UNTIL THE VERY END, DOLE COULD NOT QUITE BELIEVE THAT HE was going to lose to Bill Clinton. He respected Clinton's skills as a campaigner, but he couldn't understand why voters would want Clinton to be their president. "This is serious business;' Dole would proclaim, like a mantra. Sooner or later, Dole felt certain, voters would see through Clinton's act. George Bush had believed the same thing in 1992.
Presidential candidates live in a cocoon on the stump. Nelson Warfield, Dole's press secretary, did not show Dole the harsher attacks in the press, and the advance team cranked up loud music after every event so that Dole could not hear all the reporters shouting questions. Dole could tell himself that the cheering crowds, even the squealing schoolkids avoiding algebra class, represented a groundswell. At a meeting on Oct. 12, Fabrizio handed Dole a map showing him trailing in most states. Dole glanced at the map and then up at Reed. "Hmmm, guess you've only been telling me the good news," Dole said.
Reality finally began to sink in after the second debate. Dole's handlers told him he had won; every media outlet in the country told him he'd lost. Dole's response was characteristic. He was way behind. There was no one to help him. His campaign advisers didn't have any ideas, and Jack Kemp was running for the year 2000. Dole had once half hoped, half expected that the media would finish off the Clintons, but now reporters seemed bored with Whitewater and unable to untangle the new scandal over the Democrats' foreign fund raising. Dole was alone, again. It was up to him to convince the voters that Clinton was unworthy.
The sight of Bob Dole pounding on a lectern, shouting "Wake up, America," was almost pitiable, but it was all he had left. As he wandered the country in the last days of the campaign, Dole threw away his prepared speeches and began riffing, offering up a strange pastiche of fractured metaphors, old lines from his primary speeches and whatever else floated into his mind. He compared the White House to a "laundromat" and accused the president of cheating at golf. The diatribes struck some of the reporters on the press bus as oddly good-natured. Dole seemed to be having fun, in a dark sort of way.
But the outbursts just scared off more voters. Ross Perot, largely forgotten until then, was threatening to break out of single digits, capitalizing on some of the voters' disgust with shady fund raising. At the staff meeting on Sunday, Oct. 20, Reed asked Fabrizio if Perot could pull 15 percent of the vote. "No," said Fabrizio. "Best-case scenario, it's probably 50 [Clinton], 40 [Dole], 10 [Perot] nationally. Could be worse." His prediction was greeted with dead silence.
Depressed, Dole's top advisers sat around Reed's office at campaign headquarters, trying to think of something they could do. The scene reminded one adviser of the story of a test pilot in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," radioing the tower as his plane plummeted earthward. "I've tried A," the pilot said. "I've tried B," he said. "I've tried C," he said. Then he crashed.
There was one last maneuver to try. For some time, Dole had been toying with the idea of asking Perot to drop out of the race and east his support to Dole. It was a long shot, but Reed figured the time bad come to try. Maybe, Reed suggested, Perot would be looking for a chance to save face. Reed asked the others what they thought. Fabrizio was skeptical, but the rest argued there was nothing to lose.
Reed's "secret" trip was a fiasco. It leaked before Reed had even met with Perot, who hadn't known Dole's campaign manager was coming until his press secretary heard it from an AP reporter. The meeting between Reed and Perot at a hangar at Dallas's Love Field was a waste of time; in the end, Reed never even popped the question. Perot publicly scorned Reed's overture as "weird" and delighted in the publicity.
The next day, the campaign learned that the story of Dole's long-ago extramarital affair was finally reaching print-in the National Enquirer. Now Dole was really angry. He called on voters to "rise up" against the national news media. To a reporter along the rope line who asked Dole about the story, he snapped, "You're even worse than they are." He was hoping to send a signal to editors everywhere to stay out of the gutter. Still, the staff braced for the adultery story to go up the usual media food chain-from supermarket tabloid to city tabloid to CNN and the rest of the mainstream press. To their surprise, the sleazefest never happened. The New York Daily News did run a short item, and The Washington Post made the merest mention of its own reporting, buried deep in a routine campaign story. But most editors across the nation figured that 'Dole was too far behind, Election Day was too dose at hand, the affair was too remote and only arguably relevant. The concern over the Post story had taken its toll: though Dole railed against the press for ignoring him, his communications director, John Buckley, had basically stopped offering up Dole for interviews. Buckley bad even turned down "Larry King Live," afraid of what the host and his callers might ask.
NEWT GINGRICH HAD LONG since given up hope of orchestrating a "team effort" by the GOP. Dole campaign aides had stopped coming to his meetings. They publicly blamed the unpopular speaker for dragging down the Republican ticket. Gingrich had sincerely wanted to help Dole, whom he admired. But by autumn, he realized that he would have to distance himself from Dole to survive.
Gingrich's moods had swung wildly throughout 1996. Over Memorial Day weekend, he had returned to the lavish Palm Beach home of his GOPAC patroness, Gay Gaines. This time there were no giddy parties and sing-alongs. Alone, pensive, Gingrich slowly walked around the pool, reading aloud from "The Five Books of Moses," a new Biblical translation. At the GOP convention, Gingrich seemed almost manically high again, but at a coffee with Washington Post reporters, he had started softly crying when he talked about Jack Kemp's close bond with his children. In September, Gingrich was in a state of rage. There were times, during the endgame of the budget negotiations, when Gingrich bad seemed aware of his own shortcomings. But now the only error he could see was failing to anticipate the monstrous treachery of his enemies. He had been the victim of a conspiracy, he rafted. He denounced the unions for spending "hundreds of millions" on misleading ads ("75,000 against me personally"). The president, Gingrich insisted, was "liar"--"the biggest liar in the history of the office"--who had been protected by the "liberal elite media."
In a more reflective mood, Gingrich compared himself to the Duke of Wellington, who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Before that famous victory, Wellington had been criticized for not taking the offensive and then, when he did attack, for taking too many casualties. Like Wellington, Gingrich just had to hang on to survive; ultimately his cause would triumph.
But certain sacrifices would have to be made. After dinner on the night of Sept. 18, Gingrich asked his top political aides, Don Fierce and Joe Gaylord, to join him on his private balcony overlooking the Mall. Bathed in moonlight, Gingrich confided that he was concerned that the GOP would lose control of the House. Something had to be done to reverse GOP tracking polls, which showed a steady erosion of support for Republican congressmen. The polls suggested a solution: many voters, it appeared, wanted to split their tickets. They were more likely to vote for Republican congressmen if they felt that Clinton was likely to win. The trick was to encourage them, but not to be too obvious about it. If the press learned that the GOP leadership was plotting, in effect, to dump Dole, it might depress voter turnout, as well as hurt Dole personally. The Republican congressional committees came up with a message that was subtle, but to the point: "Don't Give Clinton a Blank Check."
At the same time, Gingrich was strongly urging Dole to go on the attack against the president, and he took personal credit when Dole finally did. Watching Dole lay into Clinton during the second debate, Gingrich turned to some friends and asked, "Did ! miss a personality transplant?" As he left Dave & Busters, a cavernous sports bar in Marietta, Ga., where he had watched the debate, Gingrich was asked if he had anything to do with Dole's newly aggressive persona. "What do you think?" he asked and smiled wickedly. Gingrich was not at all sorry to see Perot rise in the polls in late October. Although Perot was siphoning off voters from Dole, Perot voters were more likely to vote for Republican congressional candidates than for Democrats. The more Perot voters who turned out, the better.
HALEY BARBOUR, THE ROTUND chief of the GOP, groused that the Democrats had completely ignored the campaign-finance laws to build their huge war chest-this, he said, was the true story of the 1996 election. But the scandal was coming too late to save Bob Dole. The overriding story was the brilliance of the Democrats' strategy and the sheer bungling of the GOP. Barbour was defensive about the charge that the GOP had allowed the Democrats to run wild with millions of dollars of unanswered negative advertising. In the spring and summer of '96, Barbour protested, he had spent about $$5 million to elect Dole. But the incompetents in the Dole campaign had wasted it on focus groups and consultants who made lousy ads. Barbour shook his head over the vapid bumper stickers dreamed up by Dole's strategists--his personal favorite was OUR GOAL, YOUR SOUL, BOB DOLE. His criticisms didn't get much argument from Tony Fabrizio, one of the Dole consultants who squandered the money. Looking back at the campaign in mid-October, Fabrizio admitted, "We never did one thing well."
A week before Election Day, Mort Engelberg, the Hollywood producer who handled much of President Clinton's advance work, paced the stage in front of the Clark County government center in Las Vegas. The weather forecast had called for rain and 25-mph winds, but the president stood bathed in brilliant late-afternoon sun. Engelberg was, for the moment, content. He was obsessed with getting the right light. During Clinton's train trip to the Chicago convention, "the 21st Century Express," he would have the train slow down or speed up so it would arrive at the last whistle-stop just as dusk was falling, the time of day that photographers call "the magic hour."
Good light seemed to follow Clinton. The next day, he was silhouetted against the sparkling Pacific, asking a roaring throng of college students in Santa Barbara to "walk across that bridge with me." But the president was in a testy mood. He was furious at the Democratic National Committee for doing an embarrassing about-face, refusing, then agreeing, to release the party's pre-election fund-raising report. The flap over Democratic campaign money was starting to cut into Clinton's poll numbers, threatening to drag him below the 50 percent level and spoil a perfect campaign. Clinton was rattled by Perot's late surge. The protest-vote candidate had denied him a majority in 1992 and now seemed poised to do it again. Mark Penn tried to reassure Clinton that Perot was taking voters from Dole, not Clinton, but the president just shifted his irritation to the press. "Where is the fairness in all this?" Clinton fumed. "Dole's chief fund raiser is going to jail and they've outraised us $ to 2. How come all anyone cares about is the Democrats?" he pouted. (Simon C. Fireman was sentenced to six months' house arrest for making illegal campaign contributions, and the GOP outraised the Democrats $280 million to $140 million.) Mike McCurry tried to reassure Clinton. "You're going to ,be president and he's not," said McCurry.
"If I'm gonna lose this, I'm gonna lose this my way," Dole grumbled to Scott Reed a week before Election Day. Dole was now aware that he could lose, as he would put it, "big time." He had seen a New York Times poll showing that voters now found him less trustworthy than Clinton. "We'll be lucky if we get 100 electoral votes," he told Reed. "We'll be lucky if we get 50."
Time to get cracking, keep moving. Dole had always tried to stay a step ahead of the dark. On the Friday before Election Day, Dole made a dramatic vow to campaign without stopping the rest of the way. So began the 96 Hours to Victory Tour, the last leg of Dole's meandering political death march, a strange odyssey across a sleeping land that seemed, at times, to have forgotten that Dole was even out there.
Before he left, Dole stood on a stage with George Bush in Tampa, Fla., singing Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American." When the song ended, Dole painfully unwrapped the fingers of his hand, raising the pinkie and index finger as he waved at the crowd. Dole talked about how proud he had been to vote for "Ike" Eisenhower. Dole was the last of America's World War II generation to contend for the presidency, but he knew now that he would never join Ike or Bush or his old hero, Dick Nixon, as a winner. As Bush recalled Dole's loyalty and service and told the crowd that he wanted to stand at his side, supporting him in every way, Dole let slip his old envies and resentments and began to cry.
THE 96-HOUR FRENZY OF DOLE'S final days had an oddly antic air for a dying campaign. Reporters were issued a small duffel bag containing deodorant and a toothbrush for the trip. One of them drew a map of Dole's final itinerary on his laptop. In script, the wandering track spelled out "loser." The media skepticism seemed borne out the first night, when the press plane, "Bullship," landed in Newark, N.J., for an expected airplane rally at 4 a.m. The tarmac was dark and empty.
Dole caught a cold, and by Monday he could barely speak. But he was buoyant and cheerful, drinking a tea called Throat Coat and gaining strength from surprisingly large and lively crowds that showed up at diners and bowling alleys, high-school gyms and airport hangars, in small towns across the country. Dole danced with Elizabeth on stage in Lafayette, La, and choked up in Des Moines when Senator McCain called him the last warrior. Dole's plane got a flat tire on Monday afternoon, so Dole moved onto Bullship, where he dozed up front while his aides tried to hush the serenades from reporters. By his last,3 a.m. rally, in Harry Truman's hometown in Independence, Mo., Dole actually seemed to be picking up energy, pumping his fist to the music and dancing on the balls of his feet.
In those final four days, he flew 10,554 miles and touched down in 20 states. Finally he could go home, first to Russell to vote, then to his true home, the apartment he shared with Elizabeth at the Watergate in Washington. Dole seemed cool and calm when he called Nelson Warfield after 7 p.m. and asked "how things look." Warfield told him that Ohio and Florida had gone for Clinton. Dole had long since accepted defeat, but he wanted to hold off on a concession to allow Californians to vote. Typically, someone on the snakebit campaign staff hit the wrong computer button and released a concession statement that was immediately announced on the networks. A sheepish campaign aide had to issue a retraction.
When Dole finally left his hotel suite after 11 p.m. to deliver the speech he had long feared he would have to give, he found the hallway outside lined with old friends. They applauded and shook hands as he moved down the line. In the sweaty, smoky basement ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel, he offered a last gesture of graciousness. "C'mon up," he said to Scott Reed. He would not abandon his beleaguered campaign manager at the end. Reed had been feeling low, blaming himself ("Maybe I coulda won another way," he mumbled), but the self-recrimination was unnecessary. If ever there was a candidate not destined to win, it was Bob Dole.
Newt Gingrich had been giddy again on the last weekend. He believed that the GOP would actually pick up a half-dozen seats and mock the conventional wisdom that demonizing Newt was the way to win. "The average person began realizing about three weeks ago that I am not their congressman," he insisted. But in the early evening of election night, the mood turned grim in the "war room" set up by the Gingrich forces at the Cobb Galleria Conference Center in Marietta. It was becoming clear the GOP would keep the House, but with a narrower majority. Reporters clamored to see Gingrich. The speaker, once the most overexposed political figure in Washington, remained hidden inside until 2:45 a.m., after the networks had gone off the air.
Bill Clinton had finally come, after 23 years, to the last speech on the last night of the last campaign. It was 1 a.m. in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the president couldn't stop. When he was finally done talking, he hugged a teary-eyed Hillary and Chelsea, then he worked the rope line. Then he bounded back onto the stage ... then he went back into the crowd ... and back on-stage to work the band. Finally pried away, he kept on dancing inside Air Force One as the big plane swung south to Arkansas. Staffers gulped down champagne and mango ice cream in the aisle, watching the president do an airborne Macarena. In Little Rock, he still would not rest. He sat up until dawn in a suite at the Excelsior Hotel with Leon Panetta, Doug Sosnick and Bruce Lindsey, playing hearts.
On Tuesday, after the voting was done, old Little Rock friends found the First Couple floating serenely through a party at Sen. David Pryor's house. One F.O.B. said he hadn't seen Hillary happier in years. The Clintons had been told that an Electoral College landslide was in the making; the only open question was control of Congress. In the last days, Clinton had decided not to travel in the big states, where he might rack up a bigger popular vote, but rather to concentrate on picking up key Senate seats. Hillary, meanwhile, had campaigned for House candidates. Their interest was more than political: both wanted to keep control of the congressional investigating committees out of GOP hands. Hillary tried to be philosophical about it as she chatted with friends. Scan-dais, she said, were "all politics, all politics, it's all about the balance of power in Washington."
SHORTLY AFTER 6 P.M., CLINTON had just awakened from a nap when his pollster, Mark Penn, walked through the door. Penn told the president that he had carried New Hampshire and Florida. "If those two states are going our way, it's over. It's over," he said. The president and the pollster high-fived. Hillary came over to hold her husband's hand. Then, as Clinton sat in an armchair chomping on a cigar, the loyal lieutenants fined up to receive the presidential blessing. There were Panetta, Stephanopoulos, Ickes and McCurry; Terry McAuliffe, who had raised the early war chest; Don Baer, who shaped for mass consumption the New Democratic message, and a retinue of retainers in a campaign operation that had seemed almost Nixonian in its efficiency.
Missing, of course, was Dick Morris. He was back in New York, living alone in an apartment. There were reports that his wife, Eileen McGann, had asked him to move out of their Greenwich, Conn., house, though Morris insisted he was trying to keep his marriage together. Meanwhile, he worked on the memoir that will no doubt make clear who was the true architect of one of the great comebacks in American political history.
Inside the Bill Clinton suite of the Excelsior Hotel, decorated with a gilt-framed oil portrait of the president, the First Family seemed serene. Hillary played with her nephew, Tyler. The president's brother, Roger, sliced an apple for the boy and said he felt "bittersweet." He missed his mother, he said, and he was sure his brother did, too. Clinton sat in a wing chair by himself, his reading glasses perched on his nose, tinkering with his victory speech. Dole had called Clinton to concede at 9:20 p.m.; shortly after 11 p.m., Dole came on the television to publicly bow out. Hillary and A1 and Tipper Gore gathered round the four TV sets. The president did not even lookup.
Hand in hand with Hillary and Chelsea, the president walked, after midnight, out of the State House and onto a brightly lit outdoor stage. In 1992 Tipper and Hillary had done a little jig here on election night; now they just held their children close by. Clinton uttered the usual political bromides-it seemed rather like an Inaugural Address--and one great political truth: "The vital American center," he said, "is alive and well." With keen instinct and sheer doggedness, Clinton had found and enlarged that center. He had won with no clear mandate. In the exit polls, the voters continued to cast doubt upon his character. But they had taken him hack. Redemption and renewal are peculiarly American graces, and in 1996 Bill Clinton embodied them.