The Truth, Mainly - 05/06/1996

Bob Dole's real problem: The winds of western Kansas
by Leon Satterfield

Bob Dole has what we political pundits call a problem.

While Democrats maintain a discreet silence, GOP Heavy Lifters bad-mouth their candidate. Newt Gingrich says that since Dole wrapped up the nomination, the party is "in a funk." William Bennett says that "there's very little enthusiasm about Bob Dole." Robert Novak accuses the Dole campaign of "disorganization, lack of discipline and failure to articulate a coherent message." William Kristol says Dole is going to lose because he isn't "suddenly going to improve as a candidate and his campaign isn't miraculously going to become an inspired one."

Let me, as a political pundit, translate all that for you:

Bob Dole looks like he's constipated.

We routinely elect constipated-looking people to the House or Senate, but we haven't elected a constipated-looking President since Richard Nixon.

And Bill Clinton has that loosey-goosey "What, me worry?" look, an outward sign that his digestive system is moving things right along.

That spells big trouble for Republicans.

Bob Dole always looks as if the photographer has just said, "Smile. Try to look pleasant."

I'm not critical of him for looking that way. If you notice the photograph that accompanies this column, you'll see why.

"Smile," the photographer told me. "Try to look pleasant."

I am not constipated. I'm at the age now that I take pride in being not constipated. I regularly win Attaboy Regularity Awards.

So it occurs to me that if both Bob Dole and I have trouble looking pleasant, and I know I'm not constipated, it follows that he may not be either.

I was thinking about that a couple of weeks ago when we had some windy days in Lincoln, and I had an epiphany: Bob Dole and I look this way because we both grew up in Western Kansas.

What we had a couple of weeks ago would not technically qualify as "wind" in Western Kansas. Our gusts got up to only 55 mph. Just as Eskimos have 27 different words to distinguish among kinds of snow, so ex-Western Kansans make fine distinctions among kinds of moving air. Lincoln's 55-mph gusts would technically be "light zephyrs"—amusing to anyone west of, say, Ellsworth.

People who actually live out there don't talk much about wind—for the same reason, I suppose, that organisms that live three miles deep in the ocean don't talk much about water. For the concept to have meaning, it has to have boundaries; there has to be a notion of the not-water, or the not-wind. And the latter becomes meaningful only after you move away from Western Kansas.

The constant wind withers your psyche. You sit dessicated on a John Deere for 14 hours pulling a 20-foot spiketooth harrow in a vain effort to stop a half-section of topsoil from blowing away, then you go to the barber shop with the bad joke you've just made up:

Q: Why is Kansas so windy?

A: Because Oklahoma blows and Nebraska sucks.

It's not a very funny joke, but about the best you can do with all that air whistling through your ears.

There are no spotted dogs in Western Kansas, only streaked ones. Self-respecting trees get the hell out after a year or so, leaving behind only the scraggly Siberian elms remembering what Siberia was like.

Skin turns to leather; eyes go into perpetual squinch.

At tracks meets in April and May, the wind toys with the runners, first goosing them to impossible speeds, then throwing up invisible walls as they circle. Schoolboys in Western Kansas hate track season, always wishing they could play baseball instead, but you can't play baseball when every throw across the wind becomes a sharply breaking curve and second base won't stay put.

You want to know what the wind is like in Western Kansas?

Read Canto 5 of Dante's Inferno where the second circle of Hell is "a place stripped bare of every light/and roaring on the naked dark like seas/wracked by a war of winds. Their hellish flight/of storm and counterstorm through time foregone,/sweeps the souls of the damned before its charge./Whirling and battering it drives them on,/and when they pass the ruined gap of Hell/through which we had come, their shrieks begin anew."

Well sir, you don't grow up unaffected by a wind like that. Decades after you've left Western Kansas, you still look as if you're about to dodge a flying two-hole privy. The only smile you can manage comes off as a crooked grimace. Your eyes constantly dart about—outside, looking for a ditch to lie down in; inside, looking for the nearest exit in case the building implodes.

People in Washington interpret that look as a sign of constipation.

It doesn't matter so much if you're only an English teacher or a Senate Majority Leader. But when you're wearing that look and trying to convince voters that everything's going to be all right if they elect you President, you've got a problem.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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