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Bob Dole's Biting Humor

DEAR Sen. Bob Dole:

At a recent Monitor breakfast you cited a study that showed that on network news the Congress is treated more harshly than the president and that Republicans are treated more harshly than Democrats. ``When Democrats in Congress are on TV the coverage is positive 75 percent of the time but when Bob Dole is on TV, it's negative 62 percent of the time. Something is wrong when it's that imbalanced,'' you said.

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There may be a TV news bias against Congress and the Republicans. But you open yourself up to negative coverage because your wit comes through as sharp and abrasive on TV, particularly in those short sound bites where you are asked to comment about legislative or political developments.

You were as refreshingly witty as usual at our breakfast. We laughed when you told us about the photographer who, taking a picture of you, kept stepping back until he fell into Lake Winnipesaukee - and how when he was fished out he said, ``I really made a big splash for Bob Dole.''

When we pushed to see if you were going to run for president in 1996, you said you were ``thinking about it'' but that a ``lot of others'' were ``thinking about it,'' too. Then someone asked: ``Have you been in Iowa or New Hampshire lately?'' We had a good laugh when you responded: ``Not for a week.''

Now these were not the jabbing one-liners we hear from you on TV - the ones many Republicans love and your opponents detest. Instead, a low-keyed good humor permeated your presentation. You are much more yourself in our far less stressful session than when you step up to the TV cameras.

The other evening a friend in Illinois asked me what breakfasts I had coming up. I said, ``I have Bob Dole tomorrow morning.'' His answer simply was, ``He's mean.'' This person is a Republican whose family has been deeply involved in Republican politics for many years. This is not an unusual comment from those who watch you on TV, Bob - although I know there are plenty of people who relish the way you can cut up an opponent.

But you appear to be on the cusp of making another run for the presidency. You've tried it before and failed, in great part because of that wonderful - and dangerous - wit of yours. I covered the 1976 campaign, when you were President Ford's running mate. Ford walked the high road, citing his own record and never really bashing his opponent, Jimmy Carter. You were handed the task of criticizing the Democrats and Carter. To too many people you seemed to thoroughly enjoy the task of cutting up the other side. TV was not kind to you then, particularly when you resorted to quips. That's when a lot of Americans picked up a negative impression of you - many of them Democrats to be sure, but too many of them Republicans.

You are not the first presidential candidate to have a humor problem. Adlai Stevenson loved to tell stories and make funny remarks. His was gentle stuff. But before long many voters began to think he was more a funny man than presidential material and that he was trivializing his candidacy.

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Your funny material is powerful and always fresh. But as a presidential candidate you simply can't hope to pull voters together with wit that tends to leave a hurt behind. Curb the cutting jibes, Senator. And, particularly, stay away from using your quick, acerbic wit for TV sound bites.

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