Anatomy of A Disaster

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Just eleven days after the giddiness of Atlanta, a dozen political consultants met with top Dukakis staffers to discuss fall strategy at his headquarters in Boston. Brimming with the joy of a hefty lead over Bush, the aides listened as Stu Eizenstat, a former Jimmy Carter aide, warned them to beware cockiness. He handed them a memo, "How to Blow a 30-Point Lead," based on Carter's precipitate drop during the waning days of 1976. "There was a tendency to rest on what seemed like a big lead," Eizenstat told them. "You become complacent."

History might have made 1988 the Year of the Democrats. Feisty and united, they roared out of Atlanta with an 18-point lead. Driven to win, they dreamed of painting the East Room a dusty rose and replacing Nancy's china with simple stoneware. All that stood in their way was George Herbert Walker Bush, a wimp and a preppie, no more presidential than poor Pat Paulsen. But less than four months later, the sometimes goofy, malaprop-prone Republican devastated the Democrats. What went wrong?

Almost everything. Dukakis learned the wrong lessons from the primaries. His campaign lacked a strategic vision, and until the last days, it failed to deliver a compelling message. It never respected the power of sound bites and commercials. It gravely misjudged George Bush. Worst of all, it allowed Bush to define Dukakis without a fight. Despite errors by his aides, Dukakis must bear the brunt of the blame. The man who ran as a competent manager ran an incompetent campaign.

Seeds of this disaster were sown in the frozen earth of Iowa. Just before midnight on the night of the caucuses, after he barely scraped by in third place, Dukakis sat in his hotel suite munching on cold cuts. Most staffers had repaired to the crowded bar, leaving only a small coterie with the candidate, who had discarded his ever present coat and tie. His wife Kitty, exhausted from a sleepless night, had kicked her shoes off and yearned for bed. But top aides were troubled. They blasted Dukakis for failing to define himself. "Governor, you never gave the people of Iowa a chance to know who you are," an observer recalls saying. Then, in a harangue laced with expletives, they pleaded another point: "You've got to go negative on them." But Dukakis did not budge, "That's not why I'm running," he said.

As it turned out, his opponents bashed one another in New Hampshire, and Dukakis escaped unscathed. That success taught him a lesson, the wrong one: he would remain on the high road to the verge of pointlessness, even months later as Bush methodically corroded his image and his lead. This high-minded approach was laudable, but Dukakis seemed not to understand the difference between going negative and adequately countering his opponent's scurrilous charges. The primaries also taught him to avoid saying anything of consequence. Bruce Babbitt talked about raising taxes, and he vanished. Richard Gephardt pounded protectionism, and he vanished too. Dukakis yammered on about partnerships and "good jobs at good wages," and he survived. This lesson too he carried into the general election, opting for bottomless bromides and hackneyed slogans.

Throughout the primaries, Dukakis talked incessantly of the marathon, a race that goes to the steady, not the swift. He knew that an even gait and a great fund raiser would allow him to outlast the six other dwarfs and survive the Democratic wars of attrition. But the general election was a war of collision, not attrition. Toward the end, a disoriented Dukakis admitted that he failed to realize that the primaries are nothing like the frenzied finale. The vaunted marathoner proved to be a man too late with his sprint.

In June, while the Bush forces were fine-tuning their fall strategy and testing attack lines, the Dukakis camp, nomination assured, worried about Jesse Jackson's reaction and the Veep selection. Distracted by these pressing events, campaign manager Susan Estrich, an intense Harvard law professor, failed to concoct a coordinated offensive and defensive plan for the fall. "Everybody knew what was coming on Willie Horton and the Pledge," said a consultant who provided advice at the time. But Dukakis and Estrich insisted on ignoring the mounting attacks. Instead of taking the fight to Bush, Dukakis spent precious days in distant corners of Massachusetts playing Governor. He announced a $200,000 local grant, visited an apple orchard, swore in a probate-court judge. He seemed strangely detached, almost fearful of taking the plunge. His staff was worried.

When Bush finally started firing away on Horton and on Dukakis' veto of a 1977 bill requiring teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance each day, Dukakis' "strategy of shrugging off attacks suddenly stopped looking presidential and started looking weak," says a top aide. Estrich dismissed the potency of patriotism as an issue. "If Bush thinks he's going to get anywhere with this Pledge stuff, he's crazy," she told an adviser. "We've got this Supreme Court decision." That was the problem. Months after Bush first raised the issue, Dukakis finally responded: "If the Vice President is saying he'd sign an unconstitutional bill, then in my judgment he's not fit to hold the office." This pained legalism betrayed the limits of his campaign. So many top staffers, as well as Dukakis, had suffered through Harvard Law School that an insider dubbed them "ineffectual intellectuals." The Charles River elitism underscored an insularity and parochialism that led to intense bellyaching about "Boston," the derisive epithet for headquarters voiced out in the states -- or colonies, as some called them.

Dukakis spent the fall on the defensive rather than taking charge of the agenda. He entered the campaign a blank slate, and Bush scrawled all over him. Bush made liberal a dirty word, while Dukakis stupidly insisted that such a label was "meaningless." For John Sasso, the street-savvy alter ego of Dukakis who was rehabilitated on Labor Day weekend to take over the campaign, this single mistake spelled the end. "One of the rules of the business is somebody gets to fill up the cup," he explained. "If you want to be successful, you have to fill it up first."

* Because the campaign had trouble developing an overall message, it failed to devise an advertising strategy. The so-called Future Group, the campaign's talented ad team, struggled through August without direction. Hundreds of scripts languished unmade, including several excoriating Bush. Meanwhile, internecine warfare broke out among the team's big egos. One adman even sought to purge Dukakis' closet of tacky ties and ill-fitting suits rather than focus on creating a national ad campaign.

When Sasso returned, he inherited this snake pit. He brought in an acquaintance, David D'Alessandro of the John Hancock insurance company, who had never run a political ad shop. In mid-September D'Alessandro arranged the Shoot-Out at the Ritz-Carlton, a demeaning screening of potential scripts. In a cavernous baroque banquet room, ad-makers flipped through their storyboards to impress the new team. It was an amateurish tryout that produced more bitterness than ads. Among those produced was a semicoherent series ridiculing Bush's handlers. Although they are certain to form the core of Kennedy School seminars for the next four years, they baffled viewers. "His people weren't ready for the big time," said former Dukakis adman Ken Swope of the operation. "They weren't ready for hardball."

The advertising fiasco fomented revolution in the colonies. Miffed state directors, dissatisfied with Boston's product, started making their own spots -- and trading them with one another. Late one night at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, media consultant Gerald Austin, Jesse Jackson's former campaign manager, slipped into the elevator, videocassette in hand, to air his commercials for Dukakis. Even after a long day, Dukakis insisted on screening them before they could run, just as he had approved every other spot the campaign aired. An incredulous Austin shook his head at Dukakis' micromanagement. But one of the ads, a Japan-bashing spot featuring the Nipponese flag, helped close the gap in Ohio.

Even after Labor Day, when Sasso finally persuaded Dukakis to venture into the realm of neopopulism with powerful talk of the "middle-class squeeze" and "two-job prosperity," the Governor was wont to abandon the topic without warning. This message madness continued until the final weeks, when he seized on the theme "I'm on your side" and decided to ride the populist pony as far as it would go. Still, he could not master the chords of resentment that are a basic component of economic populism.

Twenty-one months ago, an unknown Michael Dukakis ventured into Iowa to tell voters there why he should be President. Today his answer remains inchoate. The failing of his candidacy has more to do with the candidate himself than with poor strategy, inept aides, stylized debates, TV commercials or even George Bush. Dukakis is a decent, rational, hardworking man, dedicated to public service and the common good. But he never understood the office he sought. The presidency requires a leader who can forge an emotional bond with the people and act as a vehicle for their aspirations. Dukakis is no dreamer. His visions run to high-speed trains from New York City to Boston, not spaceships to distant planets. Forever cerebral, he proved unable to reach into his gut to discover his emotions, the heartland of any political soul. For this cautious candidate, a man slow to anger and reluctant to laugh, the risk of exploration was too great. After nearly two years of campaigning, Dukakis remains essentially the same person as when he began. He has barely grown as a candidate. And growth is the least that Americans demand of a potential President.