Marching to the beat of the bland

MARCI McDONALD July 18 1988

Marching to the beat of the bland

MARCI McDONALD July 18 1988

Marching to the beat of the bland



Bland is an adjective seldom associated with Hollywood producers Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion. To unveil the refurbished Statue of

Liberty two years ago, they staged a $10million extravaganza featuring 75

Elvis Presley look-alikes, 1,000 tap dancers, 5,000 homing pigeons and 20 tons of fireworks. In four CBS television specials for Anne Murray, they persuaded the singer to dance with a chorus line of Nova Scotia coal miners and warble atop the smokestack of a Caribbean cruise ship.

But now, as they put the finishing touches on the four-day,

$2.4-million megaproduction that is next week’s Democratic national convention in Atlanta, their attempts to spice up the party’s image have made at least one Democrat nervous— the show’s star, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who describes himself as “not a razzledazzle kind of guy.” Dukakis’s aides have already vetoed several of the producers’ proposals, including a plan to have singer Barry Manilow serenade the governor as he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination. Instead, they lobbied for Bruce Springsteen singing The Star Spangled Banner. And as one

campaign official told The New York Times, “We want a convention just like our candidate: organized, orderly and short.”

That unadventurous attitude—combined with an extraordinary display of harmony in the party’s recent platform deliberations—has led to widespread expectations that the convention will be an uneventful affair as the delegates rubber-stamp the foregone selection of Dukakis as the party’s candidate for the Nov. 8 presidential election. But Norman Ornstein, an analyst with Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, points out that, after years of public disputes, blandness may be just what the party needs. He added, “Exciting means turmoil and turmoil means the Democratic party has problems.”

Dukakis’s performance in Atlanta will provide a critical personal test at a moment when he finds himself unexpectedly weakened. His 14-point lead in mid-June polls over his Republican rival, Vice-President George Bush, had narrowed to five points by the end of the month. And last week, pollsters for

a Boston television station reported that his unfavorable rating at home in Massachusetts has doubled to 36 per cent from 17 per cent since January, 1987. That disenchantment may reflect the governor’s action last month to balance a ballooning $445-million budget

deficit by instituting a measure that he had previously declared a “last resort”—raising taxes. But campaign officials say that he has also been unable to counter a recent barrage of at-

tacks from Bush—chiefly charges that he has been soft on crime with his state’s prison furlough program—because he has been preoccupied with choosing a vicepresidential running mate.

Dukakis’s handling of that task has disappointed some supporters. He had criticized the party’s 1984 nominee, Walter Mondale, for subjecting potential vice-presidential candidates to an em-

barrassing public audition process at his Minnesota home. But last week, Dukakis appeared to do the same. He summoned a parade of hopefuls to Boston, including Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton, and his former opponents,

Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt, Tennessee Senator Albert Gore and Jesse Jackson. His aides have hinted that the slow deliberations indicate that he is having doubts about the leading contender—Ohio Senator John Glenn— with whom he campaigned in the Mid-

west two weeks ago. Despite Glenn’s fame as a former astronaut and his expertise on defence issues, questions remain about possible irregularities in his fund-raising methods and a $2.9-

million campaign debt from his own 1984 White House bid. Still, Dukakis was expected to announce his choice this week to avoid distracting attention at the convention itself.

If he does, the main suspense for the 5,382 delegates and alternates and 13,500 media personnel scheduled to converge on Atlanta will centre on what Ornstein calls Dukakis’s “tightrope act”— his handling of Jackson.

his handling of Jackson. Said Ornstein: “He has to show enough deference to Jackson so as not to alienate blacks, while not showing so much deference that he alienates southern whites.” Dukakis’s July 4 invitation to Jackson and his wife, Jacqueline, for a

Dukakis and wife, Kitty, welcome the Jacksons; Richards (below): a critical personal test

private dinner at the governor’s suburban Brookline home was designed to meet the first criterion. But Jackson used the occasion to campaign among Dukakis’s neighbors lined up on the quiet treelined street. In the process, the exuberant black preacher accidentally elbowed Dukakis in the face. And the governor’s aides fear that, should Jackson deem his ego bruised in Atlanta, he could strike a more damaging political blow.

Until now, the two candidates have

hammered out compromises on the convention’s thorniest issues in such harmony that they have stunned party veterans. The credentials committee made history by avoiding a single fight over the approval of convention delegates. And Dukakis officials defused the most explosive question facing the rules committee by agreeing to change party regulations for the 1992 convention. Under that plan, delegates would be selected in proportion to the candidates’ shares of the popular vote in the state-by-state party primary elections instead of on a winner-takes-most basis. In the meantime, although Dukakis is assured of support from an overwhelming majority of the convention delegates next week, he awarded Jackson 14 of his own delegates—eight from New Jersey and six from Puerto Rico—in a symbolic goodwill gesture.

But most startling was the amicability among members of the platform committee, which drafts policy resolutions, where the two candidates faced their most profound differences. In 1980, the deliberations had been so

stormy that they lasted a week, punctuated by walkouts and sit-ins. This year, the final challenges were ironed out in five hours in Denver, and Louisiana Senator John Breaux declared, “When the Democrats have no battle, that’s a story.”

The Dukakis team made early policy concessions to Jackson by pledging, if it wins in November, to add South Africa to the state department’s list of six “terrorist” states. But Dukakis is deter-

mined to emerge from the convention without his hands tied to many precise policies or special-interest groups. And his aides fought off attempts to spell out other planks.

The result is a document that Jackson has denounced as “bland.” At 3,500 words, it is the shortest in recent party history—one-tenth the length of the party’s 1984 platform. Said its chief author, Theodore Sorensen, once a speech writer for President John F. Kennedy: “Brevity is the soul of victory.”

But the platform is also purposely vague. Instead of calling for federal funding of abortions—which would offend many voters, including southern Baptists and Catholics—it champions “freedom of reproductive choice regardless of ability to pay.” And rather than a cut in defence spending—which would risk angering southern hawks—it advocates “more stable” expenditures. For the first time, the party broaches a subject high on the Canadian agenda, acid rain—but delicately. The platform calls for “aggressively developing clean-coal technology to combat acid rain,” but

also for exploiting coal and natural gas reserves. And the wording is particularly hazy on an issue that bitterly divided Democrats during the primaries—freer trade versus protectionism—calling only for “more trade, fair trade.”

Dukakis has chosen to appease regional and special-interest groups not in the platform, but in exercising his influence as leading candidate on the convention program. He chose a woman, folksy Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards, as keynote speaker. And for his nominating speech, he turned to a handsome, youthful southerner, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Jackson has vowed that he will force floor votes on 12 controversial platform resolutions important to his liberal constituency. Among them: calls for no first use of nuclear weapons and an independent Palestinian state. But Dukakis’s aides welcome challenges that will place the governor in a more centrist light.

Those floor fights may provide the only sparks in a convention o that is otherwise so ® scripted that the orga5 nizers have even rented a parking lot to accommodate protesters. Even Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young has gone out of his way to avoid a controversial role, choosing the role of host rather than that of a delegate. But Young has had to defend his booming city against the same charges that afflict the Democratic nominee: dullness.

To counteract that impression, convention organizers have planned more than 200 parties. But that does not answer Dukakis’s image problem, which may now be the factor that is hurting him most in the polls. An uneventful convention may confirm Dukakis’s skills as a manager, but it is unlikely to inspire voters watching it on television. Anne Murray’s personal manager, Leonard Rambeau, said that Dukakis should follow the singer’s example and let producers Smith and Hemion liven up his image. Said Rambeau: “If they could make a dancer out of Anne Murray, maybe they could get Dukakis to do a few steps.” Certainly, the governor’s aides agree that to hold together his fractious party in the fall campaign, Dukakis will need some fancy footwork.

— MARCI McDONALD in Washington