Meredith Carroll: A warm and fuzzy Dole-ful recollection
When Bob Dole stepped out of the black Town Car into the sub-basement of 30 Rockefeller Plaza on a Saturday afternoon late in 1996, he was greeted by the stench of mountains of trash amassed from the 66-story skyscraper above clinging to every particle of air. I was next in line to welcome him and he beelined over to cup my forearm with one hand, his other hand pressing into my palm an object still warm from his grasp. He folded down my fingers and before letting go, gave a light squeeze to underscore the presence of something precious.
“Meredith, I am giving this to you.”
I looked down in my hand at a small rectangular lapel pin affixed with a purple grosgrain ribbon accented with thin white columns on either end.
“It’s my Purple Heart pin, Meredith,” Dole said of part of one of the two medal sets he was awarded for devastating injuries sustained during World War II. He wore one on his suit jacket for his entire adult life, until he passed away on Dec. 5 at the age of 98.
Speechless is not an adjective that has ever been used to describe me. Or at least it wasn’t until that moment. Politics aside, I had felt an instant connection to the warm and cheerful former senator from Kansas upon meeting him and his wife, two-time presidential Cabinet member Elizabeth Dole, the day before, which was three days after he’d lost the presidential election to Bill Clinton.
On our way up to the eighth-floor TV studio via the freight elevator reserved for literal trash and also figurative megastars on Saturday Night Live, the Doles picked up from where our conversation had left off on the day prior during rehearsal, their questions flavored with layers of detail they’d retained from what I previously told them about my parents and me. They punctuated every sentence with my name as if I were a dear old friend and not just their strikingly low paid talent escort. If I needed more evidence that the growing affection I felt for them was reciprocated, it rested in my tightly balled fist.
Or not, as it turned out.
“I know you’ll make sure that pin gets safely to Norm to wear during our sketch so that we’re dressed exactly alike,” Dole said. He was at SNL, where I first started work as a fellow in the NBC Page Program, to make a surprise cameo appearance on that night’s show alongside Norm Macdonald, the cast member who’d honed his droll Bob Dole impression throughout the election. Macdonald, 61, died in September.
You might think I was embarrassed for meeting a war hero and 24 hours later imagining he gifted me with a priceless military accolade he received nearly a half century earlier. Except the truth is that I felt awash with relief that, as the lowest person on the SNL totem pole, my wholly insignificant name would not be evoked in conversations about meaningful gifts from high-profile guests. Even in show business there is such a thing as bad attention.
SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels popped into Dole’s dressing room after the show to offer his congratulations.
“Lorne, I have to tell you that Meredith here has been a big part of our success tonight,” Dole said. “This young lady is a real asset to your production.”
I’d been at the show for months and never before had the legendary producer so much as exhaled in my direction. However, the streak was broken that night — barely — when in a gesture of politeness to Dole, Michaels slightly turned his head toward me as the could-have-been leader of the free world gushed about how I had expertly ministered him and Elizabeth during their short stint at 30 Rock.
(The second time Michaels acknowledged me was on another Saturday a few years later in the hallway outside the studio doors right before the show went live. “Don’t you think it should be quiet here?” he said to me in a low growl as if I were singing an aria at the Metropolitan Opera instead of the one person who was, in fact, actually silent. The third and final time Michaels confirmed that I am a person who is alive didn’t come during any moment of my seven-year tenure at the show, but rather after I moved to Aspen and ate at a table adjacent to him and his family in the Hickory House at Christmastime. At some point I thought he may have emitted a glimmer of recognition but then I realized he was just looking to see if I was still staring at him.)
Upon Dole’s death on Sunday, the national press secretary from his 1996 presidential campaign, Nelson Warfield, paid tribute to his former boss in the New York Times.
“It’s in unscripted moments that politicians reveal the most about themselves,” Warfield wrote. “While many politicians show themselves to be cynical, cruel or inauthentic in those off-script moments, Mr. Dole instead revealed a rare empathy . . . Once almost left for dead on a battlefield in World War II, he had seen worse than a bad story or even a lost election.”
He had also seen worse than the garbage storage area of a building in midtown Manhattan or comedy sketches written at his expense. Yet in a column penned by Dole himself published in the Washington Post after his death, he maintained “full optimism and faith in our nation’s humanity,” which is coincidentally what he left with me during our brief encounter so many years ago.
More at MeredithCarroll.com and on Twitter @MCCarroll.