1988: Modern Presidential Campaign

Jim Wilson/The New York Times




Richard Ben Cramer ’72

Richard Ben Cramer wrote the definitive account of how presidential campaigns are waged and won in his classic “What It Takes,” a panoramic chronicle of the 1988 presidential primaries and election based on interviews with more than a thousand people.

“What It Takes,” from the Epilogue

By Richard Ben Cramer

In Houston, on Election Day, November 8, 1988, George Bush was not happy. I could see that even from the ropeline, twenty yards away. Security was suddenly brittle and beyond talk—a new layer of earplug people recognized no one, only badges and pins, and there was no way to feel anything from Bush in their midst. The White Men were all around him, vibrating with unease and ill tidings. In the final week, Bush had skittered every which way in the tracking polls, flopping and darting and standing tall again, like a beast of the veldt in fight-or-flight . . . all the while flinging Air Force Two about the country, to Michigan, California, Missouri—wherever Teeter said the tall grass held menace. Twelve days before the election, Bush was twelve points up in New Jersey . . . five days out, he was four points behind. So twice, Bush flew halfway across the nation—back to New Jersey. He took $500,000 out of Texas, and threw it at New Jersey. He had to ask the Gipper to descend upon New Jersey. In the end, he’d win New Jersey by fourteen points. But how could he know?

And it was the same everywhere—Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, California . . . how could he know about California? In the final push, just a few days before the vote, Bush was riding a bus cavalcade down the farm valleys of California. Six or seven stops a day—open-air rallies. A half-dozen B-level show-biz stars would stand behind him to whip up the crowds while Bush screamed out disconnected vows and threats. Star Wars and Line-Item Veto and Pledge of Allegiance and yes (O God, yes!) to Prayer in Our Schools and No New Taxes and No Coddlin’ Criminals and No Cuttin’ Missiles and no, No, NO! It got so he made no sense at all, and it didn’t seem to matter; after every hoarse hyenic gale of code words, Chuck Norris or Phyllis Diller or Mike Love or some other wizened talk-show goat would start to clap, and local schoolgirls in itty-bitty skirts would jump and pump their pom-poms, shrieking Eeeeee Eee Eee Eeeeeeeeee . . . and sure enough, the crowd would answer with its best for the national blood-roar. I came to think it was cynical, a Devil’s pact between the goats and the sheep, all acting like this made sense, in a plot to promote the Big Hyena . . . until I talked to Bush on his bus. I was going to talk to Bush, but he was tied up on a bench seat with Mike Love, the old Beach Boy, who looked about seventy-something, thin beyond Slim-Fast, etched about the eyes and mouth with tiny, pale, X-acto age lines; everything was pale about him, like a sci-fi visitor from the Planet of a Dying Sun, come to steal the Earth-Grass . . . but no, quite of this world was Mike Love, as he talked nonstop at George Bush’s ear about massage—Mike was big on massage—and when Bush said he liked a rubdown, too (common ground!) . . . well, Mike had a world of advice, and he was just in the part about the method that was really good, the way he liked it, see, which he recommended to the Veep at length—”You get two girls, y’know, one side and the other and, uh, two girls at one, y’know, workin’ on you, yuh oughta, uh, s’cool, really, y’know?”—and Bush was staring at the bus floor, nodding, polite, like he wanted to pay special attention to the placement of the girls, and I thought this was part of the Devil-deal, Bush pretending this made any sense . . . until Bush looked up, and I happened to see in his eyes—he didn’t expect me there, and before he knew it, I saw through the watery blue to the bottom—and there was . . . no one home. There was no Devil-deal, the sheep were just sheep, the goats knew no better, and Bush made no sense because he had no sense left in him. The Outgoing Message was still spinning, but the tape had snapped a couple of states back. That amplified whinny he loosed at events was just the last torn and random snatches flapping around with the reel—ReadmyLIPS! ReadmyLIPS! ReadmyLIPS! After that, the rallies didn’t seem cynical—just the response of a system that was intact, an answer that made explicable a total lack of sense, reassuring, like the Eeee Eeee Eeeeeeeeee, which sounded now like a signal that the national phone was off the hook and we should expect no communication until November 8, when we’d slap the booger back in its cradle and, at least, have done with the noise.

And it only got worse after that, more frantic, exhausting, and senseless for Bush, with the White Men so teetery, pointing his plane everywhere Dukakis seemed likely to make trouble, and Dukakis flying his Sky Pig charter back and forth across the country day and night—without even sleep, for God’s sake, shaving five times a day and yelling “We’re On Your Side!” in ten different states, trying to goose up those polls, which was goosing Bush . . . same thing, in the end, a perfect identity . . . and now that Dukakis had finally wakened and was screaming random slogans into the wind, people said he’d really improved, you know, and some brave pundits who needed a niche made bold to suggest that Dukakis was not dead, which was just a hot poker grazing Bush’s privates—he’d killed the little sonofabitch a thousand times—and a single shaky poll was guaranteed to send AFII rumbling down another runway, while in the Power Cabin, Atwater muttered oracular apocalypse (“California is the death-star for Dukakis”) and Ailes emitted bilious fulminations on the enemies of Right and Good, like the press, which Ailes saw “carrying the little Duke-corpse around, doing mouth-to-mouth, trying to keep it alive.”

Blood-roar . . . the nation seemed to demand it, or at least to expect it, in the closing days. How else to explain those gatherings of thousands where the cadidate screamed and people screamed back, no one said anything, and the papers wrote it up as the campaign “picking up steam” . . . blood-roar homage to our political lineage, to vengeful northern conquerors and their forest-gods (Normans, surely—French cuisine for state dinners, with five forks gleaming beside each plate, but give us the heads of our enemies on pikes). Bush knew it, too. He always said he understood the values of the American people—better than Dukakis—and people laughed: D’he learn ‘em from his chauffeur on the way to Greenwich Country Day? But Bush was right—he did know better. A hundred times, his White Men, or his family, old school friends, or someone else who mistook breeding for behavior, tried to steer Bush off the Pledge of Allegiance, or Willie Horton, Crime ‘n’ Commies, Furloughs, Flags, and Reap My Lips! It was ugly, brainless; Bush had worn it out . . . but Bush kept at it. He understood what the forest-gods demanded, what the people wanted in a chief: his enemies felled and bleeding, drawn limb from limb and thrown to earth for the people to dance, in blood-roar. America defiles its losers.

And Bush knew he had to keep it up to the end—not just blood-roar, but the full measure, till the cup was dry, till he, too, was brainless. The system demanded totality. That’s why this system of picking the chief retained its defenders, who’d concede right away that it was long—horrible, in fact; it cheapened the issues, or ignored them; it dumbed down the dialogue to noise; it was spendthrift, exhausting, hurtful, and it savaged its protagonists . . . that’s why the savants would get those dreamy looks at the end of the talk shows, and say it wasn’t such a bad way to pick a President—a stress test that was a match for the job. In the end, we have only one nonnegotiable demand for a President, the man we hire to watch the world at our backs: that is totality. We may differ on our seven-point plans for child care, the six-hundred-ship Navy, one-man-one-vote for Namibia. But every adult in the country knows instinctively: that the job in the White House is brutal, and the bastard who gets it works for us. We will not allow anything to be put ahead of it—not friends, family, nor certainly rosy self-regard . . . nor ease, restoration of self—forget it! Gary Hart admitted adultery and asked us to forgive his sin. But unforgivable was his assumption that he was supposed to have any life “outside.” Whatever he did with that lovely girl, he put his enjoyment ahead of our good opinion, and he was erased from consideration. He would not concede that his life was our chattel.

Dukakis couldn’t figure it out either. Poor Michael and his brainy young patriots on Chauncy Street used to tell each other every day that Bush would never get away with this crap. This furlough crap, this flag crap—Bush was craven. People would see . . . Of course, people saw and concluded, rightly, that here was a guy who’d do what it took. Bush met the nonnegotiable criterion—they voted him in. Their only other choice was a guy who showed in a hundred ways, he didn’t know what it took, he knew only what he wouldn’t do, and he was not gonna lose hold of his life! No! Dukakis was the King of No . . . and no was just another way of saying he wouldn’t see this as bigger than himself. He would not concede, his life was meat. People put all kinds of words on this failure; the wise guys pointed to defining moments. The favorite was the national gasp in the second debate, when Bernie Shaw tried to draw Michael forth by asking about the rape of his bride; Michael turned his sober, hooded eyes to the camera and answered with statistics on capital punishment. Thereafter, a million words recapitulated Dukakis’s fatal lack of passion, and a couple hundred thousand decried the vulgarity of the question. But passion was never nonnegotiable (Bush would win no ribbon in that bake-off), and the question always struck me as kindly: an invitation for Michael to give us a purchase upon his life. He refused.

And this was no momentary choke. Dukakis could never get that he had to (as Arsenio says) give it up! You could have seen the campaign’s disastrous end months before that debate—soon after Dukakis returned to Brookline, seventeen points ahead in the polls, with his primary triumphs like a neat stack of bills in his briefcase. Kitty was recuperating from her neck operation, still confined to Perry Street. So her new press honcho, her new body woman, and her new Advance staff brought the world to her. So it happened one morning, 6:30 A.M., Michael padded down his steps and ran into the crew, camera, lights, cables, field producer, coffee-in-a-paper-cup and doughnut-wrapper-on-the-floor of The CBS Morning News . . . in his living room. So much for lack of passion. Michael Dukakis, in his little striped pj’s, stood at the foot of his stairs, bellowing, “KATHARINE! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?”

Give it up! (Woof-woof-woof-woof!) . . . Only one man could. He would become President . . . which goes a long way toward answering the final, most persistent and troubling question: Why . . . when at last we mop up the quadrennial bloodbath and shove one of these fellows toward the White House, why . . . when no matter who he is, he rides a national flood of goodwill, bears the public’s hope for a fresh start and better times, why . . . when he surfaces, smiling, under the Great Eagle Seal to become the embodiment and emblem of our age, why, invariably . . . does this poor bastard seem so out to lunch?

Because he is stunned with blood-roar; witless; spent . . . which explained, also, the sour, furrowed face on George Bush, November 8, 1988, his great day. He just wanted it to be over.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

100 Great Stories