Michael Dukakis: The Photo Op That Tanked

QA with Michael Dukakis

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Michael Dukakis in an M1 Abrams tank.

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Twenty years after his loss to George H. W. Bush, Michael Dukakis is perhaps his own toughest critic. In 1988, then Governor Dukakis used the "Massachusetts Miracle"—the transformation of his state into an economic engine—to spellbind Democrats in the primaries. But the magic didn't work in the general election; he won only 10 states and the District of Columbia. The photo of Dukakis with a dopey grin and a huge helmet aboard a tank was turned into an ad ridiculing him as soft on defense. And the story of Willie Horton, a Massachusetts prisoner who killed a woman while on furlough, was used as a racially charged accusation that Dukakis was no crime fighter. Today, the 74-year-old professor of public policy at Boston's Northeastern University and the University of California-Los Angeles is still actively involved in expanding the party's base. Recently, he spoke to U.S. News about his campaign. Excerpts:

How would you describe your legacy?
If I had beaten the old man, we'd never heard of the kid, and we'd be in a lot better shape these days. So it's all my fault.

So, you consider the presidency of George W. Bush your doing?
We'd never be in this mess if I had done a better job. This has been the worst national administration I've ever lived under.

What went wrong with your 1988 campaign?
We ran a great primary. We did a lousy job in the final. I made a deliberate decision not to respond to the Bush attack campaign, and it was just a terrible mistake. You just cannot let the other guy beat you up and remain silent. In retrospect, it was a dumb decision. By the time I woke up to what was happening, it was awfully tough to get back.

Because of your experience in 1988, you've also become a booster of Democratic Chair Howard Dean's goal of building the party machine in all 50 states.
Democrats have forgotten how to campaign at the precinct level in national elections. I was a product of precinct-based grass-roots campaigning. We did a pretty good job of that in the primaries, and then the folks who were supposed to know something about the final campaign said, "Well, you don't do that in the national election; it's all money and media." Well, it's not all money and media. Again, for reasons I can't explain to you in retrospect, we just kind of stopped doing that in the finals. It didn't make any sense.

Of all the attacks lobbed at you, what hurt your candidacy the most?
I'm the last guy to tell you that. Certainly the Willie Horton and soft-on-crime stuff. And since the attacks were coming from a guy whose home city, Houston, had a homicide rate four times the homicide rate of Boston, it was inexcusable that I let him get away with this. But I did.

What were you thinking at the time?
There had been a whole lot of polarization in the Reagan years. I thought people were sick of that. But the lesson of '88 is you can't sit there mute while the other guy is pounding you with stuff that's sheer hypocrisy. Bush was part of an administration that had a furlough program that made ours look like the toughest program in America.

What ran through your mind when you saw the Horton ad?
You don't have a lot of time to sit and look at a television. And, a point of fact is that after working 16-hour campaign days, it's the last thing you want to do.

Some analysts believe the image of you in the tank did you in.
That didn't beat me. If we had run a decent national campaign, that wouldn't have had any effect.

Bush used that image in an ad describing you as soft on defense. The irony is that you supported a buildup in conventional weapons like tanks.
I was at the tank factory to make that point, obviously. Now, should I have been in the tank? Probably not, in retrospect. But these days when people ask me, "Did you get here in a tank?" I always respond by saying, "No, and I've never thrown up all over the Japanese prime minister." But, you know, things happen.