Flame Posies

The Wound

How bashful is Dole about his wartime injury?

Dole is “reluctant,” “reticent,” and “loath” to discuss it, claims the press corps. Or “even to think about” it, as Newsday’s Elaine S. Povich wrote Aug. 12, “because to do so would unearth the demons that he has lived with–and mostly hidden from the public–for the majority of his 73 years.”

“It,” of course, is the war wound, the battlefield maiming of his arm and shoulder during World War II–or, as the Washington Post’s David Maraniss and other writers have upgraded it for their journalistic purposes, the Wound.

The press loves the Wound for the reductionist power it affords them when they write about the candidate. Writing in the New Republic on behalf of hacks everywhere, the otherwise estimable Matthew Cooper (now bound for Newsweek) calls the Wound Dole’s “Rosetta stone.” Dole speaks in shorthand? Explanation: Infirmities prevent him from scribbling much beyond his signature, so he’s trained himself to compress the world into verbal hieroglyphics. Dole refuses to give up? Explanation: He was left for dead in Italy and marked a goner several times in hospitals, and he’d be taking the dirt nap today if not for his interminable spirit. Dole is a hatchet man, a mean guy given to angry outbursts? Hell, goddamnit! He grew up hardscrabble and was crippled in the bloom of his handsome prime! He earned everything he has, unlike softies like Bush and Forbes, who had the world handed to them, and Clinton, who was anointed by Fulbright and got his own free ride!

But most of all, the press corps loves to touch the Wound because they’ve convinced themselves that subject was previously taboo. Give a listen:

Most revealingly, [Dole is] willing more and more to speak of being shot in World War II, and of his lengthy recovery from wounds that almost killed him and left his right shoulder incapacitated.

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 24, 1996

Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, the laconic Kansan who for more than three decades in Congress has been to reluctant to draw attention to his wounds from World War II, returned today to a hospital building where he suffered excruciating pain and nearly died.

–Washington Post, March 15, 1996

Midwest stoicism being what it is, Dole still seems uncomfortable talking about the wounds that nearly killed him as he lead (sic) a platoon up an Italian hill April 12, 1945.

As he wrapped up his party’s nomination, his generation’s World War II experience is at the heart of his third run for the presidency. But he talks about it reluctantly.

“I’ve just never done it,” Dole said in an interview with GNS. “I’ve always felt it was private.”

–Gannett News Service, March 22, 1996

Recently, [Dole] has given up his reticence to discuss his war wounds.

–Helen Thomas, UPI, April 17, 1996

Dole specifically chose last April to jump into the race, marking the 50th anniversary of when he was wounded in Italy during World War II to highlight his military record.

Showcasing the 1945 grenade explosion which kept him in the hospital for three years and left him with a useless right arm signaled a change in the very private man who has been reluctant to discuss the episode.

–Agence France Presse, May 15, 1996

Once reluctant to discuss his injuries and his grueling recovery, Dole has been warming up to the subject in interviews and speeches.

–Associated Press, May 31, 1996

B ut the notion that Dole is just now exiting the Wound cocoon is a perennial press fantasy. Dole is always talking about his Wound, and the press is always asserting that he is doing so reluctantly, for the first time, and so on. He blabs about the Wound in the 1988 and 1996 editions of Unlimited Partners: Our American Story, his book with wife Elizabeth, and his reflections on the Wound and the aftermath consume a great chunk of Richard Ben Cramer’s nonpareil book about the 1988 campaign, What It Takes: The Way to the White House. And he discussed it candidly during his last run for the White House, as this déjà vu clip by Edward Walsh from the Feb. 19, 1988, Washington Post proves:

For the first time in his public life, he has forced himself to speak openly about the horrible war wound that turned a strapping, athletic youth into an emaciated, bed-ridden hospital patient. The experience left him bitter and disillusioned, Dole has told audiences this year.

But Dole and his advisers have also sought to turn the toughness that enabled Dole to overcome his injury into an asset, the counterpoint to the Bush “wimp” image that is the other side of the deeply personal contest between the two men.

Did the press miss Walsh’s story? Have they forgotten the 1988 campaign? If so, one would think that after six months of Dole non-reticence on the hustings, including a pit stop for the press at the Battle Creek, Mich., Army hospital where he recuperated from the Wound, and a full nine months after the release of a campaign video, An American Hero, in which Dole himself describes the Wounding in graphic detail (“Some high-explosive bullet entered my right shoulder, fractured my vertebrae in my neck. I–I saw these–things racing–my parents, my house. I couldn’t move my body, I couldn’t move my arms, my legs.”), the press would finally say with authority that Dole is not only comfortable with talking about the Wound, he’s practiced.

Not a chance. In the final hours of the Republican National Convention, reporters were still writing that Dole was only just coming to grips with his infirmity.

One touchy subject is Dole’s grievous war wound. He has always been loath to talk about it, but his advisers have viewed it as an asset–a symbol of his will to survive.

–Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 15, 1996

The media’s misperception about the Wound pairs nicely with their other blind spot: that a “new, sensitive Dole” has emerged to replace the “mean hatchet man.” When Dole misted up at the convention, reporters wrote as if the “Midwest stoic” had finally found his heart, when in fact a sluice of his tears courses its way through his recent career. He sobbed when he paid a recent visit to Ike’s boyhood home in Abilene, Kan.; when he retired from the Senate earlier this summer; when he visited his hometown of Russell, Kan., in March; when he helped plant Nixon in Whittier in 1994; when he talked on 60 Minutes in 1993 about his father visiting him in the hospital; when he attended a Senate party in 1992 for the defeated George Bush; whenever he hears “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (which he played continuously during his recovery); during a Ford/Dole campaign stop in Russell (he always seems to cry in Russell) in 1976, which he included in a later campaign video.

Why then, does the press paint Dole as a New Age ‘90s guy who is finally making the big hug with the inner child who was ravaged by the Wound?

Don’t blame Dole. He hasn’t exploited his war record for political purposes any more than did John “PT109” Kennedy or George “Grumman Avenger” Bush. And while he hasn’t rubbed his game wing directly in Clinton’s draft-dodging face in pursuit of votes, he’ll probably do whatever it takes to win if he’s woefully behind in October.

Neither exploiting the Wound nor shunning it, Dole has folded it into his life, establishing the Dole Foundation to help the disabled, pushing the Americans With Disabilities Act through Congress, and going out of his way to align himself with the physically impaired. When he gave the commencement address this year at Gallaudet University–the federal school for the deaf–Dole wasn’t engaging in political grandstanding. He was working his constituency.

The only disability that needs more exposure this election cycle is the media’s Campaign Cognitive Disorder, a seemingly incurable condition whose symptoms are amnesia and treacle. CCD-impaired journalists blot out the past and embrace the mawkish. In the case of Bob Dole, afflicted reporters repeat the well-grooved narrative of his Wound, Recovery, New Sensitivity, because it makes for a good and easy story–and because it fits with their line that the formerly taciturn/stoic, mean/hatchet-wielding Dole has evolved, even when the record shows that he’s been a serial blubberer since the ‘70s and, despite the tears, is just as mean as ever.

Meanwhile, the crybaby candidate must be chortling about the media’s naiveté. He’s probably been chortling for more than three decades. In a Dole profile published last December in the Los Angeles Times, former Dole aide Jim French talks about chauffeuring the candidate to campaign stops during his 1966 re-election bid for the House. Even then, Dole knew the political value of the Wound–and of his reluctance to talk about it. The Times reports:

Few gatherings passed without a tactful mention of [Dole’s] military service in Italy and the frozen right arm. It hit home with the veterans, as did Dole’s stern warning to dike the Communist tide in Asia. Dole rarely fished for sympathy when he retold the tale of his battle injury, leavening the reference by saying it won him a “bedpan promotion” to captain.

But “if a meeting wasn’t going good, sometimes I’d have a guy in the back of the room ask him about the war wound,” says French. “It would switch the conversation to make it more positive.”