‘92 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION : Dukakis Kept in Shadows as Party Tries to Forget Defeats


Like Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, he was hailed as a man of vision and skill, someone who could unify the Democratic Party’s fractious ranks and lead it to victory in November.

That was four years ago, however. Mention the name of Michael S. Dukakis at the party’s current convention and eyeballs roll, shoulders shrug or fingers cross in the fervent hope that it won’t happen like that again.

“Clinton’s people are absolutely obsessed with the idea of not allowing the Republicans to define him the way they did (Dukakis),” says a former supporter of the 1988 presidential nominee.


For many Democrats, however, the fear runs deeper than that. Take away the hoopla and the optimism that this year could be different and there remains what many conventioneers acknowledge is a bitterly hard fact: The ranks of the Democratic Party include a collection of presidential losers whose failures remain haunting.

While Clinton basks in the limelight this week, the fallen stars who preceded him to the banner-draped podium in election years past also are on hand: Dukakis, former President Jimmy Carter, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale and former South Dakota Sen. George S. McGovern.

But, with the exception of Carter--who as an ex-President has special status--all of these former champions of the party’s quadrennial quest for the White House are buried in the background of the gala festivities unfolding in and around New York’s Madison Square Garden. Grim reminders of earlier defeats, they have been consigned to the political shadows as the ghosts of conventions past.

“The Democratic Party tends to put you on the shelf after you’ve lost,” acknowledged McGovern. “It can’t afford to look back. It must always look toward the next election, not the last.”

Carter, the last Democrat to occupy the Oval Office, has been more or less rehabilitated since his defeat in 1980. He had his moment in the spotlight--although not during prime time--when he addressed the convention Tuesday night.

Mondale and McGovern--landslide losers in 1984 and 1972, respectively--likewise have been forgiven. It is with Dukakis, however, that the contrast between then and now is most striking.


“No one wants to be reminded of a loser,” conceded Michael Goldman, a Massachusetts political consultant and former Dukakis adviser. “Losing candidates evoke memories of defeats that it usually takes two or three conventions to erase.”

The contrast is liable to be especially embarrassing for Clinton, whose friendship with Dukakis goes back many years but whose forward-looking campaign theme of generational change affords no room for a glance back at the failure his old friend represents.

This year, the two men are keeping their distance from one another, at least in public. Dukakis will not even be arriving in New York until today, a day before the convention ends, and has scheduled only one public appearance--at an AIDS fund-raising event.

Goldman insisted that this is only natural. “It is in the tradition of both parties that, if you’re the losing candidate, you don’t step on the parade of the next generation four years later,” he said. “Michael understands that and the last thing he would want to do is place any kind of burden” on Clinton.

Still, some former supporters confess to a certain amount of bitterness over their fellow Democrats’ aversion to Dukakis today compared to the esteem with which he was held coming out of the 1988 convention.

“It’s sort of like seeing a homeless person on the street, realizing he’s an old friend you haven’t seen in years and then stepping across the street to avoid him,” one friend of the former Massachusetts governor said.


It is hard to remember that the man “whose mere name causes Democrats to wince” whenever it is mentioned is also the same person who only four years ago was hailed as a leader possessed of a singularly “shining vision for this country,” the friend added.

Or to remember that the man who spoke those words of praise, who gave the nominating speech for Dukakis at the 1988 convention, was none other than Clinton.