office at 11 p.m. for another few hours of legal toil?

Cramer doesn't see a Mr. Hyde aspect to Dole, but after finishing "Senator for Sale," and compensating for Hilton's bias, most readers will concede there's some truth to that description. Dole is more brawler than builder, more divisive than conciliatory, and his drive toward the presidency seems erected less on positive programs than on repudiation of President Clinton.

For a time Newt Gingrich appeared to be Clinton's archenemy, but it's a good bet that future historians will come to see Dole as more responsible than anyone else for the current administration's ineffectiveness. Dole is hardly unique in attempting to make himself look good by making others look bad, but it's a sad comment on the state of U.S. politics that such campaigning is not only standard fare, but inordinately successful to boot.

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