Dole on a Roll

UPDATED 06/24/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/24/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN HER DAUGHTER, LIDDY, WENT off to college in the '50s, Mary Hanford encouraged her to major in home economics, a sensible subject for sensible young women from Salisbury, N.C. "I hoped she would come back and live maybe next door to me," says Mary. When Liddy instead chose political science, her perplexed mother consulted a friend who happened to be a college professor. "He said it's wonderful for girls to be doing political science," recalls Mary. "And he added, 'Don't worry, Mrs. Hanford, they all get married, and that will be the end of political science.' "

Well, she did, but it wasn't. Thirty-odd years later, Elizabeth "Liddy" Dole, 54, reigns as one of the most successful and powerful women in American politics. Having served for more than four years as Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan and then as Secretary of Labor in the Bush administration, Dole earlier this year took on the job of head of the American Red Cross. Already she is generating front-page press coverage with her plans to streamline and modernize the venerable institution, which despite its $1 billion-a-year budget has lately been plagued by criticism of its facilities and its ability to respond to disasters, as well as worries over the threat to the nation's blood supply posed by the AIDS crisis. "The part I love is that you deal with dire human needs on a full-time basis," says Dole. "It really is a joy to feel that what you're doing is making a difference for someone."

Given her new job, Liddy and husband Bob, the Senate minority leader from Kansas, have underscored their claim on the title of Washington's premier power couple. So hectic are their respective schedules that the Doles have never found time to move out of the two-bedroom Watergate apartment they started sharing 15 years ago when they were first married. Not that they need much more room. What with Liddy attending Red Cross functions and Bob a regular on the GOP fund-raising circuit, in a recent week they found themselves home together one night. "We go two to three days with just one glass left in the sink," says Bob, 67. In a story that has become a staple of Washington lore (Liddy confirms it), the Doles once showed up at the same Washington function without knowing it—until they met each other in the receiving line.

If anything, the pace of their professional life seems destined to quicken. Dole's plans for the Red Cross are nothing if not ambitious. In a speech last month she announced a $120 million rehab of blood services, including the reequipping of local centers, centralizing the computer system and consolidating some 53 blood-testing centers into 10 regional labs designed to offer more efficient screening for HIV and blood-transmitted diseases. To help boost morale, Dole announced in February that she would forsake her $200,000 salary for a year. "I decided that the best way I can let volunteers know their importance is to be one of them—to earn the patches on my sleeve," she says. Her husband didn't agree at first. "I had a little different view," he says. "It seemed to me that she had a right to be paid."

Dole singles out her mother as the source of her drive and determination. (Her father, John, who owned a prosperous wholesale flower business, died in 1981.) "When I was a young girl, she was there to urge me to do my best," recalls Liddy, who gave herself her nickname because it was easier to pronounce. "When homework was finished, she might suggest another project, like an essay contest or music lessons." The prodding paid off, as her stellar résumé" illustrates. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Duke, she earned a law degree and master's in government and education, all from Harvard. After landing a consumer-affairs job in the Johnson White House in 1968, she began her steady ascent through the ranks of government. Four years later, she met the recently divorced Senator Dole in a meeting on the Hill; in 1975, after a leisurely courtship, they were married.

With her shrewd instincts and rich North Carolina drawl as her most formidable weapons, Dole excelled at the art of negotiating with congressional committees, so much so that around Capitol Hill she earned the nickname Sugar Lips. But some critics claimed that during her tenure at Transportation and Labor, Dole produced more impressive-sounding press releases than results.

Nonetheless, her skills and credentials have encouraged talk among the GOP faithful that Dole would make a strong national candidate, perhaps as a vice-presidential running mate. Dole deflects all such speculation, insisting that she is committed to her duties at the Red Cross. But her mother, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday at a small family gathering in North Carolina, now knows better than to rule anything out for her hard-charging daughter. "I don't advise her anymore," says Mary. "I can't keep up."

BILL HEWITT
LINDA KRAMER in Washington, D.C.

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