KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — In a cordial joint appearance in this rain-soaked resort town, former President Bush gave Bob Dole a hearty endorsement Friday, offering to campaign for the probable Republican presidential candidate but giving no public advice on how to conquer President Clinton, the man who brought Bush down four years ago.
"Barbara and I and all the Bushes are in unanimous and enthusiastic agreement that America needs Bob Dole's character, his courage, his decency and his common sense in the White House," Bush said at a press conference commemorating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Dole fought for and Bush signed six years ago.
"I'll do anything Sen. Dole wants me to do. I'll campaign for him," said Bush, who appeared along with his son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, daughter-in-law Laura and former First Lady Barbara Bush. "My heart lies at this level--the Dole level."
The man who was president and the man who has long wanted to be last met in Houston during the Republican primaries, when Dole swooped in to sit in a chair from the White House and get an almost-endorsement from his former nemesis.
In 1988, Dole and Bush fought bitterly for the Republican nomination, with Dole uttering the memorable line that his opponent--the eventual victor--should "stop lying about my record."
But the two men worked closely during Bush's single term in office, and Dole took great heat during the primaries for helping push through Bush's politically disastrous 1991 tax increase--the one that broke his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge.
With Dole promising to announce his economic package shortly--including a pledge to cut taxes--Bush was asked if he thought taxes were a minefield to be avoided.
"Not if you play it right, it's not," Bush responded, laughing. "Not if you guys play it right. Yeah, I paid a price, but I think I have great confidence in Sen. Dole's knowledge . . . of taxes and revenues. I also know he's committed to fiscal sanity. That means getting the budget deficit down."
At a photo opportunity before a private lunch (menu: soup, hot chicken salad, warm blueberry pie) Dole, his wife, Elizabeth, and the four Bushes posed in an ersatz Republican family portrait in the aqua living room of Bush's house at Walkers Point, perched on the Atlantic coast.
The three couples spent five minutes smiling in front of the fireplace and slapping away queries. When asked what kind of advice he had for the presidential hopeful, a jovial Bush the elder cracked: "Hey, this is a photo op, man. This is the new me. I don't answer questions."
Dole, who has spent the past several weeks criticizing Clinton over reports of White House staffers having admitted to prior drug use, also responded to the admission by his convention keynote speaker, Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), that she had occasionally used marijuana in college.
"Oh, come on," Dole said, when asked by reporters if Molinari's admission would be a problem.
"I'm talking about recent drug use, hard drugs, cocaine, crack and other things, and also overriding the Secret Service objection to security. Has nothing to do with the other case.
"The White House is obviously very tender about this," he added. "That's probably one reason they haven't had a drug policy."
As many as 40 of about 1,700 people employed by the White House--a group that ranges from senior presidential aides to messengers and cooks--admitted during pre-employment background checks that they had used drugs in the five years before being hired.
To allay Secret Service concerns about security, some 20 staff members were required to undergo periodic drug testing, in addition to the random tests required of all White House aides. Administration officials said any staff members found using drugs while working at the White House would be fired, and no evidence has surfaced of staff members testing positive.
Bush and Dole also praised each other's roles in pushing through the disabilities legislation, which requires that public facilities and workplaces provide access for the 43 million Americans with disabilities.
"There were many in Congress and the disabled community and in the business world who played a significant role in the passage of ADA," Bush said. "But no one, no one did more to achieve this victory" than Dole.