By Thomas Fields-Meyer
Updated October 14, 1996 12:00 PM

ELIZABETH DOLE WON’T SIT DOWN. THE WIFE OF THE Republican presidential nominee has just arrived at the Charlotte, N.C., home of her brother John Han-ford, where a photographer has arranged for an intimate portrait. But when she realizes the shot calls for her to be seated, she balks. “My jacket will pooch out,” objects Dole, 60, dressed in an elegant green suit. “And we all know what that looks like.” The photographer coaxes her, but she fusses with her jacket, carefully placing her hands over her stomach. Finally the photographer relents, and a relieved Dole rises from the chair and, meticulously smoothing any wrinkles, strikes a model’s pose, eyes toward heaven. Vanity? No, says photographer Ann States later, more like “a profound sense of self-consciousness.”

That same studied sense of control—some call it perfectionism—has helped Dole to become one of the most prominent women in American public life and keep her public image virtually untarnished along the way. She is the only woman to have served in the cabinets of two Presidents—as Transportation Secretary for Ronald Reagan and as George Bush’s Labor Secretary—before taking the helm of the American Red Cross in 1991. Now, as ardent advocate for husband Bob’s flagging presidential bid, she has demonstrated a style and charm that often overshadow his. In an awkward July interview on Larry King Live, she interrupted, corrected or prompted her husband so often that “she was practically taking over the interview,” wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. And her Oprah-style tour de force on the floor of the Republican convention was such a hit that it will likely linger in the public memory long after the candidate’s own acceptance speech. Bob Dole himself has said that if anyone else were No. 1 on the GOP ticket, his wife might well have been No. 2. “She’d have been on everybody’s very, very, very short list,” he told Barbara Walters.

The spotlight of the campaign has focused attention on the Doles’ nearly 21-year marriage, which—despite the candidate’s interest in conservative “family values”—is hardly traditional. The couple, wed when he was 52 and she was 39, have no children. (Dole’s daughter, Robin, 41, is by first wife Phyllis, whom he divorced abruptly in 1972.) “We felt if it happens, great, and if it doesn’t, fine,” Elizabeth Dole says of the prospect of kids. “We’re happy doing what we’re doing, which can make a lot of difference to a lot of children.” They often go for a week at a time with little face-to-face contact. “It’s certainly not your average marriage, where the spouses see each other every day and have dinner every night,” says Kerry Tymchuk, a speechwriter who has worked for both Doles. In December 1994, when Elizabeth wanted to discuss the possibility of her husband’s presidential bid, she made a Saturday morning appointment to meet him in his Senate office.

Their desks are now just two doors apart at the candidate’s Washington headquarters—where their aging schnauzer Leader wanders from one Dole to the other. But as in any presidential effort, candidate and wife jet off daily to cover different ground, creating even more distance. “We plan our schedules so we can be together as much as possible,” says Elizabeth, “but it’s a lot of separate travel too.” Yet they are constantly in touch by telephone and fax, and friends say the lack of togetherness shouldn’t be confused with estrangement. “What is most important to her is making sure she is there to give moral support to her husband,” former campaign staffer Kathleen Harrington says of Elizabeth, who has left her powerful positions to back her husband’s four White House quests. “She has put him first on many occasions, and it’s her choice.”

By all accounts, though, what is central in Elizabeth Dole’s life is something even higher—a devout religious faith that, she says, came to her in the early 1980s as a sort of gradual reawakening and inspires much of her work today. “Her first priority is to her Lord, and she puts that ahead of anything else,” says Charles Colson, the Watergate coconspirator who now runs a prison ministry. “She has a high sense of public calling.” Such genuine zeal is so rare in Washington that stories about Dole tend to sound almost reverent. Wayne Valis, who worked with her in the Reagan Administration, recalls spotting a hospital candy-striper outfit hanging behind the door of her White House office. “I thought it was amazing that an assistant to the President would take the time every week to volunteer for the sick and elderly,” he says.

Red Cross executive Jenna Dorn recalls a time when Elizabeth arrived late for a Hong Kong meeting because she’d gotten lost trying to find a beggar she had passed earlier when she wasn’t carrying any money. “She always said the first thing you have to do to make things better,” says Valis, “is to look in the mirror.” Which is just what Dole herself did in her mid-40s, when she came to the conclusion that her career had become all-consuming. “I wanted to shift those priorities so that my faith would be at the center again,” says Dole, who likes to tell audiences that God had been lost in her Rolodex between gardening and government. “Everything sort of flowed from that.”

That, after all, had been the priority with which the younger child of John and Mary Hanford was raised. Her father, who died in 1981, ran a successful wholesale flower business in Salisbury, N.C., where Hanfords had lived since pre-Revolutionary War days. “Our father always stressed a high standard of performance on anything undertaken,” says John Hanford Jr., 73, who runs the family business. And young Liddy (she nicknamed herself as a lisping toddler, but now prefers her proper name) did not disappoint. Growing up in a wealthy, socially prominent family, she started a book club and a bird club—complete with five committees—in grade school. Skinny and bespectacled, she was already concerned with her image. “She’d paint her glasses frames every night with model airplane paint in the color of the outfit she was wearing the next day,” says childhood friend Betty Dan Spencer.

In high school, Dole was chosen the girl most likely to succeed. “We teased her a lot that she’d be the first woman President,” Spencer says. Others didn’t take her as seriously. When she chose to major in political science at Duke University, her mother, now 95, was a bit dismayed. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Hanford,” she recalls a professor reassuring her. “They all get married, and that would be the end of political science.”

But when she graduated in 1958, Elizabeth Hanford’s plans didn’t call for a wedding. Says childhood friend Wyndham Robertson: “I don’t think she ever was concerned about doing just the expected thing. She was always doing something a little more daring.” Moving in the fall of 1958 to Cambridge, Mass., Dole did some modeling and landed a job at the Harvard Law School library. She spent the summer of 1959 studying British history at Oxford University in England and when her course ended, journeyed to Russia, a daring choice at the height of the Cold War. “It was something I was very curious about,” she says. En route, she developed a badly infected ankle and had to spend her first night in a Moscow hospital. “The thing that amazes me now,” she says, “is that I felt no fear.”

Though she’d had at least one marriage proposal, Elizabeth opted to enter Harvard Law School in the fall of 1962. “Don’t you want to be a wife and a mother and a hostess for your husband?” asked Mary Hanford. Not yet, said Elizabeth, one of only two dozen female students in a class of 550. “In our first year, there was a law professor who refused to call on women,” recalls classmate Elizabeth Holtzman, later a New York congresswoman. Another classmate, Jane Roth, now a judge and the wife of Delaware Sen. William Roth, recalls the dean’s early admonition to women students: “We should all keep in mind that we’ve taken the place of a young man who might have a future in the law.”

Dole wasn’t put off. She had gotten a taste of government in summer stints on Capitol Hill as a secretary to Sen. B. Everett Jordan, a North Carolina Democrat, and as an aide at the United Nations. After earning her degree, she headed straight to Washington, working briefly as a lawyer for indigent clients before landing a job in 1968 with the Johnson Administration’s consumer affairs office. When Richard Nixon became President, Elizabeth talked the office’s new chief, Virginia Knauer, into keeping her on staff. Raised as a conservative Southern Democrat, Dole switched to become an independent (she joined the GOP in the mid-1970s).

It was Knauer who brought her along to a meeting on March 14, 1972, with the recently divorced chairman of the Republican National Committee. “He came in from a side door,” Elizabeth recalls of Bob Dole’s entrance, “and I remember looking up and thinking, ‘My goodness, he’s an attractive man.’ ” Typically, the senator’s recollection is a bit dryer. “Normally, I don’t like meetings,” he has said of the encounter. “This was a pretty good meeting.” Bob pursued Elizabeth with long telephone calls, finally asking her out on the third chat. “I thought he was shy,” she recalls. “Dad’s staff knew something was up by the way he whistled around the office,” his daughter Robin has said. The couple married on Dec. 6, 1975.

The Doles had much in common, including a zealous commitment to their individual careers. Elizabeth was appointed to the Federal Trade Commission in 1973, and in 1981 joined President Reagan’s public liaison office. “She used to work longer hours than anyone I knew,” says Valis, her colleague there for over two years. In 1983, Reagan appointed Dole Secretary of Transportation. “Under Reagan, she was the only woman inside,” says Valis, by then a lobbyist who dealt with her on transportation issues. “I don’t think she was one of the guys.”

In 1989, Bush chose her to head the Labor Department. In both cabinets, she was an exacting, detail-oriented manager. “She demanded a standard that approaches perfection,” says Valis. “That’s what she is like, and it rubs off on you.” Once she was trapped on a stalled elevator with Jenna Dorn, then her aide at Transportation. “I was hyperventilating,” recalls Dorn. But Dole reported the stall on the emergency phone, sat down on the floor and opened her briefcase. “She was un-fazed, totally focused,” says Dorn.

At Transportation, where Dole had the most impact, she oversaw the $2 billion privatization sale of Conrail, the financially troubled Northeast rail system, and advocated using center-mounted brake lights on cars. But she also earned a reputation for being more concerned with image than issues. One often cited example was the disastrous 1984 demonstration of a “nonexploding” jet fuel that she orchestrated for the media at Edwards Air Force Base in California. An unmanned Boeing 720 endured a mock crash landing—then burst into flames. Within seconds, reporters discovered, the Secretary was nowhere to be found. More often, though, Dole’s sweetly persuasive style worked, so disarming Capitol Hill critics that she became known to congressional staffers as Sugar Lips.

In 1991, Dole became president of the Red Cross, where she oversees a $1.8 billion budget, 32,000 employees and 1.4 million volunteers. (Stressing the importance of volunteerism, she passed up the first year of her $200,000 salary.) Arriving amid a scandal over possible HIV-contamination of the blood supply, she helped revamp the organization’s blood-bank procedures. She has also visited Red Cross workers in war zones from Croatia to Somalia and during U.S. disasters such as 1992’s Hurricane Andrew “Some of these experiences will absolutely haunt me the rest of my life,” she says.

Last November she took a leave to put all her energies into Bob Dole’s presidential bid. “She can play the traditional wife of the candidate, and people can picture her as First Lady,” says Charlie Black, a Dole campaign strategist. “She is also one of the most important surrogates for Bob Dole speaking on the issues.” Ironically, Hillary Rodham Clinton—herself an articulate Ivy League-educated lawyer—has been roundly criticized in Republican circles for those very qualities. Somehow, Dole, with her southern charm, escapes such sniping. “She’s almost like a stealth feminist,” says one Washington pundit.

Win or lose, Elizabeth Dole will not be retiring on Nov. 5; she has pledged to return to the Red Cross. That could make her the first First Lady ever to have a job outside the White House. As she explains with typical certitude: “If you’re not marching to your own tune, you’re going to be marching to someone else’s. You have to take control of your own life, set your own priorities, or someone will be happy to set them for you.”


LINDA KRAMER and ANDREW MARTON in Washington and CINDY DAMPIER in Salisbury