The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
60. The Dirtiest Campaign

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Michael Dukakis at the Democratic national convention, Atlanta, July 1988

After eight years in the White House, President Ronald Reagan was ready to retire from public life and head home to his California ranch, Rancho del Cielo. His heir apparent to carry on the Reagan Revolution was Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush. Son of Connecticut's Senator Prescott Bush, the Vice President was a World War II aviator, U.S. congressman from Texas, CIA director, and ambassador to the United Nations. Reagan had redefined the Republican Party; the GOP was considerably more conservative than it had been a decade ago, and for many staunch conservatives Bush was suspect. It was Bush, after all, who had called Reagan's economic proposals "voodoo economics" in 1980, when both had been vying for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush was perceived by some doubters to be a member of the Eastern Establishment and "Rockefeller" branch of the party. For that reason, Bush faced several strong challenges for the nomination in 1988, from the likes of Bob Dole, Jack Kemp and even CBN founder Pat Robertson, all of whom claimed to be true conservatives who wore the Reagan mantle more authentically than did the Vice President. For this reason, Bush had to pursue a two-pronged strategy; he had to reassure the conservatives and at the same time reach out for the independent voters and the so-called Reagan Democrats, most of whom were moderates. To this end, Bush made the pledge: "Read my lips, no new taxes" the cornerstone of his campaign. Conservatives feared that the next president might be prevailed upon to hike taxes to counter the budget deficit, something Reagan had warned would halt the economic expansion over which he had presided since 1983. And once he'd won the GOP nomination, Bush chose the young Indiana senator Dan Quayle as his running mate, a choice pleasing to many conservatives. Bush also promised a "kinder, gentler nation," a promise meant to assure moderates that he would not pursue a Reaganesque agenda at the expense of the poor and minorities. He portrayed himself as a pragmatist, not an ideologue.
Reagan had redefined the Democratic Party, too -- a party that was divided, that lacked a coherent ideology or clear direction. Numerous Democratic leaders teed up to compete for the nomination, and each represented a faction of the party. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri presented himself as an impassioned populist, and won in Iowa. The old-fashioned, New Deal liberals in the party hinged their hopes on Illinois Senator Paul Simon. Jesse Jackson said he spoke for the blacks, while Colorado's Sen. Gary Hart represented the neo-liberal wing, those who considered themselves progressive on social issues but fiscally conservative. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, unwilling to pigeon-hole himself, argued that the election wasn't about ideology but rather competence, and he claimed to have demonstrated the requisite competence by engineering what was called the "Massachusetts miracle," turning around that state's economy in a few short years. Some, however, questioned the governor's ethics; his campaign had released "attack" videos that forced Delaware's Sen. Joe Biden from the race. Campaign vice chairman John Sasso fell on his sword for Dukakis after that flap, resigning from his post.
It seemed early on that Bush was going to have a real fight on his hands. He was upset in the Iowa caucuses by Bob Dole, the veteran senator from neighboring Kansas, who benefited from an anti-Reagan populist backlash. It was a victory that allowed Dole to overcome a 20-point deficit in the New Hampshire primary polls. Bush eked out a win in New Hampshire by a 37-28% margin. New York Representative Jack Kemp finished third (13%) and Pat Robertson fourth (9%). Bush felt confident going into Super Tuesday (March 8), when Texas, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia held their primaries, since polls showed he was much stronger than Dole in the pro-Reagan South. His chief worry was the Virginian televangelist, Robertson, who had never held elective office but was expected to enjoy a strong showing south of the Mason-Dixon line, stealing away the votes of social conservatives, the foot soldiers in the so-called "culture wars."
Dukakis handily won New Hampshire's Democratic primary. But his aides were concerned about his persona. Few would question his intelligence and personal integrity, but even close friends admitted that "Duke" was impassive, undemonstrative and impersonal. Dukakis tried to mask personality behind the image of a dedicated technocrat who could do for the country what he'd done for Massachusetts, and there he was on solid footing. But on foreign policy matters he seemed to stand on shaky ground. He based his opposition to even humanitarian aid to the Nicaraguan contras on his understanding of international law without regard for American interests;  he opposed strategic weapons systems and questioned the U.S. military presence in Korea, dovish positions that did not play well in the South.
Even at this early stage the media was remarking on the high level of political mudslinging. "What is unprecedented this year," said U.S. News & World Report, "is that, in the absence of a great issue or dominating personality defining either race, several candidates have structured their campaigns around assaulting their opponents -- especially with negative commercials." Cynicism among voters made negative ads effective; people were all too willing to believe bad things about politicians. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman pointed to studies that showed people processed negative information more readily than positive. In New Hampshire, Dole cried foul when Bush campaign ads accused him of "straddling" the issue of a tax hike and favoring an oil-import fee that would raise home heating costs. In a live television meeting of the two candidates on NBC News, Dole crankily ordered Bush to stop lying about his record. The Dole campaign the proceeded to retaliate with negative ads of their own, painting Bush as an empty suit dedicated to no cause other than his own political future.
Super Tuesday sealed the GOP nomination for Bush, who benefited from a superb organization and widespread -- though not passionate -- support. Winning in 16 contests gave Bush over 700 delegates versus 165 for Dole, with 1,139 needed for a majority. "I'm now convinced I will be the President of the United States," an elated Bush told supporters in Houston. On the Democratic side, Jesse Jackson won more votes than any of his adversaries; few really expected the black civil rights leader to win the nomination, but his showing on March 8 virtually guaranteed that the interests of his constituency would have to be addressed by the eventual nominee. The latter was looking more and more like Dukakis, who wisely focused his campaigning efforts in Texas and Florida and avoided a disastrous showing in the South. Polls showed that among the Democratic candidates he posted the strongest numbers against Bush. The quest for the Democratic nomination became a three-way race between Jackson, Dukakis and Tennessee's Al Gore. During the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday, the Dukakis and Gore camps invested in negative ads branding Gephardt a pseudo-populist and effectively eliminated the Missouri congressman from the race. The writing was on the wall for when the United Auto Workers leadership abandoned him, a candidate who had to have the blue collar vote to win. Meanwhile, Gore tried to paint Dukakis as a candidate who was too liberal to win a nationwide election.
By the time summer had rolled along, the lines were clearly drawn -- it would be Bush versus Dukakis. Dole had hung up his guns, and Gore had failed to convince enough voters that he was a "New" Democrat positioned a little right of center, where the nation as a whole seemed to be. Rumors began circulating that Dukakis had had mental health problems, that he had sought counseling. President Reagan rashly referred to him as an "invalid." Without issues to discuss, rumor and innuendo had become the currency of the 1988 campaign. "Forget statesmanlike," complained Newsweek. "This election is going to be a dogfight." At July's Democratic national convention in Atlanta, keynote speaker and Texas governor Ann Richards snidely sighed, "Poor George. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Continuing this "Bush-whacking," Sen. Ted Kennedy wanted to know "Where was George?" when the Reagan administration scandals like Iran-Contra were underway. The cool and cerebral Dukakis had to hold his liberal base in line while appealing to the Reagan Democrats without whom he could not win; for that reason he gave an uncharacteristically impassioned acceptance speech that invoked the value of family and community and discussed the American Dream in terms of his Greek immigrant father. He promised a strong military and a tough-on-crime administration in his attempt to cater to what one of his aides called "the emerging middle-class agenda." He picked conservative Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen for his running mate. Meanwhile, to keep liberal Dems happy, he talked about universal health care and promised to make Jesse Jackson an integral part of his campaign. It was a difficult balancing act.
Bush made his own uncharacteristically stirring speech at the Republican convention in New Orleans, but his choice of Indiana Senator Dan Quayle for running mate left many Republican voters and politicians "underwhelmed," as Illinois. Rep. Henry Hyde put it. Quayle was widely perceived as an undistinguished lightweight, and the choice cast suspicions on Bush's judgment. (The conventional wisdom was that he thought Quayle would improve his chances among women and the younger generation.) Quayle's youth and relative inexperience, plus questions regarding whether his National Guard duty had been "arranged" to keep him out of Vietnam, made him a perfect target for Democratic hatchet men.
With the fall campaign in full swing, both candidates came out slugging. Dukakis brought the Boston political fighter John Sasso back into the fold to counter the Bush attacks orchestrated by political veterans James Baker and Lee Atwater -- such as the one that sought to bring the governor's patriotism into question because he refused to fine teachers who would not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Bush's handlers figured that their man's negative ratings were sufficiently high that it was incumbent upon them to  raise his opponent's negatives higher still. Republican Senator Steve Symms had to retract his allegation that the governor's wife, Kitty, had participated in an American flag burning during a Sixties anti-war protest. In a broader vein, Senator Orrin Hatch called the Democrats the "party of homosexuals." In a misguided attempt to acquire a more hawkish, if not macho, image, Dukakis donned a Snoopy-style helmet and rode around in an open tank during a photo op -- an effort that backfired when the governor came off looking like a duck out of water.
There were two debates between the presidential contenders. The first, at the small North Carolina college of Wake Forest in late September, gave Bush an opportunity to paint Dukakis as a big-spending liberal. But an unusually feisty Dukakis scored more points by challenging an evasive Bush for questioning his patriotism. "My parents came to this country as immigrants. They taught me that this was the greatest country in the world. I believe in it, and nobody's going to question my patriotism." Bush attacked Dukakis for advocating a nuclear freeze and opposing the MX missile. "When we are negotiating with the Soviet Union," said Bush, "I'm not going to give away a couple of aces." But Dukakis was the winner in the battle of one-liners. "If Bush keeps it up," said the governor, "he's going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics" -- a reference to a popular TV car ad spokesman who never told the truth.
The debate opened a final round of mudslinging during the closing weeks of the race that turned off many voters and prompted former President Richard Nixon, no slouch when it came to attack politics, to call the 1988 contest "trivial, superficial and inane." When rumors circulated that the Washington Post was going to break a story that Bush had a mistress, a Dukakis aide urged the vice-president to "fess up." Bush aggressively pursued a story that a convicted murderer, Willie Horton, had tortured a man and raped his fiancee while participating in a Dukakis furlough program in Massachusetts. "By the time this election is over," gloated Lee Atwater, "Willie Horton will be a household name." (This story was originally floated by the Gore campaign.) The Republican Party in Illinois distributed leaflets claiming that murderers, rapists, drug addicts and child molesters supported Dukakis. A whopping 64% of those polled by Newsweek in late October said they thought the campaign was more negative than any in recent history. But the perception that Dukakis might be soft on crime prompted the moderator of the second presidential debate, CNN's Bernard Shaw, to open by positing a shocking question regarding how Dukakis would respond to the rape and murder of his own wife. A physically ill Dukakis never fully recovered his poise, and lost the all-important second debate.
In the end, the pundits decided that in the battle of the sound-bites and airwaves the Dukakis team was disorganized, if not downright amateurish. While the Bush ad campaign effectively attacked the Dukakis record on the environment with images of a polluted Boston harbor, and on crime with pictures of dangerous-looking convicts going through a revolving door, the Democratic response was usually belated and confusing. The most controversial ad used a team of actors to portray Bush's "packagers" in an effort to show him as the puppet of his cynical political operatives, but many viewers were unclear whether the ads were pro- or anti-Bush. A week before the November 8 election, poll numbers told the story: by a 60-24% margin, voters thought Bush could deal with the Soviet Union better than Dukakis, and 49% thought Bush would be stronger on crime, as opposed to 32% for Dukakis. With respect to the economy, 55% of voters trusted Bush to keep it strong, while only 33% had faith in Dukakis. Dukakis had the edge in helping the homeless and protecting the environment. On Election Day, Bush won 426 electoral votes to his opponent's 111, (41 states to 9) with 48,881,011 popular votes (54%) to 41,828,350 for Dukakis. In a closing shot that seemed quite fitting, considering the tone of the 1988 race, Time Magazine posed the rhetorical question: If Michael Dukakis was such a competent manager, why was his campaign so poorly managed?

The Biggest Knockout Punch of All
During the debate between the vive-presidential candidates, held 5 October 1988, the Democrat, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, delivered one of the most memorable put-downs in American political history, following a remark by the Republican, Dan Quayle, regarding the issue of his relative inexperience in government, in response to a question by NBC's Tom Brokaw. The debate moderator was CNN's Judy Woodruff....
BROKAW: If you cite the experience that you had in Congress, surely you must have some plan in mind about what you would do if it fell to you to become President of the United States, as it has to so many Vice Presidents just in the last 25 years or so.
QUAYLE: Three times that I've had this question - and I will try to answer it again for you, as clearly as I can, because the question you are asking is what kind of qualifications does Dan Quayle have to be president, what kind of qualifications do I have and what would I do in this kind of a situation....It is not just age; it's accomplishments, it's experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.
WOODRUFF: Senator Bentsen.
BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause) What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the -
WOODRUFF (tot he audience): Please, please, once again you are only taking time away from your own candidate.
QUAYLE: That was really uncalled for, Senator.
BENTSEN: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator.


Newsweek, 1 August 1988, 12 September 1988, 31 October 1988
Time, 29 February 1988, 21 Match 1988, 3 October 1988, 7 November 1988, 14 November 1988, 21 November 1988
U.S. News & World Report, 29 February 1988, 15 August 1988, 29 August 1988, 5 September 1988, 26 September 1988, 3 October 1988
Election Journal: Political Events of 1987-1988
Elizabeth Drew (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1989)
The Elections of 1988
Michael Nelson, ed., (Wash., DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1989)
The Elections of 1988: Reports and Interpretations
Gerald M. Pomper, ed., (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1989)
Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War
Sidney Blumenthal (New York: HarperCollins, 1990)