The Day I Didn't Interview Bob Dole

Aug 26, 2017

Ed. note: Tales from the Trail is a column that will take you behind the scenes of politics to see some of the funny, and sometimes outright bizarre things that happen on the campaign trail, based on Howard Wilkinson's recollections of 43 years of covering politics. 

This is about the time I didn't interview Bob Dole.

Sounds like a rather odd thing to write about, but stick with me; there's a pretty good story behind it.

It was the early fall of 1996. Dole, a Kansas senator,  had just stepped down as majority leader to campaign full-time for president.

He was, after all, the Republican nominee that year, which was a rather thankless task given the fact that incumbent Bill Clinton was riding pretty high at the time.

Working for the Cincinnati Enquirer, I'd traveled with Dole quite a bit during the primary season; I was with him in Washington the night he nearly ran the table in the Super Tuesday primaries and locked down the GOP nomination.

I was on the campaign trail with him that day in Texas and Florida, but Dole had a thing about going home every night so that he could sleep in his own bed at the Watergate apartments.

Bob Dole
Credit Bob Dole official website

Dole had a public image of being something of a grump, which was not the Dole I knew. He was funny and engaging and actually treated the media like human beings. 

I think he liked me when we first met because of our initial handshake.

Dole was severely wounded in the waning days of World War II, serving in Italy; and lost all practical use of his right arm.

When we first met, on the campaign plane somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, I extended my left hand to shake hands with him. I could see a glimmer of appreciation in his eyes. Not many people thought to do that. This one's OK.

Early in the fall, after Dole's convention in San Diego and the coronation of Clinton by the Democrats in Chicago, I was sitting at my desk at the Enquirer when the phone rang.

It was the Midwest press spokesperson for the Dole campaign.

We're coming to Cincinnati next week, he said. Would you like a one-on-one interview with the Senator?

So, what did he expect? That I would say no? I told him that of course I would.

Then he explained the ground rules. I'd have to come to Chicago, spend most of the day campaigning with Dole there, and do my interview on the campaign plane on the way to Cincinnati.

OK, whatever.

I cleared it with my bosses; and, on the appointed day, I got an early, one-way flight to O'Hare Airport. No baggage; just a laptop. Hopped a cab to the luxurious Drake Hotel downtown, where the Dole campaign was holed up.

After checking with the Dole press people, getting my credentials, the candidate and a large contingent of aides, reporters, photographers and videographers started a "photo-op" walk up and down N. Michigan Ave., Chicago's high-end retail "Magnificent Mile."

At one point, Dole ducked into a Salvatore Ferragamo shop, an Italian luxury goods store that sells men's and women's accessories that most of us will never own.

Dole emerged a few minutes later, with the TV cameras rolling, holding up a very nice-looking purse – one that cost about $1,500 – that he said he bought as a "souvenir" for his wife Elizabeth.

You could see his aides rolling their eyes and guess what was going through their heads:

We're running against Bubba who thinks McDonald's is fine dining and our guy is spending $1,500 for his wife's purse! This is our "man of the people."

The shopping tour abruptly ended; and Dole, the purse, and the media climbed aboard a bus for a trip out to an elementary school in the now-closed Cabrini Green housing project, one of the most notoriously crime-ridden projects in the country.

The Dole campaign's theme of the day was "women's issues" and they had scheduled a roundtable discussion with local women who were victims of domestic violence and their advocates in the community.

The Cincinnati portion of the trip was a rally featuring women business owners in Oakley, but the roundtable came first.

The media crammed into a kindergarten classroom and encircled Dole and the people on the panel, all of whom were sitting very uncomfortably on tiny kindergarten-size chairs.

The discussion was rolling along rather well until Dole called on a woman who was well known in the community as a victims' advocate to speak.

She promptly ripped into the candidate, accusing him of doing nothing – nothing – in his then-35 years in the House and Senate to help women who were victims of domestic violence, saying he had voted against every piece of legislation on the issue that had come before Congress.

Dole turned red; it seemed any second that smoke would start pouring out of his ears; as he barked back at her.

The media, bored up until that point, suddenly sat up and took notice.

Usually the campaigns vet the people who are part of these "roundtables" and "town halls" so that this kind of thing doesn't happen. Well, somebody on the campaign blew the vetting process in this case.

Dole's aides were scurrying about in the back of the room; and suddenly the campaign press secretary called an end to the round table. Gotta move on; gotta catch a plane to Cincinnati.

Everyone was shuffled out of the building and onto the campaign bus.

This, of course, was before the days of smart phones, but not before the days of smart campaigns. Outside the school, the Clinton-Gore campaign had young volunteers handing the media sheets of paper detailing Dole's voting record on issues involving women; and, as you might imagine, it was not very complimentary.

The bus raced out to Midway Airport; everyone was scooted onto the plane, which took off, bound for Lunken Airport.

I was sitting in the back with the rest of the media, figuring that this would be my chance to be called forward to the front of the plane for a one-on-one interview with the candidate.

Instead, I looked to the front of the plane and I could see top aides gathered around the candidate, who was clearly reading them the Riot Act for what happened when he was sitting in a tiny kindergarten chair; and he was clearly not a happy camper.

There was much bowing and scraping going on among the aides.

Uh oh, I thought, this does not bode well for me.

Finally, with Dole still hollering at aides up front, the deputy press secretary came back and sidled up to me.

"Uh, Howard,'' he said, "the senator is not going to be able to do the interview. Something came up. He has a conference. Uh, yes, a conference. I'm so sorry; we'll get you the next time."

Yeah, right.

I was thinking this but didn't say it: You'd better get back to the front of the plane, slick. He's probably not done cussing you out either.