It turns out that I had it mostly, but not entirely, right in an earlier column, when I suggested that Bob Dole was a version of Bertie Wooster, from the old stories by P.G. Wodehouse. The resemblance was in the cast of mind, and I suggested that Dole offered an example of what Bertie Wooster might have sounded like if his accent had been shaped in Wichita.
I had also imagined a scene in which Bertie strained his mental powers in putting a question to his redoubtable valet, Jeeves—and there is where I went wrong. For there is no Jeeves. No one to take the place of Jeeves, that is, in offering guidance or keeping Dole out of harm’s way. But there is the difference between Bertie Wooster and Bob Dole: Wooster, dolt though he was, had the wit to recognize that he required the counsel of a Jeeves.
As Dole fumbled his way through July, the pro-lifers in his campaign were as despairing as anyone else, but the problem was amplified now by the absence of Jeeves. One pro-life lawyer, a former staffer to Dole, agonized over lunch that he didn’t know where to go in order to set things aright. When Dole fell into mistakes on abortion, who would be in a position now to convey the advice and correct the missteps? Dole, it appeared, did not take advice.
But of course the deeper problem for the pro-lifers was that Dole’s fumbling was performed most conspicuously on the problem of abortion. First he flirted with the gratuitous language over “tolerance,” and when that dance was rendered nearly harmless, he revived the issue once again by suggesting that the declamations over tolerance would appear in the plank on abortion in the platform of the party. There would be no such gestures of tolerance for the people who diverged from the party over issues such as taxes, or regulation, or free trade. There, apparently, the party really “meant it.” Passions ran deeper on abortion than over anything else, and yet this was the one place where the party was to say, “We have a profound commitment in principle—but then again, we may have it wrong.” People on the Left as well as the Right—everyone, it seemed, apart from Bob Dole—seemed to grasp the implication at once. Even Herblock, the cartoonist, a man not otherwise known for his philosophical acuity, pointed up the lesson: that abortion, for Dole, simply did not matter. It did not matter, that is, whether people were pro-life or pro-choice, for one was apparently no better or worse, no more worthy of respect, than the other. An English sage once observed that an open mind, like an open mouth, must finally close on something. That closure marked the coming to a judgment. And if one judged abortion to be wrong, one could not be equally open or welcoming to the killing of abortion.
Yet that was merely to say what people had long suspected: that Bob Dole, as a Senator from Kansas, had a position on abortion that reflected his constituency, but he had no reasons. He had no sentences to speak in explaining or justifying his judgment. What he had was a certain stolidity of character, and the pro-lifers who had known him for many years were simply counting on that essential character or disposition to make itself felt once again. His voting record, as he persistently says, is pro-life, and if those reflexes are carried into the White House, it would make a profound difference, especially for the courts. The Clinton judges can be counted on, with hardly a whisper of difference, to be activists in promoting abortion, euthanasia, and the more advanced claims of “gay rights.” Dole would have to be anaesthetized in order to make appointments from the ranks of Republicans that would not form at least a striking contrast. And yet it was quickly pointed out that the judges most injurious to the pro-life cause have been Harry Blackmun, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Sandra Day O’Connor—all the appointees of Republican presidents. In fairness, Kennedy and Souter were appointed in the aftermath of Robert Bork’s defeat for confirmation to the Court. The Republicans had lost control of the Senate, and after the jarring experience of Bork, it became necessary to choose those candidates of uncertain definition who would go in, as they used to say, “under the radar.”
Those kinds of mistakes are less apt to be repeated, especially if the Republicans retain control of the Senate and the Committee on the Judiciary. And yet, as Bob Dole continued with the public romancing of Colin Powell and Christie Whitman—as he sought to keep assuring the public that he was quite nonchalant on the matter of abortion—the pro-lifers had to acknowledge that their own surety was eroding. The limits to his variance became impossible to reckon because Dole himself had suddenly become incalculable. The most unfathomable thing about him was that he seemed to be purged even of the most useful reflexes of a political man. He had supported, for over a year, the management of the bill over partial-birth abortions. Yet he did not seem disposed now to explain the rationale behind that bill—or to extract the political advantage that it would yield. For that bill had marked a serious recasting of the pro-life strategy in the Congress. The Republicans were beginning now with “abortions” that were performed virtually at the point of delivery, with the legs of the baby dangling outside the birth canal. No one could seriously doubt that it was anything but a child killed in these surgeries. And the bill, cast at this level, could command the support even of many people in the country who described themselves as “pro-choice.” Ninety-two percent of the Republicans in the House voted for this bill, as did 82 percent of the Republicans in the Senate.
If anything can be measured, these numbers should be sufficient to establish just what is mainstream in the Republican Party. How is it possible then, that Anne Stone, of Republicans for Choice, can claim on public radio that she and her group represent the mainstream of the party when they have refused to endorse the bill on partial-birth abortion? How could those Republican governors, Whitman and Weld, claim that they speak for the broad majority in the party when they have actually opposed the ban on partial-birth abortions? They stand, rather, with that sectarian 8 percent of the Republicans in the House who opposed that bill, just as they stand with that distinct minority of 18 percent in the country who are willing to support abortion for any reason, at any age. How have things been so contrived then that the Whitmans and Welds have any moral leverage at the Republican Convention? How are they in a position to demand tolerance when they have not shown the least tolerance for their opponents? How could they argue for moderation when they have not moderated to the least degree their own unyielding support for abortion on demand?
The fact of the matter is that the party, over the past two years, has offered the most moderate conceivable approach, working through those modest first steps. If Dole were merely willing to explain what he and his own party have done here, there could no plausible ground on which the most zealous partisans of abortion could represent themselves now as the symbols of tolerance. Rather, the Whitmans and Welds would be faced with this question: Are they willing to stand with the majority of their party and restrict at least a handful of abortions, to save at least a handful of lives, by forbidding the partial-birth abortions? Or would they finally acknowledge, rather, their true name—that they are the party of infanticide; that they are willing to accept, if necessary, the outright freedom to kill children born alive? The Republican Party is a spacious, large-natured affair. But however tolerant and accommodating it can be, it cannot be a party of infanticide and remain a political party.
There can be no mistaking that the Republicans stand, at this moment, as the pro-life party in our politics. And yet that party has, as its curious possession, an establishment and a presidential candidate determined to use their arts, high and low, to avoid talking about abortion. But the subject does not seem to recede. In fact, there is this added perversity: The people most determined to banish all talk on this subject cannot themselves stop talking about it. In the presence of silence, they seem to worry that the reticent might not share their conviction that this question has been settled, that it should be placed now safely beyond public questioning. One would think, though, that men and women seasoned in politics would have grasped this point: When they make it painfully clear to the press and the public that they would prefer not to talk about abortion, nothing guarantees more surely that they will be pressed to talk about it. If Dole were armed with this awareness, he would be prepared for what awaits him in the fall. And yet, not the least of the things revealed by the experience of Dole is that one can be deeply immersed in politics without absorbing its worldliness or cultivating its reflexes. One can spend thirty-five years in politics and still not take in the most rudimentary lessons that politics has to teach.