Though the presumptive heir to President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush ran into trouble early in the 1988 campaign. Bush's problem was his image. A Newsweek cover that ran the week he announced his candidacy read, "Fighting the Wimp Factor." His preppy style, coupled with a perception that he was unable or unwilling to question President Ronald Reagan, contributed to a sense that he did not have a stiff enough spine to lead the country.
Hard Questions About Iran-Contra
After an embarrassing loss to Senator Bob Dole in the Iowa caucuses, Bush appeared in a live television interview with Dan Rather on CBS. The Bush campaign team claimed that the CBS News team had pitched the interview as a routine candidate profile. But on the day of the interview, the Bush team received a tip from a member of the CBS newsroom that the producer of the segment had been walking around the newsroom saying, "We're taking Bush out of the campaign tonight." According to the tip, Dan Rather was preparing a hard-hitting interview heavy on Iran-Contra. Bush aides prepared Bush to have a response ready in case the tip proved accurate.
A Knock Out Punch
The newscast did indeed begin with a prepared news package that concentrated exclusively on Iran-Contra. As soon as the package finished and the interview began, the combativeness was clear. When Rather pushed too hard a few minutes into the interview, Bush responded with the rehearsed line calling attention to an incident in which an angry Dan Rather had walked off the stage during a live broadcast and left several minutes of dead air --
Vice President Bush: I'm not suggesting. I'm just saying I don't remember it.
Dan Rather: I don't want to be argumentative, Mr. Vice President.
Vice President Bush: You do, Dan.
Dan Rather: No ... no, sir, I don't.
Vice President Bush: This is not a great night, because I want to talk about why I want to be president, why those 41 percent of the people are supporting me. And I don't think it's fair...
Dan Rather: And Mr. Vice President, if these questions are ...
Vice President Bush: ...to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?
Dan Rather: Well, Mister ...
Vice President Bush: ... Would you like that?
Dan Rather: Mr. Vice President ...
Vice President Bush: I have respect for you, but I don't have respect for what you're doing here tonight.
CBS News maintained that they had informed the Bush campaign that the interview would concentrate on Iran-Contra and therefore the Bush campaign had no right saying they had been ambushed, but to most Americans, Dan Rather had sucker-punched Vice President Bush and Bush delivered a knock out blow in return. Lee Atwater later referred to this interview as a turning point in the primary campaign. The showdown with Dan Rather helped to dispel Bush's wimp image.
In the weeks after the Rather interview, the Bush campaign launched another attack, this time an ad targeting Senator Dole, who was leading in the New Hampshire primary. Titled "Senator Straddle," the ad depicted Senator Dole's record as inconsistent. Bush had originally scuttled the ad, but when aides presented him with evidence that not running it could cost him the primary, he approved the ad. Bush won the primary -- and the model for the general election was set.
The General Election
Vice President Bush's Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was a relative unknown. Rather than present a positive view of Bush's accomplishments, the Bush campaign decided to instead focus on attacking Dukakis. The Bush campaign set out to define Dukakis on their terms rather than allowing Dukakis to define himself. It was a break with conventional wisdom, but it succeeded. Some commentators would later call the 1988 campaign the dirtiest in history.
By Memorial Day weekend, Vice President Bush was an astonishing 17 points behind Governor Dukakis. That weekend in Kennebunkport, Bush aides presented Vice President Bush with results of a focus group held in Paramus, New Jersey. Comprised of 30 individuals who had voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and were planning to vote for Michael Dukakis in 1988, the participants were asked questions such as -- "What if I told you that Dukakis vetoed a bill requiring school-children to say the Pledge of Allegiance? Or that he was against the death penalty? Or that he gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers?" By the end of the focus group session, it was clear to Bush aides that the cumulative effect was devastating to the groups' assessment of Dukakis. The team reported their findings to Bush with strategist Lee Atwater summing up the sentiment, "You gotta go negative. You just gotta." Bush allowed his surrogates to do just that, raising the issue of convicted murderer Willie Horton, an African American inmate who received weekend furloughs in Massachusetts.
The tactics worked. Author Evan Thomas would later say: "One of the ironies of George Bush's life is that a fundamentally decent man presided over a moment when politics got meaner and rougher... Lee Atwater and these henchmen for Bush looking for the so-called wedge issues, not really staying on the high road and talking about the great issues of the day, but rather sniping at their opponent to find some weakness in him. And Bush put up with that." Bush went on to win the November election by a wide margin, capturing 53 percent of the popular vote.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?