Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 21 1996 3:30 AM


       As soon as the last debate ended, Bob Dole was overcome by esprit d'escalier--that's what the French call it when, on your way down the stairs, you think of all the clever things you should have said at the party. The morning after, in Riverside, Calif., he tossed off half a dozen good lines that might have pricked the president with the needle of ridicule instead of clocking him over the head with the frying pan of righteous indignation. Dole mocked the administration for having a "bartender rummaging through FBI files," and for raising money in a Buddhist temple despite the monastic vow of poverty. "Next thing you know they're going to be holding fund-raisers in homeless shelters," Dole jabbed. At his next stop, in Glendale (where the state's attorney general, Dan Lungren, introduced Dole as "a man who oozes sincerity"), Dole vastly improved upon his retort to Clinton for calling his tax cut a scheme. "When the government takes money from you, it's called a program," he quipped. "When you leave money with the people who've earned it, it's called a scheme."
       A few of those cracks the night before, and Dole might have taken the debate. But somehow, it was only failing in his last real chance to turn the tables in the campaign that liberated Dole to return to his authentic self, the wicked wit of the Midwest who refuses to take anyone seriously, including himself. The merits of his case aside, it's a pleasure to see him coming to life after 10 months of somnambulism, sounding at last like someone who is running for president. Dole is finally tuning out the cacophony of advice he's getting, ignoring whatever is scrolling across his TelePrompTer, and simply saying what he pleases. "He's been AWOL in the war on drugs," Dole now thrusts at his opponent. "Of course, he was AWOL in some other stuff before that." Enough of this phony comity, he seems to be saying. Before I go, let me tell you what I really think about that draft-dodging punk in the White House.
       The campaign's attempts to codify this death rattle into an official theme are yielding unintentional comedy. On a crisp Friday morning in Albuquerque, Dole appeared under a brilliant sky, beneath giant banners reading TRUST and ETHICS and a sign on the lectern that said YOUR WORD IS YOUR BOND. Behind him were two multicolored hot-air balloons that also said ETHICS and TRUST. As Dole was defending his tax-cut proposal, the hot air began to escape from the TRUST balloon, and it staggered to the ground and collapsed.
       There was something off about the slogan YOUR WORD IS YOUR BOND, too--it sounds like a Sunday-school lesson rather than a reason to vote Republican. And sure enough, by the next day, in Norfolk, Va., the sign had been adapted to read MY WORD IS MY BOND. But still, the whole pitch doesn't quite work. Touting your own trustworthiness is like bragging about your modesty; the expression somehow negates the virtue being alleged. So, too, do most of the people who introduce Dole at his various stops, as they tout his integrity while telling transparent lies themselves. In Albuquerque, Dole was preceded onstage by an Indian chief, who presented an elaborate defense of his decision to endorse Dole even though he had been ready to endorse Clinton two weeks before. It had nothing to do, the chief said, with Clinton's failure to invite him to a meeting with other tribal leaders--something no one present had alleged. "I changed my mind because of his voting record," the chief said, going on to offer a rambling soliloquy about the offense Clinton had given his people.
       Even when Dole is at his best, as during the last few days, he remains the victim of a tin ear for occasion and audience. From Albuquerque, we flew to Denver, where he addressed an ecstatic audience of middle school students. "Dole and Kemp--two four-letter words you can teach your children," he said, repeating his lame joke with seeming obliviousness to the fact that he had been introduced by a seventh-grader named Darrell. Dole then gave his usual riff about cutting the capital gains tax in half, attempted unsuccessfully to rouse his usual chant of "It's Our Money" ("It's Our Lunch Money" might have worked better), and deployed his attack on the National Education Association, which failed to yield its usual round of applause, perhaps because the teachers in attendance were members. Dole then gave an especially hilarious version of his Clinton-is-a-scummer riff, free-associating about Al Gore eating vegetables in the Buddhist temple where Democrats held their dubious fund-raiser. On one wall of the auditorium was an Ad Council poster with a picture of a little girl crying that read, in mock child's scrawl: "Stop using words that hurt. Start using words that help." Dole took no notice.
       By Saturday, when we hit Somerset, Ky., and Norfolk, Va., Dole's attack was turning into a Carsonesque monologue. His attack on Democratic money-laundering had evolved into a shtick about how he'd been waiting all his life for America to get foreign aid--and now the Democratic National Committee was finally getting it from Indonesia. His pitch about Craig Livingstone and the 900 FBI files was now a self-effacing gag about how Livingstone "went to sleep reading the one about me, but in any event. ..." But Dole was still palpably loving it, grinning from ear to ear in a way one seldom sees him doing and saluting the crowd with his clenched fist. Having successfully bear-baited Dole into going negative, the press is now busy scolding him for not ending his career on a note of dignified restraint. I, however, will think only the more of him if he exits the stage playing himself, leaving us with a few choice insults to remember him by instead of a grab bag of foolish and lightly held ideas.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.