Profile: Elizabeth Dole

Original Publication: Vogue — October, 1984.

Secretary of Transportation, wife of Senator Bob Dole, an advocate of women’s rights and yet a loyal Reaganaut, Elizabeth Dole is the Republican’s designated woman to watch

            She is Madame Secretary—of Transportation, a huge bureaucracy with 102,000 employees and a budget of twenty-eight billion dollars. She oversees the nation’s air-traffic controllers, testifies with ease on Capitol Hill on such matters as federal liability in off-shore oil spills, and is the first woman ever to command an armed service—the U.S. Coast Guard. Her election-year compromise on seat belts and air bags this past summer won her both brickbats and kudos, and proved once again her ability to elude controversy gracefully. When she travels abroad, she’s no slouch as a diplomate, either. “Our MPs thought you were marvelous,” penned British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a note thanking Dole “for the delightful silver bowl.”

            She is also Mrs. Dole—the brainy wife of the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Robert Dole of Kansas, who ran for vice president with Gerald Ford in 1976. They are Washington’s premier Power Couple, the sparkling Southern belle who has to make the planes run on time married to the witty cynic with the steel-trap mind who is a principal architect of U.S. tax policy. That clout, combined with her tireless campaigning as the Reagan administration’s Showcase Woman for ’84, makes forty-eight-year-old Elizabeth Hanford Dole the Republican Party’s answer to Geraldine Ferraro—its most powerful and visible female in a year when the women’s vote has never been more crucial. “Secretary Dole is an invaluable asset to the Reagan campaign,” says Senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nevada), who heads the reelection effort.

            Ironically, it has been the nomination of Ferraro and the gender gap that have allowed Dole to soar. And the North Carolina-born “Liddy” Dole is nothing if not prepared to seize the opportunity. During the last four years, she has been a quiet voice for women’s rights inside the Reagan administration—a voice often unheard and ignored by the White House. But she is too much a lady and too shrewd a pol ever to complain publicly about it. Now Dole is in a position to collect dearly for her loyalty, particularly in 1988. It will be fascinating to see just how she maneuvers as the Republicans’ designated woman-to-watch during the next four years—and to gauge her intense ambition.

            At her Department of Transportation office, the first thing Dole sees in the reception area each morning are imposing portraits of the seven male Secretaries to Transportation who have preceded her. She is among the most activist of them all, making safety, a popular and emotional issue, her number-one priority. Let one major air disaster be traced to negligence in her department, and her promising career could come to a screech-halt. But no matter what the political heat of the moment, Elizabeth Dole has cultivated a public style of controlled unflappability.

            To call her an overachiever is a serious understatement. She often comes on like a dewy magnolia blossom, but her drive and ambition have long been focused like a laser. How else to explain a Harvard-trained lawyer who not only graduated from Duke University Phi Beta Kappa but also was president of the student government council and chosen May Queen? These days on the campaign trail, Dole might take a twenty-pound working “packet” of DOT materials with her. Thirty-year-old staffers complain she exhausts them, and the pace rarely lets up.

            “I believe Ronald Reagan’s record is not fully understood,” Dole tells women. “I think it’s about time our message is heard and I’m doing all I can to get the message out.” Still, it’s not an easy job to sell the Reagan administration’s record on issues of concern to women—an administration that opposes the ERA, whose budget cuts have put millions of women and children under the poverty line while billions are spent for a major arms build-up. But Elizabeth Dole doesn’t deal much with those uncomfortable realties. Instead, she radiates good cheer, revs up her sparkle, and shifts the focus to more positive issues like economic recovery. It doesn’t always work, but she handles the press very smoothly and gets away with a great deal.

            In her own department, Dole pursues a more liberal agenda: it was she who got the administration to back raising the drinking age to twenty-one; she has introduced a nine-point plan to promote the women who make up 19 percent of DOT workers, and she has made sure that a billion dollars’ worth of Transportation contracts has gone to minority-owned businesses. (To show what a skilled politician she is, she has had written into DOT regulations that if states cannot find minority businesses to give DOT contracts to, the governors of these states must publicly sign a paper stating they haven’t been able to find any.)

            Stickier wickets, like the administration’s denial of Social Security benefits to four hundred forty-five thousand disabled, its cuts in programs for the handicapped—constituencies she has long labored for in previous jobs—are not dwelled upon. She supports the ERA; the administration does not, so Dole tells audiences about how much the Reagan White House has done for women owners of small businesses. It’s a very delicate political balancing act, and so far Elizabeth Dole has not fallen off the Washington high wire. Mary Stanley, the national chair of the National Women’s Political Caucus’ Republican contingent, says, “The President is very very lucky to have someone of her caliber and qualifications speaking for him. I long for the day when she will speak out on our behalf—for women.” She might, someday, when the conservative White House climate changes.

            Which Dole will be on the Republican ticket in ’88? That question has already become part of an amusing guessing game for Washington insiders. “The Republicans have all kinds of things to work out in the next few years and one of them is whether it’s going to be Bob or Elizabeth Dole who’s the candidate,” says Albert Hunt, Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal.

            The sixty-one-year-old Senator Dole, who makes no secret of his ambitions, quips, “I think it should be decided by age.” His wife, who has yet to run for public office, demurs about which title she’d like—President or First Lady: “I really don’t know how to answer a question like that,” says Mrs. Dole. “I really think the country is ready for a woman and when they talk about vice presidents my feeling is look, if she’s qualified to be vice president she’s qualified to be president. But I have never staked that out for myself and I have no plans in that direction.” By now, however, she must be thinking about it. In her office early one evening, a television technician who had just finished videotaping a live interview with her said, “The guys and I were talking and we just want you to know we look forward to seeing you be the Republicans’ choice for president next time.” “Why thank you,” beamed the Secretary, who’s usually less direct about the subject. “You’ve just made my day.”

            It’s unique in the annals of American politics—trying to decide which spouse is the hotter political property. She gets more invitations to speak, and he makes jokes about going home to their Watergate apartment alone to boil his own Lean Cuisine. It’s hard to believe, but she insists they don’t even discuss political issues very often. “We barely manage to have dinner together two nights a week so we don’t talk about those things—so much else has piled up.” She’s a devout Methodist and tries not to work on Sundays (she confessed in a religious magazine last year that for a long time her career had gotten in the way of “making a full commitment to the Lord”). According to the Senator’s staff though, he still sneaks off Sunday mornings to appear on David Brinkley’s show. Then his wife pops up on rival Face the Nation!

            “They’re highly visible people and the public can’t get enough of them,” says Senator Dole’s press secretary, Walt Riker. “But they never see each other. They’re like two lines that criss-cross all over the country trying to intersect. Once in a while they do. “So far both careers and the marriage have survived this frenzy because both Doles like power, are sensitive to each other, and are used to responsibility. This year alone he forced the White House to accept a fifty-billion-dollar tax increase to offset the $200 billion worth of deficits. Not only has she had to rule on air bags (seat belts) she has had to sell Conrail, the once bankrupt and now profitable government-owned railroad, and to try to unscramble the nation’s airport-traffic delays. Nevertheless, she soft-pedals her progress. “I don’t think I set out to have a full-time lifetime career,” she says. “It wasn’t on a blueprint.”

            Elizabeth Hanford was born a Democrat in the small Southern town of Salisbury, North Carolina, the daughter of prosperous wholesale flower dealers. Her first political involvement came in the third grade. “I was elected President of the Bird Club.” That election lit a spark that has never died. “I remember one day in about the seventh grade coming back from the public library thinking there ought to be an organization where we got together and discussed books, so I organized the Junior Book Club. I was not very democratic. I made myself president.”

            After Duke, she earned a masters degree in education and government at Harvard and modeled on the side. Her first day at Harvard Law School in 1962 gave her a jolt she still talks about often. The class was only 4 percent female. One of her male classmates asked what right she had to be there. “You’re taking the place of a qualified man who will go out and do something with his education.” Nevertheless, she sailed right through and was nicknamed “The May Queen with a brain.”

            “Law school tended to bring out everyone’s awful qualities,” says Dole’s Harvard Law classmate, Washington attorney Ronald B. Lewis. “To be nice and a law student at Harvard in the class of ’65 was very rare. But Liddy always maintained a sense of personal friendliness and warmth.” Others remember her less fondly. Between her first and second years at law school she worked one summer for the Peace Corps in Washington. “She was totally wrapped up in herself,” says one of her superiors there. “She had this plantation belle ‘land of mercy’ way of talking and every little decision had to connect to a career choice—where her stint in the Peace Corps would lead to, whether it would help her.”

            Yet it is rare to find anyone today who makes derogatory remarks about Elizabeth Dole—even cynical Washington journalists who despair at her longwinded responses to interview questions, which deliver little substance. If some Congressmen gripe, “She’s in over her head” at the Department of Transportation, they won’t allow themselves to be quoted on the record. Not only would they offend her, they say, but they would offend Bob Dole too, and since about half of the entire $850 billion federal budget passes through his Finance Committee, he’s worth millions to every Congressional district.

            Elizabeth Hanford had decided early that she wanted to work in Washington. Her first job was to organize the first national conference on education for the deaf at the liberal Department of Health, Education and Welfare when Lyndon Johnson was president. She represented clients who could not afford to pay for legal counsel. By the time Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, Dole was already working at the President’s Committee on Consumer Interests. Nixon appointed a feisty Republican city councilwoman from Philadelphia, Virginia Knauer, to head the office. Knauer quickly became Dole’s mentor.

            “She was so outstanding that within six weeks I chose her for my deputy over everyone’s head,” says Knauer. “From the beginning I encouraged absolute independence. People are no good to you if they agree with you all the time.” Those were headier days in the consumer affairs movement when there were great fights over the amount of fat that could be contained in hot dogs, and the amount of “non-functioning slack fill” in cereal boxes.

            One day Knauer deeply embarrassed her comely young deputy by pointing out to a roomful of male business executives, “Elizabeth as you can see has no problem with

non-functional slack fill.” There were other days though when Dole, sent by Knauer, would be barred from meetings she was required to attend because they were held in all-male clubs. But she never made a fuss. “Elizabeth by nature likes to find the middle ground,” says consumer affairs lawyer David Swankin who worked with her at the time. “She’s not confrontational. She would never be the first person in a meeting to say, ‘I believe this!’ but she was considered a person who really understood consumerism and was a consumer advocate.”

            During that time Liddy Hanford lived in Georgetown and dated some of Washington’s most eligible bachelors. In 1972, Virginia Knauer introduced her to Bob Dole at a business meeting in his office. He was in the process of being separated from his first wife. “I did notice very definitely that he was an attractive man,” Dole recalls. “He told me he wrote my name on the back of his blotter.” It took the Senator eight months to call her and three long phone calls over another two-month period before he asked her for a date. “He was really serious about his work,” she says, “a little shy about calling and that was nice.” His explanation: “I was busy.”

            They courted for three years and when they married in 1975 she was thirty-eight. She moved from her Watergate apartment, to his, several floors up. By then, Elizabeth Dole was a registered independent and a federal trade commissioner, one of five commissioners who helped draft rules and write legal opinions on everything from obtaining prescriptions for eyeglasses to preventing fraud and deceptive business practices in the installation of home insulation. At the FTC some staffers remember her as being overly detailed and indecisive at times, but there was no question where she stood philosophically. “She had a very definite set of priorities,” says Jeffrey Edelstein who was one of her Attorney-Advisors at the commission, “they were the poor, the handicapped, minorities, and women. She really cared about them.”

            During the ’76 campaign she took a leave of absence to campaign for the Ford-Dole ticket. In 1979, she resigned as commissioner to campaign full-time for her husband who was running for president in the Republican primaries, but dropped out early. She continued to campaign vigorously for Ronald Reagan. By then of course, she was a fervent Republican. “She once told me she felt the Republican party had great challenges ahead of it and it had to broaden its base,” said Edelstein. “It had to be more sensitive to the concerns of women and minorities. She felt that challenge would be exciting to work for.” 

            What irony, then, when after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the appointment of Elizabeth Dole to be Assistant to the President for Public Liaison inside the White House, that she—whose specific job it was to be, in effect, the President’s lobbyist to all outside groups—told some women’s group representatives that she was not even able to deal with them. “For about a year Mrs. Dole was gagged,” says Pat Reuss, Legislative Director of the Women’s Equity Action League, a non-partisan national membership organization specializing in women’s economic issues. “She couldn’t talk to women about women’s issues. Groups of us would go to the White House to try to discuss things and she told me, ‘I don’t do women’s issues, but if it’s about education or other areas of concern…’”

            At the same time, many reports circulated that Elizabeth Dole was not only frustrated but isolated by the White House senior staff, James Baker, Michael Deaver, Edwin Meese, who did not completely trust her. “It was well known to everyone,” says a former White House staffer, “that Elizabeth was feared by the men on the White House senior staff because she had the clout of Bob Dole with her. There were many published reports she was not taken seriously. The truth is, she being part of the team of Dole and Dole, was taken very seriously.” Dole herself denies she ever was gagged or felt left out. “I did not in any was feel isolated or removed. I was very much involved in everything going on there.”

            Barbara Honegger, who caused a brouhaha last year when she resigned in protest from the White House over the Reagan administration’s intransigence on women’s issues, worked closely with Dole there on an ERA alternative. “Elizabeth Dole is really a saintly person,” says Honegger. “She was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. She was expected to come up with policy proposals to an ERA alternative. Whenever she did—and we met for months—they would come back unacted upon or unacceptable.” Dole, however, has always had a not-so-secret weapon. When the White House failed to move on recommendations to change laws in the federal code that discriminated by sex, the proposals emerged as a Senate bill sponsored by none other than Robert Dole. That bill has cleared the Senate but not the House.

            As the midterm elections of 1982 neared, the White House began to realize it had a serious problem with the gender gap, and the gap broke the gag. Elizabeth Dole was pressed into service, she campaigned heavily in Republican Congressional districts where women were in trouble—in the district of Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, for example, who lost. The Republicans also lost three governorships and several other Congressional districts because of the women’s vote in 1982. In February of ’83, Elizabeth Dole was appointed to the cabinet. Says one political strategist, “When the White House thought she was doing her husband’s work she was on the outs. When it was useful for her to help them in the re-election of Ronald Reagan she got a much bigger job.”

            Some Republican women feel that a handful of women like Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Elizabeth Dole have received their high-level appointments mostly because the Reagan administration does not want to have to guarantee all women equal rights under the Constitution. “Elizabeth once told me in a private conversation she felt very strongly,” says Honegger, “that in spite of the White House senior staff’s failure to move on the ERA, it was probably more important in the long run for there simply to be women in top appointments.”

            These days Elizabeth Dole bristles at the notion she’s just a showcase appointment most valuable because of her gender. “I’m sitting her trying to sell Conrail,” she says one day last summer. “I’ve got 102,000 people working for me and a budget of $28 billion to run. I don’t see how I could possibly be a ‘showcase!’”

            In four years there is a definite chance that the women of America will be able to tell Elizabeth Dole whether they agree with her or not—with their votes.

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.

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