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Artifact: Bob Dole: An American Hero VHS tape
Description: 13 minutes long, mostly in color
Source: Thrift store basement
Political items are a fun rarity at thrift stores. Campaign materials are some of the most inherently ephemeral things a culture can generate, with useful lifespans measurable in days to months. We can never know exactly what inspired someone to donate a still-shrinkwrapped copy of Bob Dole: An American Hero to a thrift store some two decades after he lost the 1996 presidential election. If Dole, who is currently 95 years old, runs again in 2020, I suppose we’ll be ready.
Clocking in at about 13 and a half minutes, Bob Dole: An American Hero features talking-head interviews with Bob and his wife Elizabeth, some abstract black and white recreations of Bob’s younger years, and a LOT of stock footage. Its opening shot is also its most odd: A young girl on a swing, monologuing in voiceover.
“The president,” she says, “is the most important person in the whole country.”
Cut to stock footage of an old couple on a porch. These are people who were probably born during World War I:
OLD MAN: We need a president who will be a steady, conservative hand at the wheel.
OLD WOMAN: A president who has that special quality of leadership.
We then hear brief voiceovers from a young man in uniform, a father teaching his son to fish, a group walking to church, construction workers, and, finally, the girl on the swing again. None of them have actually said the name “Bob Dole.”
“One day,” the girl concludes, “I’m going to be president. And I want the country in good shape when I take over.” She looks like she’s about 8, and frankly, hearing what an 8-year-old thought would make for a good president in 1996 sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than what Bob Dole has to say.
When the tape finally gets to Bob Dole, his wife Elizabeth introduces him. “Why’d I fall in love with Bob Dole?” she asks. “Well, it didn’t hurt that he was the most handsome and strongest man I’d ever met. And probably the funniest.” This is a good lure for people on the fence about falling in love with Bob Dole. The tape sells it by cutting to a clip of Dole on Letterman, reading a Top Ten list called “Ways to Balance the Budget.” Thus, the first time you hear Dole actually speak is with the line: “The number one way to balance the budget: Arkansas? Sell it.”
This oblique dig at Clinton is the only time Bob Dole: An American Hero acknowledges the existence of other people running to be president. Text printed on the side of the cassette (in the same font as expiration dates on jugs of milk) says “DOLE/ PRESIDENT EPC-DFP 10/06/95.” The primaries weren’t until 1996, so the tape was probably intended to last the entirety of the campaign cycle. As such, its message is powerfully generic.
“All across this country,” a male narrator says about halfway through, “Americans are looking for leadership. We long for a president to make us proud. To inspire us in good times and bad. A leader, who shares our values and understands that faith, courage and commitment have made America the greatest country in the history of the world.”
1996 was Bob Dole’s third shot at the office, and the farthest he ever got. After being the VP nominee on Gerald Ford’s failed 1976 reelection bid, Dole cut out the middleman and ran for the top seat in 1980, then again in 1988. Both times, he lost in the primaries. But this was his hour.
“It really all comes down to values,” says Bob Dole as the flag fades into his face. “What you believe in. What you sacrifice for. What you stand for.”
The closest the tape gets to specifying Dole’s agenda is a narrated list of goals that are broadly in line with the current Republican platform: Devolving power from the federal government to state governments, “true welfare reform that puts people to work,” a tougher stance on violent and drug-related crime, and appointing conservative Supreme Court justices.
“Despite our triumph over communism,” the narrator adds, “the world is still a dangerous place.”
Black and white segments are used to recreate Dole’s early years – as a young athlete, then his time in the war, and finally his physical rehabilitation from severe injury. There’s some authentic newsreel footage, but mostly it’s reenactments.
The tape emphasizes over and over again that Bob Dole is a conservative, with conservative values. Dole was1 two decades older than Bill Clinton, and was the last presidential candidate to have fought in World War II. Every president from Eisenhower through George H. W. Bush had served in the war, with the exception of Jimmy Carter.2 It’s weird to imagine a world where Dole was elected in 1996, then re-elected in 2000. That would have stretched out the era of World War II presidents from 1993 to 2005.
Sadly for Bob Dole, while he won the Republican base, he lost America as a whole. Voters went for Bill Clinton 49.2% to 40.7%. This was the end of Dole’s political career, but not his time in the spotlight. Wikipedia’s page for Bob Dole describes Dole as “the first defeated presidential nominee to become a political celebrity.” He went on to be a commercial spokesman, a commentator, and, ultimately, a low-grade meme as someone who enjoyed saying “Bob Dole.”
The girl on the swing is probably in her early 30s by now. The minimum age to be president of the United States is 35. Depending on her exact age, she’ll be eligible to run in either 2020 or 2024. The country isn’t exactly in good shape right now, but it looks better if you dim the lights.
Next Time: Thriftstorm returns on Thursday with our regularly scheduled programming.