by Michael M. Bates
Tuesday, april 26, 2005
It was a singular scene last week: a genuinely unscripted moment on television. I have to ask you a philosophical question, Hardball host Chris Matthews told Bob Dole. Do you believe in an afterlife?
The World War II hero, longtime senator and 1996 presidential candidate hesitated. a combined look of surprise and dismay crossed his face. You could see the wheels turning.
"I'm not certain," was his answer. Matthews pressed on: "So, it could just be that those soldiers who get killed, that is just the end for them?"
"I think well, that would be my view," was his reply. The answer didn't imply any uncertainty.
In an age when the media provides suffocatingly exhaustive information about presidential candidates, their families, their pets, their favorite pizza toppings, their struggles through grade school, etc., it's ironic that Mr. Dole's unorthodox outlook on an afterlife didn't receive much attention a decade ago.
Many voters just assume that people running for the highest office in the land maintain conventional attitudes on such matters. Candidates are Methodist or whatever and generally subscribe to their faith's beliefs.
In retrospect, there were few indications during the 1996 campaign that Bob Dole was an exception. One came from investigative reporter Bob Woodward, who said on PBS' Frontline:
"Dole does not have a religious way, as best I can tell, of looking at the world. When religion would come up he would say, well Elizabeth believes that God may have a plan for you, that you have to discover God's will and so forth. and Dole talks with his eyes and his body language, half sentences, and you could just tell in watching it, you would see that he was almost literally rolling his eyes at these concepts, not out of disdain, but out of, that's not the way I see the world. It's not a lens through which he lives or thinks as best I could tell."
another suggestive sign was the Dole operation's uneasy alliance with what's often called the religious right. Mr. Dole wanted to water down the anti-abortion plank in the party's platform. He exhibited a marked reluctance to campaign on social issues.
If reporters had directly asked him about his views on God and an afterlife, my guess is candidate Dole would have straightforwardly answered. Even now, he makes no effort to hide his feelings. The official Bob Dole website prominently lists a hyperlink to his interview with Chris Matthews.
The media didn't spend a lot of time in 1996 examining candidates' religious views. It still doesn't.
Liberal Bill Moyers may have stumbled onto the truth when he observed: "Mainstream journalists mostly ignore religion because they don't understand it and because they are worried about misinterpreting it."
Scandals in organized religion are fair game, as is how politicians try to appeal to certain religious groups. But reporters don't show the same level of curiosity in exploring what candidates believe and how they arrived at those beliefs.
Moreover, many americans don't appear interested in the subject. according to a 2000 poll, half of those surveyed don't want to hear politicians talk a lot about their faith.
Mr. Dole is clearly entitled to his own way of thinking about religious matters. I have to wonder, though, if his outlook wouldn't have influenced how at least some people voted.
I also find it intriguing that the third-person referring, mean spirited and nasty Bob Dole seems to have a lot more in common with the peace and love hippie radical John Ono Lennon than we could ever have dreamed. Lennon's most successful post-Beatle tune goes:
"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today. . ."
Perhaps if John had been alive in 1996, and knew of the senator's disbelief in an afterlife, he would have jumped on the Dole bandwagon. They would have made a lively team, Dole in his dark blue suit and red tie and Lennon with his love beads and granny glasses. Talk about instant karma.
This appears in the april 21, 2005 Oak Lawn (IL) Reporter. Mike Bates is the author of Right angles and Other Obstinate Truths.