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Stage-Diving Senior Citizen

Wednesday was not a good day for Bob Dole. While most people are at least remotely aware that the Republican nominee for President is on the far side of "youthful," it's as if God and the Fates took special care on Wednesday to point out just how old he really is. While the phrase "Bob Dole is old" is usually only written in bold and capitals, on Wednesday it was emblazoned across the sky, in letters of burning fire.

Perhaps Dole's assertion that "The Brooklyn Dodgers had a no-hitter last night" would have been less confusing if his audience hadn't been young prep school students. Given that the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1958, there exists a goodly chance that the majority of the crowd didn't know that the team was ever from any place other than L.A. "That new kid Lasorda sure seems to be working out," Dole might as well have added. One was left to wonder what a President Dole will do when the French start pulling out of Viet Nam.

And, in fact, the single saving grace of the gaffe is that the candidate had the foresight to commit it on the same day that he managed to fall off a stage and onto a gaggle of photographers. A good, silly sound bite plays well, yes, but video of a candidate stage diving will always run first.

"Video" and "run" being the operative words, of course. "Video" and "run" imply TV.

As described on radio, the fall sounded innocent enough, a smallish tumble when a railing gave way. Slightly embarrassing perhaps, but nothing that could have been avoided.

But as shown on TV, the fall was catastrophic. Dole pitches forward for no obvious reason, goes through a phony marble balcony and onto the started press, all snapping pictures like mad. On the ground, Dole looks dazed, as any seventy year old man would after taking a header. He gets up, but before he can snap back on his pained Bob Dole grin, his mouth hangs open and his eyes search hopelessly, beseeching the world to hold still.

These pictures, more than anything, define Bob Dole as old -- an image that his mental quickness and solid good health have so far managed to hold at bay. Reagan effectively buried the age issue with a quip, but Dole has neither Reagan's affability nor his speechwriters. While the most embarrassing thing Clinton has done on TV involve either jogging shorts or underwear, Dole -- for a nationwide audience -- looked scared and confused, a man not in control of his world or of his inner-ear. That image will be remembered.

Taken as a single moment in the campaign, Dole's fall doesn't add up to much. He tripped, he leaned too far, he just lost is balance -- in the end the cause doesn't matter, and neither does the bruised eye and ankle he suffered. Taken as a single moment, Dole actually looked great for an old man who had just pitched off a stage.

But taken in context -- along with the omnipresent late-night monologues, office jokes and other effluvia -- Dole has, in one instant, damaged his campaign more than any number of wife-swapping advisors possibly could. In one instant, he involuntarily showed a face to the world that no politician can afford to show: the face of confusion and fear, the face of an old man.

And it was television that brought it to us, the good video of a minor footnote redefining the campaign in a massive, but subtle and almost subconscious way. Words are afterthoughts and writing about the impression that the pictures left requires hyperbole, the destruction of all the subtly that the brain automatically picks up with images. Perhaps because of this, newspapers and radio have largely ignored the fall, relegating it to its "rightful" place as one of those oddities of the campaign trail.

But for me, Bob Dole is old. I know. I saw it on TV.


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