Spare the Bod

By Hoberman, J. | Artforum International, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Spare the Bod


Hoberman, J., Artforum International


Hadn't we said good-bye to the World War II generation with George Bush? Hadn't D-Day turned 50? It's been years since Time ran the commemorative cover "So long soldier" ... and thanks for the memories. But suddenly, like the thing that will not die, it's 72-year-old vet Bob Dole seeking one last mission as your president.

As sumo wrestlers try to shove each other out of the ring, so Washington insiders Dole and Bill Clinton will bump and jostle for the presumed electoral center. Less a matter of party affiliation or ideology, their contest for possession of the national phallus can only be appreciated as generational. As Russell Baker articulated the two sides in The New York Times, "We are now being governed by the people we used to spank. We are now being threatened by the people who wouldn't let us have the car on Saturday Night."

Human nature being what it is, one can well imagine the taxpaying spankees voting for the Social Security-collecting car owners and vice versa. (In fact the Washington Post has noted that Dole's contemporaries support Clinton by the greatest margin of any age group.) Nevertheless, the issue comes down to who's Dad. Or, as a little girl says in the opening minute of the $167,000 campaign film Bob Dole: An American Hero, "The President is the most important person in the whole country." Trying to outflank Clinton's paternal strategy, Dole presents himself as Babysitter Bob. "If something happened along the route and you had to leave your children with Bob Dole or Bill Clinton," he told a Pennsylvania rally, "I think you'd probably leave your children with Bob Dole." Is that because we know Bob can't spank?

Back in January, Time noted that, while Dole only exploited his war wounds after he began losing his quest for the Republican nomination in 1988, "now he's practically flaunting them." Indeed, once Dole clinched the nomination, The New York Times ran a detailed story to mark the 51st anniversary of Dole's battlefield injury, headlined "War Wounds Still Mold Life, and Some Politics, for Dole." Bob Dole brings back the World War II narrative, but with a difference: he would be the first physically disabled president since wartime leader Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dole's right arm and hand remain useless: "I still use a buttonhook every day."

No longer the saga of European appeasement and American freedom, Japanese sneak attack and Nazi evil, Dole's war story is a talk-show spectacular of triumph over agony and mutilation. ("President Clinton says, I share your pain. I can say, I feel your pain, or whatever.") A 22-year-old former high-school athlete, Lieutenant Bob Dole was hit by German mortar fire on April 14, 1945, near Bologna, Italy. The shrapnel crushed his spine and broke his collarbone, his right shoulder, and his right arm. Unable to move, he nearly bled to death on the battlefield and was shipped back to Kansas in a body cast on which, his mother would discover, other GIs used to stub out their cigarettes.

Paralyzed in both arms and legs, Dole spent 39 months in recovery. "I couldn't feed myself, I couldn't dress myself. I couldn't walk." Dole's right arm was fused to his body at a 45-degree angle until an adventurous orthopedic surgeon carved a new ball and socket for his shoulder and, using transplanted thigh muscle, rehung the arm at Dole's side. This prolonged hospitalization, involving years of therapy and nine operations, seems more than likely the source of Dole's sardonic humor, his dark moods, his mirthless grin, his explosive bitterness, and who knows what bodily secrets. It is suggestive that his first wife and longtime executive aide were both former nurses; his high-powered second spouse is, of course, the head of the American Red Cross. …

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