Robin Dole takes guarded role Daughter: Bob Dole's only child deliberately seeks the shadows while the spotlight shines on her famous father.; CAMPAIGN 1996

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Her voice is a surprise.

First, because it is so deep and husky, older than her 41 years, the kind of voice that goes with a smoke and a Scotch, not a tailored, working-woman wardrobe and a perfect orb of camera-ready hair.

But second, because it is so remarkably unfamiliar.

After Bob Dole's four decades in public life, his repeated presidential campaigns and his just-capped career in Congress, his grown daughter, Robin, who has lived near him in the Washington area almost her entire life, has remained virtually unseen and unheard by the public.

Yet, by all accounts, her life has clearly been informed by her father's political career -- which began the year she was born. Last week, as the candidate delivered his resignation speech, she was by his side, swallowing hard, blinking a lot, trying to "hold on" as she heard her father's voice choke with emotion.

After all, Robin Dole, the gravel-voiced daughter of the Kansas senator and his first wife, Phyllis, has really known her father only as a man defined by the marble halls of the Capitol.

"My father has been in Congress 35 years," she said, in one of her first extended interviews about herself. "That's the majority of my life."

In some ways, it has been a strikingly ordinary life. She was a Girl Scout, a pre-teen who fantasized about dating a Beatle (Paul, of course), a mediocre high school and college student who was more interested in socializing than studying and who watched her parents divorce.

She vacations at Rehoboth Beach with a group of close friends, collects antiques, as her mother does, recently lost her job as a lobbyist and, as a single woman who loves kids, hopes to fill the "void" she feels in her life.

But as she has campaigned for her father since age 5 -- when, in pigtails, she wore a homemade skirt that said "I'm for my daddy, are you?" -- her life has been woven with political threads that make it anything but ordinary.

And even as she has struggled to create a life outside the spotlight and the senator's imposing shadow, she has remained anchored in his world, falling back on the family business when other dreams and aspirations don't work out and showing the flag for him whenever called upon.

"If I had to use a word to describe her, it would be a real 'trouper,' " says Walt Riker, a former Dole aide. "She's been very loyal to her father, his cause and his campaigns. She'll step into the Bob Dole arena when it's warranted or needed, but she's not consumed by it."

Indeed, politics, while something she says she absorbed "by osmosis," is not in her blood.

"When we're out with friends, we're fairly apolitical," says Roger Schwartz, Robin Dole's high school and college boyfriend who is still a close friend. "We talk about our lives, our jobs, our families. She kind of looks at us as a sanctuary away from politics. She's not, like, a really complicated person."

Though personable and outgoing with a hearty laugh and what friends call a down-to-earth manner, the slim, blue-eyed brunette is extremely guarded. She has her father's emotional reserve, friends say, and is apprehensive about the media, concerned about betraying imperfections, however incidental, in the Dole family portrait.

She declines even to answer a question about whether, as her mother said, she is a smoker. "Why don't we just skip it?" interjects her press aide, who monitors each of Ms. Dole's conversations with a reporter, including those on the phone. "It's a superfluous fact."

Many of her friends declined to talk about her for this article.

"We all grew up here in the fishbowl," says Ms. Dole, who lives in a townhouse in Alexandria, Va., offering an explanation for all the protectiveness. "We're much more attuned to the press. Nobody wants to have something misconstrued, nobody wants to be responsible for that kind of thing."

Least of all, she. Asked about one of the most sensitive issues with which the Republican Party is grappling -- abortion -- she treads carefully. She does acknowledge that it is the one issue where she parts company with her father, who opposes a woman's right to an abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.

"He's had a consistent conservative pro-life record his entire career, and I respect that," says the senator's daughter. "And I believe it to a certain degree -- I could never have an abortion myself, for instance. But I feel a little differently. I don't know that it should be a political issue. It's my hope that one day we can do away with the need for abortions through prevention. I just wish we would focus more on educating."

Although she doesn't put herself in the "pro-choice" camp, neither does she consider herself "pro-life."

"I guess I don't really think of myself as either," she says.

No absentee father

When Bob Dole touted his fathering credentials recently, claiming people would rather leave their kids with him than with Bill Clinton, Democrats chortled. Bob Dole, they reminded everyone, had walked out on his wife of 23 years and his teen-age child back in 1972.

Ms. Dole, who was finishing high school when her father came to her mother with three words -- "I want out" -- dismisses the notion that Mr. Dole was an absentee father.

The newly elected Kansas congressman and his wife, Phyllis -- who had been an occupational therapist at the Army medical center in Battle Creek, Mich., where Mr. Dole was recovering from his war wound -- moved to the Washington area in 1960, settling into a big brick home in a tony section of Northern Virginia with their 6-year-old daughter.

His right arm, withered by a war injury, made it hard for Mr. Dole to pick up his daughter when she was a baby; others would have to hand Robin to him while he sat.

Later, she would help him with simple tasks that required two hands. Breaking off a piece of French bread from a crusty loaf. Buttoning the top button of his heavily starched shirts that fit tightly around his neck.

"It really wasn't an issue at all," Ms. Dole says about her father's disability.

He taught her to drive in their old Ford Falcon, played table tennis with her in the family room, she says. The year before she entered high school, he took her and a cousin on a two-week trip to Europe, visiting the hills of northern Italy where German fire ripped through his shoulder as World War II was drawing to a close.

When Robin was a teen in the late 1960s, Mr. Dole wrote to the British Embassy to ask if a British band his daughter was swooning over could play at her high school. He was told that no, unfortunately, the Beatles would not be able to appear at Jeb Stuart High School in Falls Church, Va.

But as the congressman-turned-senator became more immersed in work, he was at home less and less, often leaving the house at 6 a.m., before Robin was up, and arriving back home around 11 or 12, after she was asleep.

In 1971, when he became chairman of the Republican National Committee, he retreated to the cellar, which had its own bedroom and bath. He had dinner with his wife and daughter only twice that year -- Easter and Christmas according to Phyllis Macey, Mr. Dole's first wife. At the end of that year, Mr. Dole asked for a divorce -- an immediate one -- a move that still seems to rankle Macey. "We were divorced the day after my birthday, if you can believe it," she says in a phone interview from her home in Topeka, Kan.

Although Macey has said Dole was not the ideal husband, the two stayed on good terms -- she made campaign buttons for him in 1988 -- for the sake of their daughter. "We do share a daughter. Why fight?" she says.

And the first Mrs. Dole -- who is now remarried, to her high school sweetheart -- defends her former husband as a good father to Robin.

"A lot of people said he ignored her. He did not," she states repeatedly throughout an interview.

Robin Dole, too, says she has always had a good relationship with her father. In fact, she may have understood his life and his language better than her mother did.

When, at age 13, she wanted to get her ears pierced, she put her request to her father in the form of an office memo with all the pertinent information and a simple "Yes" or "No" box for him to check.

"I thought I covered all the bases," she says. But her father picked a third option, scribbled "Maybe," and slipped the memo back under her door. (She did get her ears pierced.)

As her parents divorced, her mother insisted, amid all the publicity, that Mr. Dole explain it to their daughter, and he did. She eventually realized that her parents were better off apart and calls it a "good divorce."

"In retrospect, they were so different and had different goals in life," Ms. Dole says. "She didn't really enjoy the politics very much. So they grew apart like so many people do."

"My choice at that point would have been that they'd stay together and live happily ever after. The reality was they weren't happy. They made the choice to part, but keep the family intact and make sure I was OK."

The former Phyllis Dole moved back to Kansas, and Bob moved to the two-bedroom Watergate condo he now shares with his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, whom he married in 1975.

Robin went off to college at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, where, after what she calls a "slow start," she earned a degree in psychology.

Finding no jobs in her field, she worked as a secretary -- "not your best secretary," she jokes -- with the Republican National Committee.

She later worked as a lobbyist for an oil company and then in 1981, got a job "through contacts" with Century 21 to open a lobbying office here and run its political fund-raising arm.

She kept the job until last December, when the Washington office was closed by the company's new owner.

She says she has always bent over backward to avoid conflicts with her father's position, and friends say she doesn't trade on her name. But proximity to power sparks the inevitable cozying-up.

"You can imagine, at parties people whisper, 'That's Robin Dole, she's the Senator's daughter,' " says Greg Hilton, director of a conservative think tank. "People like me who want an ambassadorship say, 'Hey Robin, can I get you another drink?' "

For her part, she says she's developed good judgment about people -- "and why they're interested in talking to me or being my friend."

In the past few years, her interest in psychology -- one she renewed by earning a master's degree in 1994 from Marymount University -- has led her away from politics, at least one night a week when she volunteers at a group home for troubled adolescent girls in Fairfax County.

It's an interest she would like to pursue as a profession once the campaign ends. "I think maybe I've figured out what I want to do when I grow up," Ms. Dole says with a laugh.

Her volunteer work, she says, also helps fill the "one void" in her life: "I'm not married and I don't have a family -- I don't have kids."

Although a family is still "a goal" -- relatives joke with her about a White House wedding -- Ms. Dole says she is not as focused on it as she has been in the past. "I've gotten to a point where I have a lot going on in my life," she says. "I have a lot of good friends and I like to spend time with them rather than spend time in a desperate search for Mr. Right."

Her time with her father and Elizabeth is usually Sunday brunch, either at the couple's Watergate condominium or at a Washington hotel after the senator's appearance on a morning talk show.

By some accounts, the father and daughter are closer now than when she was young. "You try to catch up with some of those things in life that slip by," Mr. Dole told People magazine in 1993.

And Robin and Elizabeth, on leave as president of the American Red Cross to campaign, are said to have a good relationship. "She's always been a friend," Ms. Dole says of her stepmother.

But where the senator's wife has always been one of his chief advisers, his daughter has been more removed. "I really don't feel like I've ever been a sounding board," she says. "I guess I've only offered support."

Friends and relatives say Ms. Dole had some reservations -- mainly safety concerns -- about her father's decision to run for the presidency again this year.

She says her only reservations were "selfish reservations -- can I maintain my life as I know it and hold onto that?"

It is that connection to normality -- and privacy -- that she seems to covet most.

"It's important to me," she says, sitting behind a bare desk in her office at Dole headquarters.

It troubles her that the glare of a presidential campaign might interfere with her friendships or her relationship with her father.

"I don't think it could, but it changes some things. The unknown is worrisome to anybody."

Pub Date: 5/18/96

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