Cook column: Dole legacy is not complete yet

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 9, 2008

Has U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole lost touch with the the people of North Carolina?
It didn’t appear that way on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this past January. When she attended a huge breakfast at the Salisbury Civic Center, people nearly mobbed the senator as they shared a few words or posed for photos with her. The short interview she had scheduled with the Post had to be really short so she could rush back to Washington and debate stimulus packages. She commented briefly on the economy, illegal immigration, the war in Iraq ó and was off.
So just 10 months ago, Dole still had the glow of a bright star who worked for Reagan and Bush I, headed the Red Cross, wowed a Republican Convention and once made a run for the White House herself.
But the same people who were glad-handing her at the King breakfast probably did not shed tears for Dole when she lost her re-election bid last week. And the crowd watching results come in at the Board of Elections Tuesday night seemed neither surprised nor saddened as they learned that, though Dole carried her home county easily, voters in the rest of the state gave her a resounding defeat, giving her only 44 percent of the vote.
Dole got a taste of what U.S. Rep. Earl Ruth of Salisbury felt in 1974, when voters reacted to Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation by ousting virtually every Republican in the land. Enter Democrat Bill Hefner, who held on to the 8th District seat for a quarter of a century.
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People scoffed when Hillary Clinton announced her run eight years ago to be one of New York’s U.S. senators. A native of Illinois, she had spent her adult life in Arkansas and the White House. How could she claim to represent New York?
But Clinton took on more than a New York label. She established a residence, embraced her new home state and became one of its fiercest advocates.
Dole grew up in Salisbury but has lived in the Washington area virtually all her career, visiting Salisbury occasionally to see her mother. (Mary Hanford died in 2004 at the age of 102.) When Dole ran for Jesse Helms’ Senate seat, though, it was possible to see how she could claim Salisbury as her home again and represent North Carolina.
Opponents complained in 2002 that Dole didn’t actually live here, but voters were willing to overlook that. After all, few mentioned how seldom Bill Hefner spent the night at his Concord condo while serving in Congress. For most of his time in Washington, Hefner lived in McLean, Va., next door to TV newsman Roger Mudd and his family.
But members of the House serve only two-year terms, so Hefner had little time between being elected and having to run for re-election again. He came around fairly often and sponsored rallies that drew hundreds. People would travel far to have the former gospel singer cheer them up with “I’ll Fly Away” and put in a political plug for himself.
As Hefner became entrenched in Washington ó “established,” his supporters might say ó his suits grew more elegant and the rallies shrank, but Hefner stayed in touch. Most memorably, he kept federal dollars flowing into the expansion of the veterans hospital in Salisbury. Hence its relatively new name, the W.G. “Bill” Hefner V.A. Medical Center.
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Maybe some of the barracks at Fort Bragg will bear Dole’s name.
As a senator with a six-year term, Dole didn’t have to woo constituents every 24 months. But she went to work on issues that should have won her support beyond the Piedmont ó the tobacco buyout, for example, and the status of the Lumbee Indians.
According to the Triangle Business Journal, Dole and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., brought home some $744 million in earmarks last year for construction projects at Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg. Aside from that, the paper reported, “Dole is the state’s leading rainmaker,” pulling in about $70 million for other North Carolina projects in that year.
Here in Rowan County, we puzzle over how Alaska was able to get $223 million for “bridge to nowhere” when North Carolina can’t get funds for a bridge to a crucial somewhere ó from the Rowan County side of the Yadkin River to the Davidson side on busy I-85. Dole says the structure of North Carolina transportation funding stood in her way.
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Dole achieved a level of infamy this year she did not anticipate by airing a commercial that gave the impression her opponent is atheist ó a step over the line between politics as usual and really dirty politics.
Her predecessor Jesse Helms might have applauded; over-the-edge political ads were his forté. But you didn’t hear many “atta-girls” coming from N.C. voters. The commercial looked like an act of desperation, and it was embarrassing to watch Dole defend the kernel of truth within it. On Newsweek’s dignity index last week, Dole scored a 68 on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being merely tacky and 100 being utterly shameless. One person here observed that our Southern lady had burned down Tara.
Dole is wise to push toward a new phase in her public service career rather than retirement. At 72, she’s no more ready to relax than John McCain. Besides, voters might never forgive and forget the “Godless Americans” ad, but new accomplishments could leave fresher, better memories.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.