Former Campaign Managers Search for Lessons : Politics: They say luck is often the crucial element in whether a candidate wins. Some things are beyond their control.


It is every presidential campaign manager’s worst nightmare: the moment when, despite their best efforts to orchestrate each facet of the race for the White House, their candidate, in the words of NBC news commentator John Chancellor, does some “damn fool” thing that sends their bandwagon careening out of control.

For then-President Gerald R. Ford, it was his remark in a 1976 televised debate that Eastern Europe was not under Communist domination. His opponent, Jimmy Carter, stumbled when he told Playboy magazine about “lust in my heart.” And one of the lingering images of the 1988 presidential campaign is a photograph of Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis wearing a helmet while riding in a tank--looking, Chancellor joked, “like the cover of MAD magazine.”

“What do you do when that happens?” Chancellor asked the seven men and one woman who have helped run presidential campaigns and who gathered at UC San Diego on Thursday for the opening session of a three-day symposium on presidential politics.

“I said: ‘Oooooohhhhh! We’ve got a problem!’ ” answered a grimacing Stuart Spencer, recalling his reaction to Ford’s ill-fated remark.


Blending colorful campaign war stories with insights forged from experience, the campaign managers, involved in presidential elections from the 1960 John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon race through the 1988 George Bush-Dukakis contest, reminisced about their own experiences in a search for lessons that could serve as guideposts for future presidential strategists.

Moderated by Chancellor, the two-hour program is scheduled to be aired nationwide on public television next month.

If the four Democrats and four Republicans agreed on anything, it was that, no matter how hard they sought to control the campaign’s overriding themes and messages, luck--good and bad--was often the crucial element.

“In politics, you have controllables and uncontrollables,” said Edward Rollins, who directed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. “You better hit 100% on the controllables because there’s always some uncontrollable element out there that you misfire on.”


The managers agreed that it is the candidates--not the strategists--who typically win and lose elections.

The other symposium participants were Susan Estrich, Dukakis’ campaign manager; former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who ran George S. McGovern’s 1972 race and unsuccessfully sought the 1984 and 1988 Democratic nomination himself; Robert Finch, who worked for Nixon; Horace Busby, who helped direct Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign; Richard Kleindienst, who managed Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, and Joseph Napolitan, who guided Hubert H. Humphrey’s 1968 White House bid.