How Presidential Race Was Won-and Lost : Michael S. Dukakis

Times Staff Writer

When Michael S. Dukakis climbed into an M-1A1 battle tank in mid-September, two aides warned him he would look silly, not tough, on TV if he wore the tank’s high-tech helmet.

But, moments later, as the giant tank rumbled across a dusty field, the Democratic nominee for President suddenly popped up with a Snoopy-like helmet with earphones on his head and a nervous smile on his face.

“He said he wanted to hear what the other guys in the tank were saying,” one aide said. “Fine. But he looked like an idiot.”


The tank fiasco--which Republicans gleefully turned into a TV ad--was only a snapshot in Dukakis’ 20-month campaign. But it helps explain how and why a nominee who seemed unbeatable in July lost the election to George Bush by a wide margin on Tuesday.

Time and again this fall, Dukakis ignored advice and stubbornly insisted on doing things his way. “He personally reviewed every piece of campaign literature, every ad and, for a while, every hire,” said California campaign director Tony Podesta.

Dukakis disdained TV imagery. With no direction, his advertising team wrote so many scripts--1,155 by one count--that some propped up office plants. “He thinks TV commercials are beneath him and silly,” said Ken Swope, a longtime media adviser who quit in frustration.

And Dukakis’ up-tight, humorless style became a serious liability. When he withered under Ted Koppel’s tough questions on “Nightline” two weeks ago, aide Tom Donilon rushed in at the first break. “Get mad, governor!” he said. Dukakis simply stared back.

Faced Peace, Prosperity

It was never going to be easy. Dukakis faced the vice president of a popular leader in a era of peace and prosperity. And, unlike Democrats, the GOP has veterans who have won the White House five out of the last six elections.

But the anatomy of Dukakis’ 40-state, $100-million defeat is seen by many as a history of missed opportunities, poor judgment and undeniable arrogance. And, although his staff woefully mis-served him, the candidate himself bears much of the blame.

“There wasn’t a strategy for the general election,” said one longtime friend and adviser. “There was no program. There was no message. There was no game plan for a national campaign.”

It began in Atlanta. Dukakis emerged from the Democratic convention in July with a record war chest, highly favorable polls and party regulars rushing to his side after a powerful acceptance speech.

“He rose to the occasion,” said his wife, Kitty. “It was a transcendent moment.”

Albatross for Dukakis

But it was an illusion. His claim that the race was “about competence,” not “ideology,” haunted him as his campaign, and his state government, repeatedly stumbled. “Massachusetts became an albatross, not a model,” one adviser said.

Dukakis tried to sit on his lead. Although internal polls showed fewer than half of his supporters could identify any of his policies, he insisted on spending three days a week in August on state business in western Massachusetts.

Then came the gaffes. At a press conference in Louisville, Dukakis criticized White House ethics under President Reagan, using a Greek phrase that translated as a “fish rots from the head down.”

Reagan quickly retaliated. He called Dukakis an “invalid,” pushing onto the front pages a wild rumor that the Democratic candidate had undergone psychiatric treatment. Dukakis fell 5 points in polls overnight.

“ ‘Dukakis not crazy. More at 11.’ That hurt,” said campaign manager Susan Estrich. “It played into the whole issue of risk.”

Flag Pledge Issue

At the same time, Dukakis elevated Bush’s criticism of the Massachusetts’ governor’s 1977 veto of a bill requiring teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance by saying that Bush was “not fit to be President.”

“He turned it into a presidential issue,” said Kirk O’Donnell, a senior adviser. “It wasn’t that he didn’t respond. It was the wrong response.”

In a campaign run by lawyers, Dukakis’ own legalistic defense of his veto--and his refusal to fight back against charges about prison furloughs, the death penalty and Boston Harbor pollution--only fed Republican contentions that he and his Boston-based campaign were culturally blind, out of touch with many voters’ values.

“The response on the Pledge of Allegiance was designed to win a majority of votes on the Harvard Law School faculty but didn’t do anything to answer the issue,” said adviser Ralph Whitehead. “They had a tin ear for American mainstream culture.”

Aides knew the furlough issue was dynamite. Focus groups and polling in June had shown that “the furlough issue had the highest potential to hurt us, much more potential than anything we could find to run against Bush,” Estrich said. Still, Dukakis insisted that responding would only give Bush an opening.

When a Texas aide tried to defend gun control in an Aug. 19 speech in Johnson City, the candidate crossed it out. And Dukakis refused all summer to give two vigorous speeches on national defense.

Sticking to Own Turf

“The idea was to inoculate ourselves against being seen as weak and naive,” said issues director Chris Edley Jr. “He said defense is Bush’s turf, the economy is our turf. Stay on our turf. Don’t let Bush set the agenda. It was the same argument we heard for furloughs, the pledge, ACLU.”

Democratic leaders and elected officials complained to no avail. “The argument we in Congress heard repeatedly from the campaign was that we’re not going to let George Bush set the agenda,” said Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) “That overlooked the obvious, which was that Bush had already set the agenda.”

Moreover, the campaign turned inward instead of reaching out. No Southern Democrat or experienced black political operative worked in the high command. Calls were not returned, suggestions ignored. Angry field operatives called it “the Boston cocoon.”

It carried over to organizing. In Ohio, the campaign sent “people from Boston or Vermont who don’t know the players and who don’t even know the streets,” John M. Doyne, head of Cuyahoga County’s Democratic Party, complained.

Operations suffered at the Chauncey Street headquarters in Boston. “The advertising was separate from the issues,” one insider said. “The issues were separate from polling. And the polling was separate from the road show. Nothing was reinforcing anything else.”

Boston Harbor Cleanup

California was a case in point. On Sept. 1, Bush sailed into Boston Harbor to assail Dukakis over pollution. Although the governor was leading a $6-billion cleanup of the harbor, he kept to his scheduled meeting with students at the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles.

“We were blown off the local evening news in Los Angeles with us here and Bush in Boston,” Podesta said. Two weeks later, he said, Dukakis went to the Chula Vista police department “and spent 45 minutes explaining to a bunch of cops why he was against the death penalty for cop killers. Can you explain that?”

As the ticket plummeted in the polls, even Dukakis’ running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, called to complain that politics is a “contact sport.” Dukakis insisted he was right. “He just wouldn’t do it,” said O’Donnell.

Nor would Dukakis agree to an Aug. 27 memo that suggested that he try a class-based, traditional Democratic economic message with the slogan, “On your side and ready for the future.” Also, he angrily rejected a Labor Day speech by consultant Robert Shrum with a similar punchy message.

6 Messages in 10 Weeks

Instead, Dukakis trotted out at least six separate messages in the next 10 weeks, from “middle-class squeeze” to “making America No. 1 again,” hoping to find common ground with voters. None did until he finally tried the “on your side” message three weeks ago and became a born-again populist.

With the campaign reeling by the end of August, insiders rejoiced when Dukakis finally brought John Sasso, his longtime friend and adviser, back on Labor Day weekend to take over from Estrich.

But Sasso had only mixed success. Former rival Jesse Jackson, for example, was publicly carping about the campaign and privately demanding $5 million for a Rainbow Coalition voters’ drive. He demanded also that the campaign hire six of his traveling aides as well as two top advisers. No one was happy with Sasso’s compromise.

Gave Money to Jackson

“It was a fight over money,” said one aide involved in the negotiations. “And Sasso decided to give the money to Jesse--$100,000 a week for travel, staff and security. That was the deal.”

Sasso had even less luck with campaign advertising. In mid-September, he hired David D’Alessandro, a respected Boston advertising executive who had no political experience, to take charge of an ad group that had produced little but bickering and complaints.

“The place was in complete chaos,” D’Alessandro said. “It was like a French penal colony. You’d open a door and see six guys writing scripts.”

D’Alessandro said the group had no direction. “They were never given a strategy. They were never given polling data. They were never given research. It was pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey advertising.”

Dukakis had finally agreed to use negative TV ads during a meeting with top aides in the Rockport Room at Boston’s Lafayette Hotel on Sept. 23. But D’Alessandro’s ads, using actors to portray Bush’s “handlers,” may have been the biggest miscalculation of the campaign.

Duplicity Dramatized

“In dramatizing the duplicity of Bush’s handlers, we were just revealing our own,” said Swope, who quit the group shortly after. “It was saying to viewers: ‘You’re stupid and don’t understand politics.’ And they lost three weeks with them.”

Field organizers agreed. “They were horrible,” said Jose Villareal, a Texas-based campaign organizer who ran the Latino operation in the Southwest. “They were much too subtle for Texas. Bush’s ads were like hammers hitting us in the head.”

Ultimately, the most effective ads were made by state parties in Ohio, Texas, California and other states.

Although Dukakis appeared to “win” the first debate against Bush in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Sept. 25, he blew his last best chance to overtake the vice president at the second debate at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Oct. 13.

Dukakis had awakened that morning with a sore throat so severe that he canceled his morning debate practice and quietly called a doctor to his hotel suite. He then slept until time for the debate.

Prepared Briefing Book

Aides prepared a briefing book that listed six “mandatory points,” ranging from hitting Bush on the Iran-Contra scandal to answering any question about crime by recalling how his late father had been mugged and his only brother killed by a hit-and-run driver.

But Dukakis folded at the first and only question about crime. When CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked if Dukakis would still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, his cold, rambling response ended with a call for a hemispheric drug summit. It was stunning except to those who knew him best.

“He had lost confidence in his advisers, in the process,” said one longtime friend. “He said screw it. I’ll just be myself. And, for better or worse, he was.”

“We all knew what he was like,” said Whitehead. “We just had to hope it wouldn’t make any difference.” But the damage was undeniable: One adviser called the flight home “the last plane from Saigon.”

In the end, of course, Dukakis finally found a strong voice. He accused Bush of lies and racism and finally fought back on furloughs and the rest. He held informal town meetings and a blitz of network TV interviews--perhaps even helped by the small good-luck Buddha his staff smuggled onto the Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and David Frost sets.

Said to Have No Regrets

Those closest to Dukakis say he has no regrets as he resumes his Statehouse routine. “Hindsight is always 20-20,” Sasso said on election night. “Every campaign has its imperfections. We had ours.”

Kitty Dukakis says he is unlikely to run for President again. But she is bitter about the pounding he took and what she called the “deliberate lies and distortions” of Bush’s campaign.

“Michael just couldn’t have done what George Bush has done,” she said. “George Bush, I gather, can sleep at night knowing he’s dishonest. My husband can’t do that. Values and character and ethics are important to him.”

The race, she said, reminded her of the bitter 1978 gubernatorial race when Dukakis lost reelection for governor. “They put all the hate groups in one pot and let it boil,” she said.

Dukakis was less harsh at his final press conference Wednesday. He said the negative tone of Bush’s campaign “may well have set a standard we’ll live to regret.” But he said he would take responsibility for his own 20-month campaign.

“I gave it my best shot,” he said.

Times staff writer James Risen contributed to this story.