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Memo to Dole: Just Be Yourself

YES, I must own up to it: I'm rather taken by Bob Dole's taciturn manner. To me, it's refreshing to have a politician merely shrug his shoulders to a question where in response Bill Clinton might well make a 10-minute speech.

Dole must yet be more explicit about what he has in mind for his countrymen. But it's clear that whatever he's going to tell us it will be in a plain-spoken way, without rhetoric and flourishes. Or, at least, I hope he continues this course of being himself.

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Somehow, Adlai Stevenson comes to mind. Stevenson's oratorical skills, so unlike Dole's, were, perhaps, the best possessed by a presidential candidate in this century - even though they were not enough to defeat Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and '56.

But Stevenson - like Dole, also a Midwesterner - insisted on "talking sense" to the voters and on being himself. Stevenson wouldn't make promises he couldn't fulfill. He wouldn't lie. He didn't win, either. But as a veteran slogger of that campaign trail, I can say that it seemed then, as it does now, that Stevenson ended up with the invaluable solace of believing that he had been faithful to himself. And I think he would have beaten anyone but Ike - the widely admired and loved World War II hero.

Dole's advisers are said to be working on his speechmaking, honing up his rhetoric. Don't listen to them, Senator. Again, you should just be yourself. Your natural wit and perceptive observations will take you far, even if they aren't wrapped in pretty oratorical packages. Jean Baker, in her new biography of Stevenson, writes: "The Adlai of Libertyville was the same man as the Democratic nominee for president." The Bob Dole of Russell, Kan., should remain the Bob Dole of the road to the presidency.

Or perhaps, at least to some people, there's a better example of the value of a politician being himself: Harry Truman. Truman certainly was no fancy talker. But he talked to the voters as though they were his Missouri neighbors and in 1948 pulled off one of the biggest upset victories of all time.

I'm reminded of my boyhood, when I would go to hear the candidates for county offices make their political speeches every four years. For hours I would listen to blather, delivered with shouting and much gesticulating, about how these fellows were going to save the country if elected. The crowds had come to hear the bombast that was popular in those days and seemed to love the performance. They didn't see the absurdity of a candidate for county clerk saying that if elected, he would save the country's - or even the world's - economy. Too bad Fiorello LaGuardia couldn't have stood up and told them how he regarded the New York mayor's job: "There's no Democratic or Republican way of collecting garbage."

My dad was county surveyor. I can still see my father - all 5 feet, 2 inches of him - walking up to the front of the stage and quietly talking to the audience. He would tell them that it made no sense for them to have to elect a surveyor. He said his job and whether he could do it well or not had nothing to do with politics. Then he would add that he would do the best he could to do a good job for them. And then he would sit down.

By then the crowd's excitement would have subsided. I sensed that the listeners were puzzled, perhaps let down, by this little fellow who didn't rant and rave like all the others.

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But Dad was himself. And does being oneself pay off, Mr. Dole? Well, for more than 40 years Dad was elected again and again. But what made me proud was that in 1932 when Champaign County, Ill., went Democratic for the first time since Lincoln and the birth of the Republican Party, my dad withstood that Democratic landslide and won by a handful of votes.

I've written since, in an outburst of exaggeration, that in 1932 my dad "beat Roosevelt." In a way he did. But more than anything else, Dad showed me the importance, in politics or anywhere in life, of being yourself.

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