Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, grim-faced and embarrassed, acknowledged Wednesday that his presidential campaign manager, John Sasso, was the source of an “attack video” that triggered the series of events forcing Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to quit the race for the 1988 Democratic nomination.
“Although I had no knowledge of this as a candidate in this campaign, I accept full responsibility for it. I’m running for the presidency, not against anybody,” Dukakis said at a press conference in Boston.
Sasso and Tully Resign
Sasso, who had served Dukakis for seven years as the governor’s chief of staff and in other roles before taking charge of his presidential campaign, resigned later in the day. So did Dukakis’ national political director, Paul Tully, who previously had denied any connection between the Dukakis campaign and the damaging tape.
Dukakis’ disclosure, all the more awkward because the Massachusetts governor had expressed disbelief just two days earlier that anyone in his organization could have played such a role, was a potentially serious setback for a candidate who has moved to the forefront of the Democratic field.
Not only must Dukakis find replacements for the two top officials of his campaign, he must also deal with the distracting questions now certain to be raised about his control over the organization he heads and even about his judgment.
The incident is the latest in a series of untoward events that have bedeviled Democratic candidates since erstwhile front-runner Gary Hart withdrew last May because of publicity over a weekend rendezvous with model-actress Donna Rice. All three episodes, involving first Hart, then Biden and now Dukakis, illustrate the intensive scrutiny being given in the current presidential campaign to the personality traits and behavior of the candidates.
Democratic professionals were quick to distinguish Dukakis’ problem, which stemmed from the behavior of an aide, from the incidents in which candidates Hart and Biden themselves were directly involved. Nevertheless, independent analysts pointed out that Dukakis’ choice of close aides is one measure of judgment.
Dukakis is “going to have to come forward and explain the events that led to this revelation,” said Iowa State Democratic Chairman Bonnie Campbell. While declining to assess the damage directly, she said: “No one’s going to be happy about it.”
“I think it’s serious,” said Joseph Grandmaison, New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman and manager of Dukakis’ first successful campaign for governor in 1974. “Is it the end of the world politically? No. But it is a great embarrassment.”
The so-called “attack video,” which Sasso provided to selected news reporters on condition that his role not be disclosed, contained segments of speeches by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock and Biden, juxtaposed to highlight the fact that the Delaware senator was adopting not only Kinnock’s rhetoric but his dramatic account of the struggles of his coal-miner forebears.
Touched Off Controversy
Stories based on the tape touched off a controversy over plagiarism, which was followed by disclosures that Biden had plagiarized a law school paper during his student days and recently misrepresented his academic record--disclosures that forced the senator to end his presidential campaign.
Dukakis said that--after learning the truth from Sasso--he apologized to Biden by telephone. “I want to publicly apologize to him, his family and his friends for what happened and for the involvement of my campaign,” the governor said.
“I regret very, very much that my campaign or anyone in it contributed to that pain,” Dukakis added.
Only two days ago, the governor, asked at a Boston press conference about a report in Time magazine that someone on his staff had been the source of the tape, said: “We have no knowledge of it. We don’t believe it happened. We would be astonished if somebody--whether a volunteer or otherwise--did it.”
1982 Tape Incident
This was not the first time Sasso had caused embarrassment for Dukakis. In Dukakis’ successful 1982 campaign for governor, Sasso received an unsolicited audio tape with sexual overtones that lampooned Dukakis’ Democratic primary opponent, incumbent Gov. Ed King.
When Sasso played the tape for the private amusement of Boston Globe reporters, word leaked out and Dukakis was forced to apologize.
The 40-year-old Sasso is a former presidential campaign aide to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Dukakis, who takes pride in a reputation for impeccable integrity conceded even by his critics, called Wednesday’s press conference after Sasso had confessed his role to him Tuesday afternoon. At first, Dukakis refused to accept Sasso’s resignation, though earlier in the week he had said firing any staffer who turned out to be involved in “negative” campaigning would be “a strong possibility.”
But a few hours later it was announced that Sasso had resigned, along with Tully. Ironically, prior to joining the Dukakis campaign, Tully had served as political director of the Hart campaign and had attempted to refute the original disclosures linking Hart to Donna Rice.
In giving up his post in the Dukakis campaign, Tully said: “As part of the leadership of the campaign, I share responsibility for this grave error. I am ashamed of myself for letting the governor and Mrs. Dukakis down, and I have resigned.”
Some political practitioners considered the distribution of the Biden-Kinnock tape--juxtaposing two publicly recorded speeches--as nothing worse than an aggressive tactic. “I think it was a legitimate piece of research,” said Linda DiVall, a pollster for Republican candidates.
“Part of this is pointing out to reporters things that are in the public domain that they may or may not be aware of. I’ve done that many times,” Sasso said Wednesday.
But he said he realized he was guilty of “a serious lack of judgment” in this case and kept it quiet until this week because he knew it would hurt Dukakis.
“I knew in my heart that we would reach this day,” Sasso said.
The origin of the tapes became an issue because it had been leaked surreptitiously and because Biden’s supporters sought to deflect criticism of their candidate by focusing attention on those who had precipitated his problems.
At first, the campaign of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt came under suspicion. But the allegations were forcefully denied by the campaign and last weekend, attention switched to the Dukakis campaign.
In Des Moines, Lowell Junkins, the 1986 Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa who co-chaired Biden’s campaign in his state, said: “Democrats have been on the whole hurt by the actions of the last few weeks.”
Junkins charged that Sasso’s “foolishness, trickery and game playing” not only hurt Biden but had also damaged Gephardt, because his campaign was initially blamed.
“Dukakis is seriously injured because of his role in this,” Junkins contended, not just because of Sasso’s action but because of the way the governor handled the incident--denying his campaign had anything to do with it on one day, only to admit responsibility the next day.
Staff writers Maura Dolan in Iowa, Karen Tumulty in Washington and Keith Love in Boston contributed to this story.