After Republicans burglarized the Watergate in 1972, a hometown reporter sheepishly asked Sen. Bob Dole whether he had hidden the break-in tools in his one-bedroom apartment in the complex. (He said he had not.)
Twenty-six years later, from the same first-floor apartment, Dole again finds himself a footnote in a scandal that has overtaken the White House. From Apartment 112, his new role is as a trader of gossip about sightings of his next-door neighbor in Apartment 114, Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who is alleged to have had a sexual relationship with President Clinton."I did see Monica, got a glimpse of her Saturday night," Dole reported, sparing no detail, including her forays to the swimming pool. Speaking admiringly of her newly cultivated skills of dodging the press, he added, "She had some groceries, and she found a way of getting to the Safeway and back with-out the press."
Dole's current platform is a far cry from that of two years ago when, as the Republican presidential nominee, he tried to convince Americans that Clinton did not have the moral fiber to deserve re-election. "Where's the outrage?" he bellowed again and again on the campaign trail.
These days, from his law offices in downtown Washington, his miniature schnauzer, Leader, a bit frail and suffering from vertigo but still yapping, the former Senate leader from Kansas says the answer has finally sunk in: There is no outrage.
"There was a survey after the election that over half the people that voted for Clinton didn't trust him," said Dole, 74. "Which didn't say much about me. That's the part I've never understood."
But last week, in his first interview since the Lewinsky scandal erupted two months ago, Dole, who as Republican Party chairman was one of Pres-i-dent Richard Nixon's most outspoken defenders in the Watergate crisis, recalled the early days of that scandal and said it might be a matter of time before the accusations catch up to Clinton. He said the president's claim of executive privilege and reluctance to release documents could haunt Clinton, just as they did Nixon.
"It's not the sex," Dole said. "It's the pattern of all these different things: the stonewalling and all this stuff about not furnishing documents. It's a pattern that will eventually disturb people. It wasn't the burglary in the Watergate. That was our spin - a `third-rate burglary.' "
Dole recalled that Nixon carried 49 states in the 1972 election, five months after the break-in at the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate complex, and that "his numbers were pretty high" until the political tide began to turn by early 1973.
Dole and Clinton have mended relations since the election; Clinton even awarded his former rival the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"Do you sit around and say, `I'm going to get that guy?' " Dole asked. "Spend my next four years going after Clinton? I wasn't defeated to be America's No. 1 critic of Bill Clinton."
But several times in the 90-minute interview, Dole could not stop himself from speaking out about a scandal that he said "feeds the cynicism that is out there - not just about the White House but about politics."
Dole has run the circuit of late-night talk shows and seems to be cultivating, with some success, an image as a wisecracking elder statesman who is not depressed about his loss.
In fact, he still seems to be more bitter about his upset by Vice President George Bush in the 1988 New Hampshire presidential primary after defeating Bush in the Iowa caucuses.
"I must say, I still think more about 1988 and what happened in New Hampshire," Dole said. "I thought '88 was sort of my year, anyway."