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COLUMN ONE : 4 Boys Who Could Be President : For Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan, the stories of their youth tell much about the men they became and the America in which they grew up.

DEFINING MOMENTS: The Shaping of the GOP Front-Runners. First in a series. About This Series: In these group portraits, The Times examines turning points and touchstones in the lives of Republicans seeking the White House. * Today: Growing up: The boys who would be president, and the places that shaped them. * Monday: Coming at the '60s from another direction: Civil rights, Vietnam and political choices. * Tuesday: Marriage and family: Norman Rockwell visions vs. today's realities. * Wednesday: Life after Reagan: Rivals seek to claim the mantle.

December 17, 1995|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ga. — The Wynnton Elementary School is a 153-year-old fixture in this Southern city, a gracious building with hardwood floors, carved banisters and stately white pillars. In its simple entryway, above an antique desk, is a photograph of a boy who hopes to prove one of America's most enduring myths: that anyone can grow up to be president.

The image, fixed in black and white, is the official portrait of Martha Jones' 1955 fifth-grade class. In the first row is a skinny, floppy-eared kid in bluejeans rolled up at the cuffs and a dark shirt open at the neck. His lips are curled in a mischevous smirk.

Now fast-forward 40 years. The smart-aleck kid is a hard-driving U.S. senator from Texas, a balding, bespectacled man with a doctorate in economics and an eye on the highest office in the land.

To declare himself a candidate, Phil Gramm returned to this little school to recount one of his favorite anecdotes, the story of how he flunked third grade. "What I learned here," Gramm proclaimed, "is that there is always a second chance in America."

There is a symmetry to this nostalgic homecoming, a pattern that fits in well with the quadrennial show-and-tell that is American presidential politics. Ever since George Washington chopped down the cherry tree (an apocryphal, if oft-told tale), the presidency has been entwined with tales of boys growing into men.

Now come Gramm, Dole, Alexander and Buchanan, each saddled with the facts of his own coming of age, each spinning those facts in a calculated attempt to tug at the heartstrings of American voters. Each takes part in a tradition that stretches back two centuries.

Abraham Lincoln was a hardscrabble frontier child, walking two miles in the snow to a log cabin schoolhouse. Richard Nixon wore hand-me-downs. George Bush was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. A teenage Bill Clinton defended his mother against a drunken, wife-beating stepfather. In each story, one can find clues to the man. And with each telling, the foundation of image--that most important of campaign assets--is built.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the lone candidate to have lived through the Depression and to have fought--and been critically wounded--in a war, never thought of himself as a man of valor, only a kid who "got shot." But his new campaign video looks at World War II through a different prism. Its title: "Bob Dole: An American Hero."

Gramm, a cutup who straightened out only after his mother, a struggling widow, packed him off to military school, recently featured his up-from-the-bootstraps story in a television ad--after spin doctors discovered that voters thought he was born rich.

Conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, the third son in a family of nine children, harks back to his youth to place himself in the camp of "middle-aged men with middle-class values"--though today he is a man of substantial means. Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, likes to recount how, as a 10-year-old, his father marched him down to the county courthouse to meet then-Rep. Howard Baker Sr.--a scene laden with images of political destiny.

"This is what we thrive on," said historian Robert Dallek. "How do you fasten yourself on the mass of Americans? You need to become a larger-than-life character, an almost mythological figure, whether it's because you're from a storied family like the Kennedys or the Rockefellers, or a classic Horatio Alger character who has made his way by dint of hard work and drive. People want a story."

But beneath the mythology, there is at least some truth. Each of these men is the product of his early days. Each draws upon the lessons of his past to offer solutions to a far more complicated present.

"As a young man in a small town," Dole likes to say, "my parents taught me to put trust in God, not government, and never confuse the two."

Says Buchanan: "I want to live in the America I grew up in. There is nothing wrong with that."

This, then, is the story of four men who would be president and the America they grew up in. It is the story of Buchanan's Washington--a sleepy, segregated Southern city where white Catholics like his family defined their neighborhoods not by city blocks, but by parish boundaries. In Buchanan's Washington, you didn't come from Georgetown or Chevy Chase. You came from Holy Trinity or, in his case, Blessed Sacrament.

It is the story of Alexander's Maryville, Tenn.--a place of Boy Scout hikes through the Great Smoky Mountains and choir practice at the New Providence Presbyterian Church, his home away from home. It is Maryville that Alexander has in mind when he issues his standard stump line about sending power back to states and communities because "we know what to do."

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