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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

The Best Day Of Bob Dole's Life In Politics, And I Was There

bob dole
Doug Mills
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Dole, joined by his daughter Robin, left, his wife Elizabeth and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, right, attends a rally on Tuesday, March 12, 1996 in Washington.

This week's Tales from the Trail is the second of a two-parter on one of the most interesting politicians I have covered over the years – Sen. Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader who was the Republican Party's candidate for president in 1996. 

Like all politicians, Dole's career had peaks and valleys. Last week, I wrote about the lowest valley – the waning days of the 1996 campaign, when it was apparent to him and everyone around him that he was going to lose  and lose badly  to incumbent Bill Clinton. This week, we look at his high point: the "Super Tuesday" primaries in March where he ran the table and nailed down the nomination. And I was there with him.

By the time I flew to St. Louis and hooked up with the Dole campaign on the morning of March 11, 1996, it was becoming obvious that the next day would be a very good day for Bob Dole.

Dole, by far the best known of a once-large GOP field of presidential contenders, had already crushed most of the opposition.

But March 12 would be "Super Tuesday," when GOP voters in seven states would go to the polls and choose among a field that included Dole and several other candidates whose campaigns were clearly on life support: former White House speechwriter and columnist Pat Buchanan, businessman Steve Forbes and Tennessee's Lamar Alexander among them.

The polls looked really good for Dole in all seven Super Tuesday states – including the two big elephants in the room, Texas and Florida.

But, despite the fact that many people were saying that the then-73-year-old Kansas senator didn't really have the fire in his belly to be president, Dole, in the run-up to the Super Tuesday primaries, was running like a man whose hair was on fire.

We knew that a "frenetic pace" for Dole meant more than a couple of high-profile campaign events and then a plane ride back to Washington, D.C., where he could spend the night in his own bed in his own apartment at the Watergate complex.

Which suited those of us in the traveling press just fine, especially when compared to Clinton, who never seemed to stop campaigning and apparently had difficulty telling time – he was always late to arrive at an event and then stayed too long, making him even later for the next one.

This particular day was to start for me with a morning rendezvous in St. Louis with Dole and his campaign. After the stop-over in St. Louis, it was on to the campaign plane and a flight to San Antonio and an event on the banks of the River Walk, the city's famous urban waterway.

Then it would be a a motorcade to the San Antonio airport and a flight straight across the Gulf of Mexico to Melbourne, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast.

After that, of course, a flight to National Airport in D.C. so Bob Dole could sleep in his own bed, which he much preferred to any hotel bed in any city anywhere.

To tell you the truth, I'm really not sure why I was on this trip.

I was working for The Cincinnati Enquirer at the time, and the Ohio presidential primary was set for March 19 – although most people, including myself, believed the GOP nomination would be nailed down on Super Tuesday.

But that was one of the periods in my nearly 30 years with the Enquirer when they were spending money like drunken sailors and I was more than happy to take advantage of it.

Some editor – can't remember who – thought I should go on the road for a few days covering Super Tuesday in anticipation of the upcoming Ohio primary.

So, clutching an airline ticket, a laptop bag and a piece of luggage, I went off on the great adventure.

The first (and really the only stop) in San Antonio was at the Arneson River Theatre on the Riverwalk, an open-air amphitheater that, when we arrived a tad behind the scheduled 12:30 p.m. start, was packed with people.

There was a galaxy of Texas GOP stars on hand to warm up the crowd before Dole took the stage – Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchinson, then the U.S. Senators from Texas; Rick Perry, then the Texas commissioner of agriculture and later governor; and the man who was governor at the time and would (unlike Dole) later be president of the United States, George W. Bush.

The big, enthusiastic crowd seemed to pump up Dole; he was more animated and boisterous than he had been on the stump before. The Texas sun was beating down on the crowd; it was stinking hot, but the Texans didn't seem to notice. Neither did Dole.

I noticed.

Dole made a speech that sounded, at times, more like a general election speech.

"We need every one of you to come out and show the nation that Texas won't stand for four more years of Bill Clinton in the White House,'' Dole said.

After the speech, Dole worked the rope line a little longer than usual and even walked up and down the River Walk for a while, greeting people along the way.

bob dole
Credit Pat Sullivan / AP
Dole gives a thumbs-up to supporters as he makes his way along San Antonio's scenic Riverwalk on Monday, March 11, 1996.

Campaign staffers, checking their watches, decided they'd seen enough of San Antonio and steered the candidate in the direction of the motorcade that would take him back to the airport.

The Dole press people started an old-fashioned Texas cattle drive to push the media into the long line of motorcade vans – Get along, little dogies! 

I hopped into one of the white vans, tossed my laptop bag on the floor and, after a moment or so, realized that I had three fellow passengers. And not just any passengers – three legendary politics writers whom I had admired – nay, worshipped – since I was a little puppy dog of a reporter.

There, sitting across from me, was David Broder, the incredibly influential columnist for The Washington Post. Next to him was political writer and noted raconteur R.W. "Johnny" Apple of The New York Times. And sitting next to me was Jack Germond, then of The Baltimore Sun and author of a nationally syndicated politics column with Jules Witcover.

Broder, Apple and Germond.

And little old me.

I had heard from Apple and Germond before; they would call me in Cincinnati now and then to pump me for information about what was happening in Ohio politics.

Fortunately, the San Antonio airport was quite a long way from downtown, at least it seemed that way, and I had plenty of time to listen to the three of them telling old political war stories, some of which I could not repeat here. Apple and Germond were the talkers; Broder was more reserved, but friendly and capable of a good horse laugh.

When Germond was a young reporter, he worked for the Rochester Times-Union, the original Gannett newspaper. Of course, he knew I worked for another Gannett newspaper, The Enquirer. Jack Germond hated Gannett with a blind passion.

I pity you, son, for working for that outfit, Jack said. If I were you, I'd run for my life. That's what I did!

Then, when he was done trashing Gannett, he went on to tell some hilarious stories about covering Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in Albany – some of them not suitable for general audience.

I could have sat there and listened to these three journalism legends all day. Sadly, it will never happen again because all three have passed away since then.

Our van ride ended abruptly on the tarmac at the airport and we had to scramble into the rear of the campaign plane. I ended up sitting next to Broder for the flight across the Gulf of Mexico and to Melbourne, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast, where hundreds of Dole supporters were waiting for the candidate.

It was near dusk by the time we arrived at the outdoor venue, very near the beach and lit by tiki torches.

At Melbourne, Dole and his surrogates sounded like the primaries were already over and they were getting on with the general election campaign against Clinton.

Clinton, said Florida Sen. Connie Mack in a speech before Dole, "is a say-anything, do-nothing president."

Dole picked up the theme. There were seven states voting in the Super Tuesday primary the next day, but Dole seemed to focus his attention on the two biggest ones, Texas and Florida, which had 57 electoral votes between them.

That's why he went to Melbourne and started spanking Clinton as all talk and no action.

"I'm a doer,'' Dole said.

It was pitch-black on the Atlantic Coast by the time the rally broke up and we all raced back to the motorcade and headed for the airport.

On the plane, Dole sat up and we scribes in the back could hear him say, Home, home, at last. Let's go!

Most of the traveling press was based in Washington. They had their cars parked in the National Airport lots or could take the Metro back to their homes.

A handful of us – like me – had no idea where we were going to stay. We all planned on staying through Tuesday night so we could cover Dole's Super Tuesday "victory party."  I kept bugging a Dole press aide about what they planned to do with us.

Don't worry, he told me. We've got a nice place for you to stay.

In case you don't know, here's how it works when you are a reporter traveling with a candidate. Transportation costs – airplanes, buses – are pro-rated and your news organization is billed for your share of the cost. Your news organization pays for your lodging and reimburses you for other expenses, like meals.

On this trip, when we landed at National, Dole got into a limo and was driven to the Watergate apartments with his Secret Service detail and some aides in tow.

The Washington-based reporters scattered for their cars or the Metro line.

Those of us who had to stay in the hotel where the campaign had made reservations for us had to climb on a bus.

When that press aide said he had a "nice place" for us to stay, he wasn't kidding.

The bus took us to the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City.

Yowza. I was used to staying in Super 8 motels and eating at Bob Evans.

This was outside my experience.

ritz carlton pentagon city
Credit Courtesy Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City
The Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Washington, D.C.

I checked into the hotel, had my bag carried to my room and collapsed on the king-sized bed. Then I worked up the nerve to call the office.

In those days, there was a fellow named Jim Smith working the night news desk back in Cincinnati.

Well, Jim, I'm in Washington.

Oh, good, he said. I've read the stuff you filed earlier. Looks good. Where are you staying?

Uh, the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City.

Silence for a moment on the other end of the line.

The Ritz-Carlton? Don't you think that is a tad over budget?

Jim, I had no choice. I was a Dole campaign's prisoner on a bus. This is where they took me. 

We talked for a while, and then I hung up, wondering how much hot water I would be in for turning in that hotel bill. Then I decided not to worry about it.

I called room service and ordered up some prime rib with all the fixings.

The next day, I didn't really have much to do but monitor the voting in the Super Tuesday states. I knew that at 4 p.m. I had to be in the main ballroom of the ANA Hotel on M Street NW, which is where Dole and his supporters would gather.

It was fairly early in the evening – before 8 p.m. – when the networks and AP had called every one of the seven Super Tuesday primaries for Dole.

Dole and his wife Elizabeth came out on stage to a raucous reception; he was smiling from ear-to-ear.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you,'' Dole said to his supporters. "You have made this great evening possible ... Now let's go on and win in November. Let's send Bill Clinton home to Arkansas."

I wanted to get something to the Enquirer news desk quickly; no time to mess around with a laptop. 

So, I ran out in the hallway, got a pay phone (remember those?), slammed the door shut and called the office. I got Jim Smith on the line and started dictating the story off the top of my head – something of a lost art in journalism.

As it turned out, they got my story before they got the AP write-thru story. I was very pleased with myself.

After a while, the Doles left and went back home while hundreds of his supporters stayed around and danced into the night.

I was whipped, dead tired. So I went outside and got a cab back to the Ritz-Carlton. The Enquirer had made arrangements for me to fly back home out of National the next morning.

It was a good trip. I had witnessed what was probably the high point of Bob Dole's political life; got to stay in a really nice hotel; and did something I had never done before and have never done since.

I stole a Ritz-Carlton bathrobe and shoved it in my suitcase. I have gotten over my feelings of guilt.

tftt bio

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.