The question was in ghoulish taste, but it proved revealing. Moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN began the final presidential debate by demanding that Michael Dukakis reconcile his opposition to capital punishment with a macabre scenario in which his wife Kitty was raped and killed. Such a hypothesis justified almost any conceivable answer. Dukakis could have vented anger at the premise of the question or passionately explained his own feelings of outrage when his father was badly mugged. Such a response would have been a perfect way to introduce his view that the legal system is designed to temper human impulses for hang-him-high vengeance. But even as his political dreams hung in the balance, Dukakis mustered all the emotion of a time-and- temperature recording. He managed to turn a question about his wife being brutalized and murdered into a discourse on the need for a hemispheric summit on drugs.
The debate -- and perhaps even Dukakis' chance to inspire a late-inning rally to win the election -- may have been lost in those opening two minutes. George Bush strode onto the stage in Los Angeles determined to prove with an avuncular assortment of smiles, chuckles, winks and asides that he was the affable heir to Ronald Reagan. But even when Dukakis tried to compete in this smile-button sweepstakes, his eerie grin had the spontaneity of a Dale Carnegie student practicing before the mirror. Asked why he did not appear more "likable," Dukakis felt compelled to launch into a petty aside disputing Bush's earlier attacks on his stewardship of Massachusetts' pension funds. Finally, as if he heard his handlers screaming, "Lighten up, Mike!" Dukakis claimed, "I think I'm a little more lovable these days than I used to be back in my youth." But he quickly added, "I'm also a serious guy. I think the presidency of the United States is a very serious office."
Bush won the debate largely because he triumphed in the congeniality competition. But has the pursuit of the presidency become trivialized by this intense emphasis on likability? After all, TV game-show hosts are uniformly genial, but few Americans want Pat Sajak presiding over the National Security Council.
Ever since the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates gave voters a sense of personal access to the candidates, charisma and charm have tended to overshadow all but the most transcendent election issues. But in an era of peace and at least a veneer of prosperity, the 1988 campaign has so far been dominated by slogans and sound bites masquerading as substance. Small wonder that, after two terms of aw-shucks Reaganism, the electorate seems to be measuring Bush and Dukakis by the same standards they assess Bill Cosby -- comfort and likability.