Lehigh Valley professor reflects on relationship with Elizabeth and Bob Dole

Nichola Gutgold posing for headshot

Penn State Lehigh Valley Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences Nichola D. Gutgold recently attended the funeral for former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole. Gutgold has written extensively about Dole's widow, former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.


Credit: Penn State

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Penn State Lehigh Valley Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences Nichola D. Gutgold remembers the precise moment her scholarly life first intersected with former U.S. Sens. Elizabeth and the late Bob Dole.

She was at home watching the 1996 Republican National Convention, and Elizabeth Dole was taking the stage to talk about her husband, who was the GOP’s pick that year to challenge Bill Clinton for the presidency.

“I was always interested in political communication,” said Gutgold, whose scholarship focuses on the rhetoric of women in nontraditional fields. “When I saw Elizabeth Dole descend the steps at the convention and start moving around amongst the crowd, in my mind, I thought, ‘I’m doing my dissertation on this.’”

Twenty-five years later, Gutgold’s admiration for the renowned political couple remains as strong as ever. And, on Dec. 10, she was privileged to be among the invited guests at Bob Dole’s funeral at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral.

“It was an absolutely beautiful ceremony, and there were many great speakers, including President Biden,” Gutgold said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime historical experience. As an academic, I was tremendously honored to be there. It was a fitting farewell to a great patriot.”

Gutgold is a true authority on Elizabeth Dole’s life and career. She co-wrote the books, “Elizabeth Hanford Dole: Speaking from the Heart,” and “Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced,” which includes a chapter on Elizabeth Dole’s unsuccessful 1999 presidential campaign. Gutgold’s most recent book is “Electing Madam Vice President: When Women Run Women Win,” which was published earlier this year.

“I consider myself a biographer, especially of Elizabeth Dole,” Gutgold said. “To have maintained a relationship with the Doles over the years is a testament to the connection an author can feel when writing about someone. Because to write a good biography is really to get to know that person and think about them a lot. I have never forgotten about Elizabeth Dole.”

Gutgold’s professional relationship with the Doles started with that dissertation idea geared around Elizabeth Dole’s unique and highly compelling rhetorical skills. When she proposed it to her adviser, he was skeptical that she could get an entire book out of the endeavor.

Undeterred, Gutgold reached out to C-SPAN for videos of Elizabeth Dole’s confirmation hearings for her cabinet positions as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of transportation and George H.W. Bush’s secretary of labor. In addition, she traveled to Portland, Oregon, to meet Dole’s speechwriter, who provided her with speech manuscripts.

Gutgold eventually interviewed Elizabeth Dole several times, finding her to be a warm, engaging presence. And, she sat down with Bob Dole once at his Washington, D.C., office.

“To get some larger context about Elizabeth, I thought, ‘Who better to give me a better viewpoint about her than Bob Dole?’” Gutgold said. “I was just struck by his commanding presence, and I don’t think the presence he had in person translated over the media. He came up in an age when optics were not as focused upon. We saw that when he ran against Bob Clinton, the king of optics, who really saw the importance of the media and of connecting with people. Bob Dole was not that guy. Bob Dole was known for his brevity — he was a man of few words. That doesn’t always communicate political acumen. The opposite of that was Elizabeth Dole, who is nothing if not a warm lingerer of communication.”

Through researching Elizabeth Dole’s communication skills, Gutgold found a way to examine the reasons why women struggled for years to be taken seriously as presidential candidates.

“I write the books from a rhetorical standpoint because I think a large part of what we say is who we are. I do think if you study someone’s speeches, you learn a lot about them,” said Gutgold, who also has written extensively about Hillary Clinton and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Through Elizabeth Dole, I found a woman who was qualified to be president, but was not, and had been in the surrogate role,” she continued. “She’s a transitional figure in American politics. For years, we defined president as a male office, but we’ve come a ways in recent years with women running for president. We are getting closer, and those barriers are coming down. The country just wasn’t there yet when Elizabeth was in her prime.”

Through the years, Gutgold has managed to stay in touch with the Doles. Whenever she would send Elizabeth Dole a birthday card, “she would always call me to thank me,” she said.

“That’s just who she is as a person,” Gutgold said. “Sometimes, in politics, you don’t win, but one thing I always admired about Elizabeth and Bob Dole was that they were always willing to serve, even when not in public office. The Doles have truly lived a life of giving back.”