SAN DIEGO -- In an emotional, and deeply personal, address accepting the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, Bob Dole vowed last night to lead a tax-cutting administration that would be "able, honest and trusts in you."
Dole's speech, on the final night of the GOP convention, posed a generational challenge from a disabled World War II veteran to the first baby boomer to sit in the White House.
It also represented a bold departure from political custom by a seasoned candidate who finds himself well back in the polls. In a high-stakes gamble, Dole chose to highlight his own political liabilities, in an effort to turn them to his advantage.
There were no surprises, or new policy initiatives, during the 56-minute speech, which was received enthusiastically by the partisan crowd inside the San Diego Convention Center.
Instead, Dole used his hour in the national media spotlight to introduce himself to the voters.
"What a night!" he said, as he strode onto the podium and looked out over a sea of delegates waving American flags and Dole-Kemp '96 pennants.
Dole, 73, would be the oldest man to become president. Last night, he focused attention on the issue of his age, one of the few things that most voters know about him.
"I know that in some quarters, I may be expected to run from the truth of this, but I was born in 1923," he said. "Good presidents and good candidates don't run from the truth."
"To those who say that America has never been better, I say, you're wrong. And I know, because I was there. I have seen it. I remember," he said.
He also took aim at critics who say he has a mean streak and was more interested in striking compromise than sticking to ideology as a legislator.
"If I am combative, it is for love of country," he said. "And to those who believe that I live and breathe compromise, I say that in politics honorable compromise is no sin, it is what protects us from absolutism and intolerance."
Calling Bill Clinton "my opponent, not my enemy," Dole launched a withering verbal assault on the incumbent president, describing him as selfish, calculating and dishonest.
"For too long, we have had a leadership that has been unwilling to risk the truth, to speak without calculation, to sacrifice itself," he said.
"It is demeaning to the nation that within the Clinton administraion a corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned should have the power to fund with your earnings their dubious and self-serving schemes."
Dole took a swipe, as well, at first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Without mentioning her by name, he ridiculed her child-rearing book, titled "It Takes A Village."
"I am here to tell you, it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child," Dole said to roars from the convention floor.
Dole wove themes of moral values into his presentation, which also included details of his campaign agenda, which includes a proposed 15 percent across the board income tax cut.
At its center, however, the speech was an implicit contrast of character between Dole and Clinton.
Talking tough, while smiling at the same time, the Kansan offered himself as an antidote to a president he characterized as endlessly calculating and mainly interested in soaking taxpayers for his government spending programs.
"I trust in the people. That is the heart of all that I have said to you tonight," Dole said.
Dole returned repeatedly to his own experiences, offering bits and pieces of his inspiring life story, which includes a near-fatal battlefield wounding in Italy in 1945 and a grueling recovery that left him with a useless right arm.
"There was once a time when I doubted the future," he said. "But I learned that obstacles can be overcome, and I have unlimited confidence in the wisdom of our people and future of our country.
"Tonight, I stand before you tested by adversity, made sensitive by hardship, a fighter by principle and the most optimistic man in America."
On the most important night of his political life, Dole surrendered his legendary reserve. He spoke movingly of his Kansas roots and of his late parents. At one point, his voice became thick with emotion as he recalled his father's arduous journey to visit him in a Michigan rehabilitation center in 1947.
"My father was poor," Dole said, his voice faltering. "And I loved my father."
Dole attacked repeatedly across the generational gulf that divides him and his 61-year-old running mate from the first baby boomer president and vice president.
He spoke harshly of young men and women who fail "to serve when called," a clear reference to Clinton's avoidance of the military draft during Vietnam.
At a time when the economy is growing and pocketbook issues appear to favor Clinton, Dole assailed Clinton's 1992 campaign for its emphasis on the economy, which he called a grave insult to the nation. "Which is more important, wealth or honor? It is not," as Clinton said in 1992, "the economy, stupid. It's the kind of nation we are," said Dole. "All things do not flow from wealth or poverty All things flow from doing what is right."
Dole, who has supported Clinton's policy in Bosnia, criticized the president's overall foreign policy record.
Clinton, he said, "has failed to adequately provide for our future defense. For whatever reason, his neglect is irresponsible."
Under a Dole presidency, the United States would pursue terrorists "to the ends of the Earth. In short, don't mess with us unless you are prepared to suffer the consequences."
Dole also delivered a message of inclusion to his party, which has sought to reverse the image of intolerance generated by the '92 GOP convention in Houston.
"If there is anyone who has mistakenly attached himself to the party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you: Tonight, this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln. And the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of as I stand here and hold this ground, without compromise," said Dole, the Republican national chairman from 1971 to 1973.
At the same time, Dole spoke out against racial preferences and affirmative action. He said there would be "no claim to favoritism by race" under his administration, calling that a "guiding light" of his presidency.
Following his speech, Dole was joined on the podium by members of his family, while red, white and blue balloons dropped from the ceiling of the convention hall onto the exuberant delegates. Later, all of his defeated rivals, including Patrick J. Buchanan, arrived onstage in a tableau of party unity as a blizzard of confetti was released.
Dole was introduced by a biographical video, modeled on a similar film about Clinton that was shown to the 1992 Democratic convention.
"I hope I'm a better man for a better America," Dole said at the conclusion of the film, delivering his campaign slogan. He was preceded by his running mate, Jack Kemp. The former housing secretary said he was "putting our opponents on notice. We are asking for the support of every single American. Our appeal of boundless opportunity crosses every barrier of geography, race and belief."
Even before the convention ended, Texas Gov. George W. Bush declared it "a roaring success." National polls showed that Dole has gained several points on Clinton over the past week, but still trails him by double-digit margins.
Pub Date: 8/16/96