Past Presidential TV Advisers Rate the Bush-Dukakis Show
At the end there were about as many shadings of opinion about the television performances of debaters George Bush and Michael Dukakis as there had been questions lobbed at them.
Did Dukakis warm up enough? Did Bush step on lines too much? Or was the 90-minute affair--to use the coinage that entered the political vocabulary Sunday night, courtesy of ABC’s Peter Jennings--essentially passionless?
To writer Richard Goodwin watching at home in Concord, Mass.--28 years ago he had served as an aide to Sen. John F. Kennedy in the campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon--"it was a little bit like listening to a debate between the presidents of Apple and IBM over the comparative merits of their operating systems.”
There was a lot of talk about values, Goodwin said, but no sense of what those values really are from either the Republican vice president or the Democratic Massachusetts governor.
Dukakis was more fluent and in command of his subject matter, Goodwin said, but Bush “came across as warmer, and that’s also the truth about the guy, and I know both of them.”
Columbia University President Michael Sovern, who four years ago advised former Vice President Walter Mondale in debates against President Reagan, said Dukakis “appeared as a caring human being” particularly in his answers on medical care and the homeless, but added that twice mentioning an 11-year-old Houston boy, whose father won’t let him play baseball because the family can’t afford medical insurance, was one mention too many.
To Rep. Richard B. Cheney (R-Wyo.) who had been President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, there were “no major gaffes on either side” and “no milestone or watershed for the campaign.” The debate, he said, “tended to reinforce the loyalty of their partisans.”
Cheney particularly liked Bush’s remark that he would be “willing to take all the blame” on the Iran-Contra affair if he could get half the credit for “all the good things” in the world since he and President Reagan came into office. Cheney added that Dukakis, who had “a good closing statement,” came across as “articulate obviously and bright,” but hurt himself by calling Vice President Bush George. The repeated reference sounded “arrogant,” Cheney said.
However, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications at the University of Texas and author of a new book on presidential debates, said the Massachusetts governor scored points with the use of Bush’s first name because it made the contenders sound like “equals.”
Disputing the bipartisan assessment of several previous presidential-debate advisers Jamieson contended that Bush hurt himself with the “cumulative effect” of several misstatements: pulling back from calling Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega “governor”; mixing up midget-man and MX missiles; referring, toward the end of the debate, to the “three people on our ticket.”
She added that Bush, despite his ability to poke fun at himself with his “it’s Christmas line,” may have damaged himself when he said in obvious reference to his opponent: “Wouldn’t it be nice to be perfect? Wouldn’t it be nice to be the iceman” who never makes mistakes?
“Either that was a quick comeback to a mistake, or an indictment of Michael Dukakis as being cold and aloof,” Jamieson said, adding after a pause: “But then the American people may see it as a cheap shot.”
Jamieson said Dukakis damaged himself by “ducking” the American Civil Liberties Union question and talking instead about the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as by “wandering” in his answer about specific federal programs he would cut. She thought Bush was weakest in defense of vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle.
The professor graded Dukakis well on marshaling statistics and specifics, and in telling of anecdotes. “He establishes himself at least as competent and experienced as George Bush. He doesn’t need to show he’s more experienced. If he shows he’s Bush’s equal, he wins.” As for Bush, he loses points as the debate progresses, Jamieson said. “His pitch begins to increase, his sentence structure is more meandering, he’s moving his arms in a way that does not suggest control or confidence.”
Dukakis’ gestures don’t score well either. “He’s eliminated the schoolmarmish pointing gesture” and substituted it with one that “looks like he’s pulling weights up from his waist.”
In the war of one-liners, most thought the debate a standoff between Bush’s line comparing the clarity of Dukakis’ answer to Boston Harbor and Dukakis’ line suggesting Bush was the Joe Isuzu of American politics.
On the apparel front, with Bush and Dukakis each wearing gray suits, white shirts and red ties, there was little controversy. Bill Wilson, who was Kennedy’s television adviser, would have eschewed Bush’s striped tie (too glaring) and Dukakis’ polka dots; he prefers “solid.” Myles Martel, Reagan’s communications adviser in 1980, thought the “texture” in Dukakis’ suit conveyed a certain measure of warmth.
“They both looked OK,” noted Jimmy Carter’s media adviser Gerald Rafshoon. “Bush didn’t look as chilly as he has before, and Dukakis looks presidential.”
With the lines between style and substance often merging, Rafshoon added that he thought “Dukakis was able to cross the plausibility threshold--he could be seen as a possbile President. Next to Bush he gained stature. But he didn’t do what he needed to do, bring back Bush’s negatives. He didn’t aggressively put in minds of people that Bush is weak. . . .”
By some accounts the real debate winner was the debate panel. Martel thought Jennings’ question to Dukakis about a passionless campaign was “one of the three best questions” ever asked in a presidential debate.
“This was the best debate since 1960,” said Samuel Popkin, a political science professor at UC San Diego, who played Reagan as a stand-in during rehearsals with President Carter. “The outstanding questioners made an enormous differences. Instead of going for fluff and inanities, the panel went for real points.”
However, James David Barber, professor of political science at Duke University and an expert on “presidential character,” said the debate hardly told enough. “If I were going to hire one as a babysitter,” he said metaphorically, “I would get some references.”