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The Red Cross: A Question of Competence | The Nation

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The Red Cross: A Question of Competence

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The Gulf Coast hurricanes have raised new questions about the integrity and competence of the American Red Cross to respond to national emergencies. In this July 1996 report from The Nation archive (originally headlined "Blood on the Campaign Trail"), Linda Heller raised early alarms.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. The article was coordinated by Robert Parry, director of the fund's investigative team.

About the Author

Linda Heller
Linda Heller's writing on medicine and health has appeared in many national magazines.

In the spring of 1995 the American Red Cross launched a new advertising campaign for its national blood drive. The campaign included at its center a television public service announcement that depicted an American flag billowing in the wind. As a voice off-camera issued a dire warning--"When the blood runs out, so does life"--the red stripes began to fade from the flag until only the stars remained.

You're not likely to see this particular announcement or the posters that went with it, however. After thousands of dollars had been spent, the ad campaign was quietly discontinued because the president of the American Red Cross, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, ruled that it was too controversial. Several weeks after the aborted campaign, her husband, Bob Dole, then the front-runner for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, announced his support of a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the American flag.

Alone, yanking the flag ad might be viewed as a minor case of Bob Dole's presidential politics influencing a small decision at Elizabeth Dole's Red Cross. But a three-month investigation by The Nation has discovered that the flag incident was just one example of a troubling pattern: A series of political conflicts has steadily affected Red Cross decision-making in vital public health areas, such as protecting the nation's blood supply from disease and training young Americans in how to protect themselves from AIDS.

The Nation investigation found that shortly after her appointment to head the $1.7-billion-a-year charity, Mrs. Dole assembled a special team of longtime political advisers. Their job was to vet important Red Cross actions, both managerial and scientific, with a political sensitivity to what might help or hurt Bob Dole's presidential ambitions.

When her husband was scrambling for the backing of the Christian Coalition prior to the Republican primaries, Mrs. Dole ordered her allies to rewrite an AIDS prevention manual to cater to Christian right orthodoxies about homosexuality, premarital sex and condom use. Also shoring up Bob Dole's standing with the Christian right, Elizabeth Dole took to the hustings while in office at the Red Cross to give frequent speeches about her born-again Christian commitment.

Back at Red Cross headquarters in Washington, Mrs. Dole recommended at-large seats on the Red Cross's prestigious board of governors to Senator Dole's political contributors and longtime backers, including Inez Andreas, the wife of wealthy agribusiness executive and Dole superbooster Dwayne Andreas.

Mrs. Dole's special team interfered in day-to-day Red Cross decisions, frustrating the charity's professional staff and contributing to an exodus of many senior technicians, volunteers and other crucial personnel. Under this politicized leadership, the Red Cross's much-touted "transformation" program to assure a safer blood supply has fallen short of its goals and behind schedule.

The Red Cross has been in a running battle with the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with overseeing it, over the charity's handling of the nation's blood supply. To force corrective action, the F.D.A. has imposed a legally binding consent decree setting a strict timetable for ending sloppy practices. On the stump, Bob Dole has vowed to fire F.D.A. Commissioner David Kessler--and has been joined by Mrs. Dole at campaign rallies that bashed the F.D.A. as too powerful and overreaching. Simultaneously, in Congress, Dole has sponsored and pushed Republican legislation to clip the agency's wings. One of the G.O.P. bills targets the F.D.A.'s ability to regulate the blood supply.

Though currently on a leave of absence to work on her husband's campaign, Elizabeth Dole's intent to return to the Red Cross helm--even if he wins the presidency--presents another potential conflict of interest: U.S. President Dole could be in a position to sign into law Republican legislation that would let Red Cross president Dole off the hook.

The Image

In February 1991, when the Red Cross board of governors persuaded Elizabeth Dole to head the nation's largest and arguably most cherished charity, they considered her a savior. The American Red Cross was in possibly the worst crisis of its 110-year history. Founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, the organization gathers and distributes about 45 percent of the 13 million units of blood collected annually in the United States, and it assists victims of 68,000 disasters a year [see Matthew Howard's review, page 32]. But in 1989-90, the Red Cross had been taking a beating in the press over the way it had performed during the California earthquake and Hurricane Hugo. It had been the subject of a scathing Congressional hearing that called into question the safety of its blood supply, and it was grappling with falling blood donations, rising blood-testing costs and increased F.D.A. regulation. Health professionals were also turning to the Red Cross to train America's youth in safe-sex practices.

Facing these challenges, the board of governors, a fifty-member voluntary body comprising prominent business and civic leaders, ordered a change at the top. After the charity's president resigned, it had been looking for a new leader for eighteen months when an executive recruiter, E. Pendelton James, who previously had served as Ronald Reagan's personnel director, suggested his old friend Liddy Dole.

Elizabeth Hanford Dole is the only woman in U.S. history to have held two separate Cabinet posts in different administrations: Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Labor under George Bush. She has served as a Federal Trade Commissioner and as a consumer advocate, and she has been mentioned more than once in the past as a potential vice-presidential candidate. Gallup polls in both 1987 and 1990 listed her as one of the world's ten most admired women, along with Corazon Aquino and Mother Teresa.

"Elizabeth really dazzled us," recalls Marian Anderson, a longtime volunteer from Omaha who was head of the presidential search committee. "She's purposeful and articulate, and she also has that extra dimension that you don't often see--a real sense of humanity." According to Anderson, whose husband is the retired publisher of the Omaha World-Herald , "Coca-Cola and the Red Cross are the two most recognizable symbols in the world, and we felt strongly that Elizabeth would be a fitting spokesperson for us."

By all accounts, when Mrs. Dole became Red Cross president, she threw herself into the task with real fervor. She hired an impressive group of experts from the pharmaceutical industry, the blood-banking business, the military and the government to help straighten out the organization's problems. At the top of the list, Dole persuaded Fred Kyle, the former head of the worldwide pharmaceutical division of SmithKline Beecham, to come to the Red Cross at a substantial cut in pay to become the new senior vice president of biomedical services--the top officer for that troubled division. She also brought over John William Thomas, former chief fundraiser at the New England Medical Center, who became the Red Cross's new senior vice president for development; and Sharon Ritter Smith, former director of the charity's highly successful Oregon Trail chapter in Portland, who became the senior vice president of chapter services--the division responsible for disaster relief, health and safety programs and other social services performed by the more than 1,600 Red Cross chapters.

Dole also reshaped the board of governors with an impressive roster of names from the public sector and the corporate world. This was an important step because the board is responsible for approving all policy decisions as well as all salaries greater than $50,000. Dole brought in a new chairman of the Red Cross, Norman Augustine, the C.E.O. of giant defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and a new chairman of the board of governors' finance committee, retired Air Force Gen. William Usher, also an executive with Lockheed Martin. She handpicked the at-large members on the board and recommended other members whom the chapters subsequently elected. (The Red Cross board also includes eight members appointed by the President of the United States.)

On the surface, her Red Cross tenure couldn't look rosier. When she took her leave last year, Mrs. Dole said, "I have a continuing concern for at-risk youth and I believe, both as First Lady and president of the Red Cross, I could help the country rekindle its spirit of volunteerism and philanthropic giving."

In a farewell press release, and subsequently in the media, she was given credit for luring top talent to the charity from the private sector, strengthening the Red Cross board, launching a radical "transformation" program that cleaned up the country's blood supply and generally running a tight, nonpolitical ship, which included working out a modus vivendi with the F.D.A. The New York Times's Douglas Frantz recently credited Dole with reinvigorating the Red Cross and said that she "refurbished its coffers with millions of dollars from corporate donors" and "centralized control in Washington." Frantz referred to the "marketing arm" she created, and said she "adopted other tactics more often associated with business than with charity."

In fact, a look at documents from the Red Cross and the F.D.A., along with scores of interviews with former and current Red Cross staff members and volunteers, uncovers a story far more troubling and significantly less sanguine than the publicity Dole generated through these moves.

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