WASHINGTON — She was part of a Harvard Law School class dominated by men.

She was the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of transportation.

She was the highest-ranking woman in George Bush’s administration.

And she spent nine years as head of the American Red Cross, one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the world.

So maybe it’s not surprising that Elizabeth Dole, as her first try at elected office, may consider running for president.

Dole, a native of Salisbury, has announced formation of an exploratory committee — by all appearances, setting the wheels in motion for a bid at the White House.

Those in Washington and back home in North Carolina who have worked with Dole agree that, as president, she could be expected to get her hands dirty with policy, rather than farming out tasks to consultants and advisers.

No shrinking violet

“She has a huge thirst to learn about issues,” said Bud Baker, chairman and chief executive officer of Wachovia bank and a member of the national Red Cross board. “She wants to know everything she can on a subject until it is exhausted. When I was fund raising, anytime a suggestion was made that we could do things a little better, she was the first to say, `Let’s do it.’ ”

Lynn Martin, who succeeded Dole as labor secretary under Bush, said Dole left the department in formidable shape, from organization to quality of staff.

“A lot of people might want to go into a situation like I did and say, `I can shake this up. I can do this better,’ ” Martin said. “Believe me, it wasn’t necessary in my case. It was obvious she expected the highest level of integrity at Labor, and all I hoped to do was meet that at a minimum.”

But as good as Dole is at identifying capable staff members, she is far from being a figurehead, said Baker, whom Dole tapped to head disaster-relief funding in the Southeast three years ago.

“This is no shrinking violet,” he said. “This is not someone who appoints people and sits back and lets others do the work. She gets her hands dirty. She pitches in, and, frankly, she does more than her share.”

Resolving crisis

Steven Bredehoeft, a Duke University Medical School professor and another member of the Red Cross board, said that fact nowhere was more evident than during the crisis Dole met when she went to the Red Cross.

The organization may be best known for its disaster-relief efforts, but blood is its main business. It oversees half the nation’s supply, with community blood banks taking care of the rest.

During the beginning of Dole’s tenure, blood supplies were at dangerously low levels in some areas, and the organization itself faced serious financial trouble.

Many of the money problems stemmed from requirements set forth by a 1993 consent decree for strict monitoring of Red Cross blood services following safety violations and shipments of blood contaminated with hepatitis B and the AIDS virus.

Dole sought to regain congressional and U.S. Food and Drug Administration confidence by downsizing the Red Cross and overhauling — “transforming,” as the official slogan went — the methods used to collect blood, Bredehoeft said.

She sliced 1,000 jobs from blood services, then moved to tighten control over regional offices. In an effort to increase revenue by winning a bigger share of the market, the Red Cross started knocking on doors of donors that community blood banks — those not affiliated with the Red Cross — relied upon. The Red Cross then sold the blood to cash-strapped hospitals at much lower prices.

Dole’s role in the blood crisis proved, Bredehoeft said, that “there are transitional leaders, who simply act as custodians of an organization, and then there are transformational leaders, who help move an organization in a new direction. Elizabeth Dole’s work with the Red Cross has been transformational.”

Not everyone pleased

Not everyone was happy with that transformation, least of all some local Red Cross officials who thought the charitable organization was looking more and more like a corporation, buying and selling blood as a commodity.

One of them was Don Thomson, who ran the Red Cross operation in Springfield, Mo. In 1996, the national office asked him to begin collecting more blood for sale outside the region and to raise its prices to local hospitals.

Thomson said his operation already had met its quota for the area and then some, sending whatever blood surplus it had to areas lacking a strong stock. He was dumbfounded by the request, fearing it would ruin his office’s reputation for providing low-cost blood.

“According to the national office, we were one of the best blood centers in the Red Cross,” Thomson said. “We had the lowest fees in the nation and we met all of our costs. What they basically told us was that our community had to bleed more and pay more because of a failure of other blood banks across the country to meet their standards and because of a heavy overhead from the national headquarters.

“It was an act of desperation,” he said. “And it wasn’t fair.”

So he quit. And 99 of the 120 Red Cross employees in Springfield joined him, creating a rival bank, the Community Blood Bank of the Ozarks.

But Bredehoeft defended Dole’s innovations. Pleasing everyone during a time of drastic change is almost impossible, he said.

“She’s very forward-thinking,” he said, “and some people might think that’s a bit risky. But any time you want to shake things up, you have to take a risk.”

Gift of diplomacy

Managing precarious situations is nothing new to Dole, said John Heubeusch, her chief of staff at the Labor Department who later followed her to the Red Cross as a vice president.

From her role in bringing an end to the Pittston Coal strike in 1990 to helping the Democratic Congress and President Bush find middle ground on the minimum wage, Dole has shown she is “thorough and unrelenting in her desire to broker compromises among different groups,” Heubeusch said. That, he said, would come in handy as leader of the United States.

Many observers say Dole’s Southern charm and graceful appearance — she long ago earned the nickname “Sugar Lips” for her ability to diplomatically deal with difficult situations — have helped her bring combative sides together and foster Red Cross fund raising. Some say they also could help in a presidential race.

“I hesitate to engage in stereotyping,” said Bredehoeft of Duke’s Medical School. “But what she does portray is a degree of civility and friendliness that people warm to. Whether those are uniquely Southern qualities could be debated. But in the aftermath of the past year, many Americans have been left looking for leadership in which they can place their trust and full confidence without danger of that trust being violated.”

Bob Ingram, chief executive officer of Glaxo Wellcome in Research Triangle Park, worked closely with Dole when she asked him to help with Red Cross hurricane disaster-relief efforts. Ingram said she isn’t one to assign a task and disappear, but keeps track of progress with countless phone calls and lets workers know she’s interested in the nuts and bolts.

“What she has is a gift for communication,” he said. “People are at ease interacting with her. And she conveys very quickly her priorities and what she has identified as people’s needs.”

Martin, Dole’s successor at Labor, added: “It’s the same way people always say Midwesterners are friendly and down-to-earth. And if Southern charm is a quality that can bring people in this country together, then I don’t see that as a negative.”

Image vs. substance

But Thomson wondered if Dole’s charm is more image than substance. And he indicated he was not alone in that assessment.

“She has a problem with communication, if you ask me,” he said. “I certainly was not called upon to share with her any of my views. What I found was that she relies on a small circle of advisers and doesn’t let many other people in. Many, many things were done for calculated exposure, to generate later support. I found her to be very self-promoting.”

Thomson said it’s not surprising that reporters covering Dole in her early jaunts to primary states have not had the chance to question her much about policy issues.

At one large gathering of blood-service officials, Dole made an impressive presentation before rushing off to another appointment — leaving Karen Lipton, then vice president for biomedical services, to field comments.

“Lipton is the leader,” Thomson said. “She took all the grief [on the transformation]. She tried to hold the organization together, but in the end she left.”

Lipton, now head of the American Association of Blood Banks in Washington, refused to comment on Dole for this article.

“I run an organization that helps set standards for blood banks, and I don’t want to get involved,” she said.

Supporters say Dole’s Red Cross critics don’t give her credit for the skills she brought in turning the organization around.

“She’s just got good manners, and it’s always good to have good manners — I don’t care where you’re from,” said Wachovia’s Baker. “This is a good executive.”

A good woman executive — that is the reason some give for Dole’s popularity.

The “woman” factor

With the aftertaste of impeachment still lingering for many Americans, ABC commentator Cokie Roberts recently remarked on the air, “Her campaign slogan could be, `I won’t embarrass you in front of your children.’ ”

Women feel tremendous pressure to be role models, and it’s a good time to be a woman running for office, said Martin — who herself once flirted with the idea of running for higher office.

“Women make different decisions about privacy than men,” she said. “It’s not only a question of whether you smoked marijuana. If your brother smoked marijuana, you won’t run. Women are very protective.”

Even if Dole has been an appointed politician rather than an elected one — and mum on the issues so far — the public’s fascination with her reflects its need for a moral cleansing, said Marie Wilson of the White House Project, a group that promotes women candidates for the Oval Office. Dole was one of five top vote-getters on a mock ballot of 20 women sent out by the project and featured last month in Parade magazine.

“The country is really interested in difference,” Wilson said.

The hot issues right now — Social Security, education and welfare reform — traditionally are considered issues women have the greatest stake in, she said.

“They’re not as interested in credentials,” Wilson said. “We shouldn’t be surprised by women being on a ballot who haven’t held office.”

Others say Dole’s candidacy goes deeper than mere novelty.

Heubeusch, Dole’s former Labor Department chief of staff and now vice president of Gateway in Washington, said the 62-year-old Dole has spent most of her life in politics and has more than proved she is ready to occupy the Oval Office.

“Go back and look at her career through the days she served at the White House on what became the Consumer Product Safety Commission to now,” he said. “It includes a broad swatch of different policy jobs where she has been able to navigate a lot of conflicts and come up with a public policy that works. And I think that’s what she’d do as president.”

Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC) Date: March 14, 1999 Page: A1 Copyright, 1999, The Durham Herald Company