A presidential misstep

MARCI McDONALD July 25 1988

A presidential misstep

MARCI McDONALD July 25 1988

A presidential misstep


CAMPAIGN ’88 It was, as Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis himself put it, his first “presidential act.” And just before midnight on July 11—nine days before his official coronation as the Democratic presidential nominee at the party’s Atlanta convention this week—he carried it out at the kitchen table of his suburban Boston home.

There, huddled with his wife, Kitty, and three top campaign officials, Dukakis finally ended the fiveweek search for his vicepresidential running mate. So unexpected was his choice that even the patrician Texas millionaire he picked did not anticipate a call: Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the powerful chairman of the Senate finance committee who has overseen negotiation of the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, had unplugged his phone at his Washington, D.C., home and gone to bed.

But the next morning— within hours of proffering the formal invitation to Bentsen while the senator was shaving at 6:20 a.m.—

Dukakis found himself under attack for mishan-

dling that first critical test. After campaigning on a record of efficiency, he was left to explain why he had taken another four hours to inform Jesse Jackson of his decision, the one former rival who holds the key to party unity. Jackson had first learned the news from reporters as he arrived at a Washington airport terminal. As he barely concealed his fury at the public humiliation, the Dukakis lapse quickly widened to a chasm of bitterness and misunderstanding that threatened to alienate Jackson’s critical black constituency, not only from the Atlanta convention, but also from the ballot box next fall.

Dukakis’s behavior raised new questions about his personal style and political sensitivity. Said presidential scholar Stephen Hess of Washington’s Brookings Institution: “We’ve been hearing a lot

about the new Dukakis who learned so much and became so humane after his defeat [in the Massachusetts governor’s primary] in 1978. But the way he handled this sounds suspiciously like the old Dukakis-insensitive and arrogant.”

At a Washington news conference on the day of the Dukakis announcement,

Jackson icily insisted that he was “too controlled, too mature” to show anger at the slight. But as Jackson set out from Chicago last week for Atlanta in a sevenbus populist caravan called the Rainbow Express, relations between the two camps had become so strained that he called for former president Jimmy Carter or Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York to step in and mediate their differences. Dukakis rejected the suggestion, declaring, “We don’t need mediators.” Still, the charismatic black leader reminded party officials of just how much they are depending on him in the fall campaign. In an image that harkened back to slavery, Jackson declared, “It is too much to expect that I will go out in the field and be the champion vote picker and bale them up and bring

them back to the big house and get a reward of thanks, while people who do not pick nearly as much voters, who don’t carry the same amount of weight among the people, sit in the big house and make the decisions.”

Indeed, as Dukakis and his aides placed a flurry of belated phone calls to him in a

damage-control effort, their decision not to pander to Jackson’s constituency appeared to have backfired. Said Wandell Simmons of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: “Now whatever Jesse wants, Jesse is just about going to have to be given.”

The furore overshadowed a strategical gamble on Dukakis’s part that many observers hailed as uncharacteristically bold. In choosing Bentsen, a stalwart of the party’s so-called southern Tory Democrat wing, he signalled that he intends to battle Vice-President George Bush for the conservative white male vote in the South, which has gone to President Ronald Reagan in the past two elections. Bentsen, whose political machine is the most powerful in Texas, also challenges

Bush on the home turf of his adopted state. It is a rematch with historical and psychological resonance. Bentsen first won his Senate seat in 1970 by defeating Bush, then a Houston congressman. Said William Schneider, an analyst with Washington’s American Enterprise Institute: “It says to George Bush, you’re not safe anywhere.”

By selecting a conservative running mate who opposes many of his own stands—Bentsen supports the death penalty, the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars, and military aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels—Dukakis showed that he is willing to put aside ideology for the grim mathematical realities of Electoral College politics. But the wisdom of that gamble will depend on whether Bentsen can carry the 29 Texas Electoral College votes, oneninth of the 270 that Dukakis needs to capture the White House. Said Democratic consultant Harrison Hickman: “If we win, it’s a brilliant strategy. If we don’t win, maybe we should have done something else.”

Meanwhile, Republicans initially welcomed Bentsen’s selection as a blunder. Said Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater: “People in Texas don’t vote for vice-president, they vote for president.” But after a CBS poll showed that with Bentsen on the Democratic ticket, Bush’s lead over Dukakis in Texas had been narrowed to a virtual dead heat, the elation turned to anxiety. And it was left

to former president Richard Nixon, in a memo to Atwater, to sum up the confusion felt by Republicans and Democrats alike. Wrote Nixon: “Is it a dream ticket or a nightmare?”

Indeed, many of Bentsen’s stands could turn into trouble for the Democrats. Like Bush, the 67-year-old Bentsen was born rich—the son of a self-made millionaire who settled in the Rio Grande Valley. After flying 50 missions as a B-24 squadron commander in the Second World War—and being shot down twice—Bentsen won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

At 27, already married to his college sweetheart, Beryl Ann, he was elected the youngest member of Congress in 1948.

After three terms in the House of Representatives, Bentsen returned to Texas in 1954 to make his own fortune in real estate and insurance. But his unwavering probusiness support since his election to the Senate in 1970 could s prove double-edged. So I zealously did Bentsen pro| tect oil, gas and real estate interests during the re1 writing of last year’s tax reform act that he earned a nickname, “Loophole Lloyd.” And Republicans are now poring over his legislative record for incriminating evidence. Said Hess: “The one thing you want in a vice-president is no surprises. When you pick anyone who is chairman of a tax-writing committee, right away you’re knee-deep in lobbyists.” In fact, the only blot on Bentsen’s reputation so far appears to be a monthly

breakfast club he started for lobbyists last year in return for $12,000 in campaign contributions. After admitting that it was a “doozy” of a mistake, he folded the club and returned the money. But he has received $1.8 million in his $6-million campaign chest—more than any other member of Congress—from political action committees, which Dukakis has vowed to shutter as his first act in office.

Last week, Bentsen vowed to continue sharing his views with Dukakis, no matter how much they differ. And Canadian politicians who have met Bentsen through trade negotiations say that the seasoned poker player may be capable of pulling off that delicate balancing act. Said Liberal trade critic Lloyd Axworthy: “It was clear he was not a softie. But he’s certainly smooth and knows how to weigh different political balances.” And Patricia Carney, former minister for international trade and now Treasury Board president, recalled that Bentsen was “more flexible than I had been led to believe.” Added Carney: “He was openminded.”

In fact, Carney’s only question about Bentsen is how he will take to his new role. “He has an almost unconscious royal veneer of someone who’s been very powerful for a long time,” she said. “I don’t know how he’s going to like being vicepresident.” Indeed, that issue may have haunted Bentsen himself last week as he reached out to black leaders with soothing words that many believed ought to have come from Dukakis. Certainly, he will need his considerable political skills in Atlanta to help the Democratic nominee turn his potential misstep on Jackson’s toes into a harmonious waltz of unity.

— MARCI McDONALD in Washington