In the summer of 1995, Senator Bob Dole was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, competing against the likes of conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan and Senator Arlen Specter. But the chances of a White House takeover appeared slim from the outset: The economy experienced a brief slowdown but remained largely stable, crime was falling, and President Clinton’s popularity had increased since his early days in office. To make matters worse, Dole’s frontrunner status was constantly undermined by an uncontrollable factor, as evidenced by the July 31, 1995 cover of Time: “Is Dole Too Old For the Job?”
I was five years old when Bill Clinton won his ’96 re-election campaign against Dole in a blowout, an event of which I have absolutely no memory. Frankly, my primary knowledge about Bob Dole comes from cartoon parodies that went over my head until my Jezebel colleagues filled me in on Dole’s reputation at the time of his run: A decidedly unhip geezer who, at 73, would have been the oldest person elected President during a first term if he won. It’s a wild piece of political history to revisit years later, as 74-year-old President Donald Trump and 77-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden each attempt to prove themselves the tough guy who can guide Americans out of a national crisis.
Dole wasn’t a nobody politician: he was Senate Majority Leader and played a major role in the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. But his age became a reliable punchline, especially in the late-night television landscape where Jay Leno and David Letterman still reigned supreme. (Letterman once said the following during a ’96 Late Show monologue: “Bob Dole is calling himself an optimist. I understand this because a lot of people would look at a glass as half empty. Bob Dole looks at the glass and says, ‘What a great place to put my teeth.’”) Former New York Times columnist Richard L. Burke questioned this strategy in a May 1996 piece titled, “Is Age-Bashing Any Way to Beat Bob Dole? He noted that the campaign cycle had a “high tolerance for ageism.”
“In this election year, it seems, maturity is out and youth and vigor are in,” Burke wrote.
But Dole didn’t do himself any favors. In a July 1996 article in the New York Times, his antiquated comforts—in both politicking and personal interests—were highlighted:
Visiting a school earlier this year and seeing his campaign’s home page materialize on a computer screen, he brightened with uneasy familiarity: “That’s my whatchamacallit!”
On other fronts, he gives the impression of being stuck in a bygone era. He likes Glenn Miller. He is still obsessed with the Vietnam War and still condemning those who rebelled against it. When his speech writers tried to make him sound hip by using the “been there, done that” refrain, he tripped over the unfamiliar rhythms and soon abandoned the effort. And when he suggested that tobacco was not necessarily addictive, he evoked an era when cigarettes were promoted as health inducing — a long time ago indeed.
Despite this, the Times insisted that the septuagenarian was in good health and good shape. But this image took a literal tumble two months later. During a September 16 campaign rally in Chico, California, Dole leaned over a decorative railing while waving to supporters and fell off the stage. He was mostly fine save a minor eye injury. The Associated Press reported that he immediately “bounced back” and joked, “I think I just earned my third Purple Heart going over the rail.” Upon seeing photos of his fall later that day, Dole reportedly said, “My hair stayed all right. Enough hair spray.”
The election dragged on, with Dole falling further behind. Even his pitch to the youth of America came across as unfamiliar territory: A somewhat drowsy sounding Dole encouraged them to check him out on “www dot dolecamp96org.”
Dole’s November defeat prompted the Senate Majority Leader’s retirement from his decades-long career in public office, but he wasn’t completely out of the public eye just yet. In May of 1998, during an interview on CNN’s Larry King Live, Dole revealed that he participated in a trial for a flashy new erectile dysfunction medication: Viagra.
“It’s a great drug,” Dole said. “There are many men out there, millions of men out there, who suffer from impotence, and this may be the first step.’”His wife, Elizabeth Dole, was asked about the impotence drug during an unrelated news conference the next day. “It seems your husband was one of the first people who used Viagra,” the reporter asked. “What advice would you give to men and women in this nation about the use of that pill?
Elizabeth merely smiled and said, “It’s a great drug, O.K.?’
By the end of the year, Viagra distributor Pfizer hired Dole to be in a Viagra ad. “You know, it’s a little embarrassing to talk about ED,” Dole said in the commercial. “But it’s so important to millions of men and their partners.”
Dole helped chip away at the stigma surrounding impotence, before it was common to see commercials featuring sexy middle-aged couples making eyes at one another. (It’s also worth noting that Dole was part of the generation that served in World War II, many of them acquiring injuries that affected them the rest of their lives.) But he also seemed to lean in comfortably to his reputation as an old coot. This was only solidified when he made a cameo in a Pepsi commercial featuring Britney Spears, which aired during the 2002 Superbowl. In the commercial, Dole is just one of many bystanders witnessing a gyrating Spears and a Pepsi bottle blowing its top—phallic to the extreme. He’s sitting in a leather armchair while a Golden Retriever gives a bark of approval by his side. “Easy boy,” Dole says, watching Spears, Pepsi in hand.
Dole’s regressive politics aside, his willingness to become the self-aware butt of a longstanding joke about his age and virility is a far cry from the current discourse surrounding President Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden.
Throughout the primary, Trump has attempted to make an issue out of Joe Biden’s age—despite being a mere three years younger than his opponent—dubbing him “Sleepy Joe” and suggesting he was essentially near senility. The covid-19 pandemic has only intensified the dynamics. Studies have shown that men are less likely to wear protective masks, regarding them as weak and feminine. Sure enough, Trump, who recently tested positive for covid-19, happily played into this messaging, often downplaying the effectiveness of masks and opting not to wear one himself. In contrast, Biden’s adherence to mask-wearing has been the subject of ridicule from Trump and other figures on the right. Tomi Lahren, Fox Nation host and professional troll, recently responded to a video of wearing a mask, tweeting, “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.” Biden isn’t above a little tough-guy posturing either, with his aviators and his bluntly telling Trump, “shut up, man.”
It’s enough to make you wish for the Pepsi commercial.