The 1988 Presidential campaign keeps crossing my path lately. I finished reading “What it Takes” by Richard Ben Cramer, reviewed below, that was a terrific book about that campaign, looked at through the eyes of several of the candidates. NBC-Learn has just put out a great video that gives a view from Michael Dukakis himself. The Duke talks about several things that were central to the campaign, including the Dukakis campaign release to the media of the plagiarism charge against then Senator Biden (done through John Sasso, who lost his job with Dukakis over it), the return of Sasso during the general election campaign against George H.W. Bush, the Dukakis in the tank episode (which was omitted from the Cramer book), the Willie Horton furlough issue, and Dukakis talking about his debate response to the “rape of Kitty Dukakis” question. In todays busy world it is difficult to find the time to watch a 37 minute video but if you like politics this one is worth the watch.
One of the things that is crystal clear is that Michael Dukakis steps up repeatedly and points the finger of blame at himself for this loss. Throughout the film he identifies himself as the player making key decisions that he admits in retrospect were incorrect. He allows himself one small indulgence, when talking about the return of John Sasso to the campaign, which he said was “floundering” and needed Sasso’s expertise. But in the end Sasso “didn’t win the campaign for me”, which might be the only time the Duke expresses some doubt about the campaign team he assembled. Dukakis realizes that his determination to run a “clean” campaign, which had proved to be a successful formula in the primaries (with the Biden exception)just did not serve him well against the H.W. Bush onslaught of negativity.
The media masterminds for Bush were Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater, and they hit Dukakis with everything but the kitchen sink. The Duke does not express regret over the tank episode itself, pointing out that Bush had been photographed riding in a tank as well. But in the hands of Ailes and Atwater the image of Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank while George H.W. Bush is saying that “Dukakis has opposed every new weapons system since the slingshot” made Dukakis the object of ridicule. Dukakis acknowledges the impact of the ads, candidly admitting that he and his team were not prepared with the proper responses.
The one huge takeaway from this campaign was the impact of the Willie Horton ads, which Ailes and Atwater rolled out to tremendous effect. Dukakis accepts responsibility for the campaign non-response: “Shame on me for not effectively dealing with it. And I didn’t.” So much ugliness in that ad campaign by the Bush team, with the documentary showing Bryant Gumbel asking George H.W. Bush “Can you deny that the Willie Horton ad tapped a rather rich vein of American racism?”, and Bush denying any such thing. The Duke ruminates over some responses that might have been given, including comparisons of the Houston and Boston homicide rates, and the fact that the federal government (run by Reagan-Bush) actually had a prison furlough system. The Bush onslaught on this issue is detailed, showing some of the over the top campaign literature that was deployed by the GOP (“Dukakis to Rapist: ‘Have a Nice Weekend'”)
The early GOP attacks even tried to exploit rumors of Dukakis being in bad health, with President Reagan, at a press conference responding to a question on the release of medical records, saying “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid,” in reference to Dukakis. In response Dukakis challenged the press corps to a power walking exercise jaunt in Denver, which is highlighted. The Duke was in great shape.
The Dukakis failure to respond was borne out of an admittedly stubborn personality, and a self evaluation as a “different” type of politician.That self image, and his core conviction that people were looking for effective, competent government and not mudslinging, brought him the nomination, but failed him in the end. It also taught Bill Clinton an important lesson for 1992: rapid response to attacks must be made. The Clinton rapid response team (the war room) was a key component in his victory over George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Finally I think that Governor Dukakis is a thoughtful and exceedingly brilliant individual who should have had a larger role to play in national politics after his loss. I do believe he is a little bit too tough on himself relative to the campaign, but that points to his core decency. The Duke ran a clean shop, as Governor and as a candidate. I believe that served the public well, but it didn’t always help him. (See Duke I).