CLEVELAND – The lobby of the Westin hotel here is a palace for insiders: the convention-week headquarters for Donald Trump and the stone-faced, dark-suited Republicans managing his bid for the White House.
Inside this guarded refuge, an accidental political revival is underway. A coterie of operatives who reached the peak of their profession when they steered Bob Dole to the 1996 nomination, only to be sidelined by a newer generation, has returned to power with Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.
Twenty years later, these Dole lieutenants – most notably Paul Manafort, now Trump’s campaign chairman – are crafting Trump’s strategy and orchestrating this week’s Republican National Convention, where the celebrity mogul will formally be nominated.
For them, the Trump campaign is more than a reunion. It is a coveted second shot at the ultimate prize that eluded them in 1996 – the White House. And most of them see it as an unexpected opportunity, thanks to an unconventional candidate who climbed atop the wreckage of a broken GOP. That they again face a Clinton – this time Hillary – adds another historical echo.
The Trump team’s ascent comes as many party elders and establishment figures are shunning the festivities in Cleveland.
But not Dole. The 92-year-old former Senate leader, in declining health but as quick-witted as ever, arrives here on Monday and will be honored on the convention’s opening night. During a tribute to veterans, Dole, a hero of World War II, is expected to be seated in Trump’s VIP box.
Trump was not Dole’s first choice for president (that was former Florida governor Jeb Bush), nor his second (Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida), but he said he is such a loyal party stalwart that he could think of nowhere else to be this week than in Cleveland.
“I’m for Trump, so anything I can do to help, I’d be happy to,” Dole said in an interview.
Dole is the only past nominee attending this year’s convention. He is supporting Trump and the two men speak occasionally by phone. Dole said he has a routine: When something is on his mind, he calls Trump’s executive assistant, Rhona Graff. “Anything I want him to know about, I tell her and he gets it right away,” Dole said.
For example, after Trump criticized New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, R, in May, Dole said he urged Trump to broker a peace with the nation’s only Latina governor.
“She’s a good person, a good Republican, and we need her help – not just her vote, but we need her out there working for Trump,” Dole said. He added, “The response I had was, ‘We’re working on it, trying to fix it.’ “
The patriarch of the Dole associates currently occupying Trump’s orbit is Manafort, a terse operator who has built a lucrative lobbying and consulting practice advising controversial foreign leaders and corporations. He did not respond to an interview request to discuss Dole.
There’s Michael Glassner – wiry, bespectacled and bald – who got his start in politics working for Dole while he was a student at the University of Kansas. He was Dole’s personal traveling aide and became a political confidant. He is now Trump’s deputy campaign manager.
And then there are Jim Murphy, a veteran of Dole’s 1988 and 1996 campaigns who is Trump’s national political director; Tony Fabrizio, a pollster for Dole’s 1996 run and now Trump’s pollster; Alan Cobb, a former Dole Senate staffer who oversees Trump’s coalitions work; and Mike McSherry, a regional political director for Dole in 1996 who is Trump’s delegate strategist.
Here in Cleveland, Bill Greener, who worked closely with Manafort on managing Dole’s 1996 convention in San Diego, has returned to the same role for Trump. Assisting the team as volunteers around the convention is a group of lawyers and consultants who cut their teeth working for Dole.
“We’re sort of a family,” Dole said. “We had a lot of good campaign people, men and women. I certainly can’t remember them all.”
Neither can many of the staffers and elected officials who currently occupy Capitol Hill and statehouses around the country. That generational gap has contributed to the friction among Trump’s campaign and other GOP power centers.
Charlie Black, long a fixture in Republican presidential politics who once shared a lobbying practice with Manafort, said the 1996 campaign “is like ancient history. Things have changed so much about campaigns and news and technology.”
Others who worked on Dole’s multiple presidential bids question whether Manafort and his deputies can easily adapt to the modern way campaigns are now managed, built around data analytics, neighborhood-level organizing and digital media.
The verdict has been mixed. Stuart Stevens, who worked on Dole’s 1996 media team, described the Trump operation as a throwback.
“It’s impossible to sit out a cycle in this business. It’s like the NFL, you can’t just go up in the coaching booth and come back that easily,” said Stevens, who went on to become chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “Trump seems to be running as if it’s 1980 America.”
But many Dole alumni did not sit out of future presidential campaigns by choice. After the 1996 defeat, they were eclipsed by Bush family loyalists and Texas operatives who ran George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and went on to dominate GOP politics for the next decade. That same network became the farm team for John McCain and Mitt Romney’s subsequent runs.
For the Dole folks, who had moved on to the private sector and state-based or international work, Trump’s outsider campaign offered a way back in.
“Often in politics you learn more from losing than winning, and I think Manafort and the team are trying to take some of those lessons and put them around this first-time presidential candidate,” said Scott Reed, who was Dole’s 1996 campaign manager.
Despite the obvious differences in Dole and Trump’s backgrounds – the former is a lifelong public servant and statesman; the latter, a New York mogul – their politics have some overlap. Both are traditionally pro-business Republicans who shy away from social issues and aggressive foreign intervention.
In his speech at the 1996 convention, Dole promised to take the country back to an earlier era. He portrayed himself as “a bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action. And to those who say it was never so, that America’s not been better, I say you’re wrong.”
The line was remembered as a strategic blunder by Dole, giving opponent Bill Clinton an opening with a contrasting slogan: “Build a bridge to the 21st century.”
But Dole’s comments could be seen as a precursor of sorts to Trump’s pitch to “make America great again.”
Asked to evaluate similarities between Dole and Trump, William B. Lacy, director of the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas, said he could think of only one.
“Senator Dole always was pretty willing to speak his mind,” Lacy said. While Dole’s blunt humor sometimes caused trouble, Lacy said, “I never, ever heard Bob Dole utter any language or say anything about an individual that would create a firestorm like Donald Trump does.”
As Trump’s aides rushed in and out of the Westin lobby here last week, Glassner, in a dark suit and solid tie, stood off to the side and reflected on how much this particular world has stayed the same.
“There are similarities between the Dole campaign culture and Trump campaign culture: loyalty, discretion, camaraderie and formal business attire,” Glassner said.
The writer Michael Lewis once described Dole’s 1996 staffers as “slick young men in blue suits forever whispering to each other in dark corners.”
Reminded of that, Dole cracked, “The Trump people have more expensive suits.”
That’s not the only upgrade that Glassner hopes they make.
“This time will be different,” he said, “because we’ll win.”