Some lessons from the 1988 presidential campaign

By Michael P. Riccards

In 1988, I was the president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a rather strange choice for an Italian American from Jersey who was an easterner in his fingertips. But such is destiny. I also was asked to join a group of supporters of Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, who was a candidate for president.

New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers was kind enough to invite me to a meeting to meet the three Republican candidates for presidency: Vice President George W. Bush, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas and Rep. Jack Kemp of Buffalo. Bush came in, immaculately dressed and guarded by Secret Service, and looked and acted very presidential; Dole had a sharp edge to his humor, and Kemp rambled on about the gold standard which FDR had abolished in his first year in office in 1933.

But I chose to work for Dukakis and was invited to his major rally in Albuquerque and asked to sit right behind him. The sun was incredibly hot, especially for those who wore black suits. I watched him from behind and realized I had a more expensive suit than the one he had gotten, probably from Filene’s basement.

When his wife Kitty came to Santa Fe, she was invited to a rally in the cultural center and I was supposed to introduce her. She arrived chain smoking in a limo, jumped out of the car and seemed all wound up. I introduced her and reminded the audience how they had loved the last Massachusetts candidate they had met — Jack Kennedy. She spoke briefly and could not wait to get back in the limo and light up. Years later, I learned that she was addicted to drugs, and Mike claimed he never knew. How one could sit across a person at the breakfast table every morning and not see her dependence on drugs was a mystery to me.

Dukakis was at one point ahead by 17 points, an incredible lead. But the Bush people, mastered by Lee Atwater , began a vicious campaign against the Democrats, charging Mike with releasing a man named Willie Horton who went on to commit a serious felony while on furlough. The Bush campaign continued to hit at Mike’s patriotism and lack of a commitment to law and order.

It didn’t hurt them that Horton was Black. They played the race card and ended up winning. This lesson taught every one the importance of answering attacks and being astute to using gutter politics in modern America.

Years later at a conference on Calvin Coolidge, the last governor of Massachusetts to assume the presidency, I met Dukakis in the foyer alone. I went up to him and said, “I worked for you in 1988 and we carried Santa Fe County!”  He ruefully smiled and said, “I’m sorry I let you down.” I lamely responded, “You didn’t let us down, the country did.”

The 1988 campaign shows us the problem of relying on polls and early data in planning strategy for the presidency. And it also teaches us that each party must prepare for candidates who do not appeal to our better natures.

Michael P. Riccards, a former college president. is the author of 30 books, including a two-volume history of the presidency, The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, and the recently published Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief. He is providing the Jandoli Institute with commentary and analysis about the 2020 presidential campaign.

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