Friday, September 13, 2013

A Ride in a Tank

The Saturday Night Live parodies of presidential debates sometimes seem like they've been a part of presidential campaigns forever — even though the SNL parodies, like the debates themselves, haven't been regular parts of presidential campaigns for quite 40 years yet.

Twenty–five years ago, the debate parodies were still evolving, but they had already established themselves as truly (and humorously) insightful. And I thought one of the best examples came in a 1988 parody when, after Dana Carvey gave a spot–on impression of a typical George H.W. Bush meandering, cliche–ridden response, Jon Lovitz (as Michael Dukakis) shrugged his shoulders on rebuttal and said, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."

There were times that fall when I couldn't help wondering the same thing.

And then there were days like this one when I knew why he lost. For it was on this day in 1988 that Dukakis took his ill–advised ride in a tank, presumably to show the voters he was tough, not a wimp, but he only managed to look ridiculous.

It happened at the General Dynamics Land Systems plant in Sterling Heights, Mich. Dukakis came to participate in a photo opp in an M1 Abrams tank.

As I say, the idea probably was to make Dukakis look tough and assertive, but he never really looked comfortable — sort of like Calvin Coolidge when he did a 1920s photo opp in a Native American headdress.

It was a disaster for Dukakis but a bounty for Bush. The Bush campaign of 1988 — under the leadership of Lee Atwater — never hesitated to exploit a perceived weakness in the opposition.

And, to misquote a memorable line from Saddam Hussein, Dukakis' tank ride was the mother of all political weaknesses.

The Willie Horton–inspired commercials (of which I will have more to say next week) get most of the attention in the accounts of that campaign, and they certainly deserve their own chapter in the history of race relations in America, but the Dukakis–in–the–tank commercial may have been the most effective of the campaign because it so neatly capitalized on everything that made voters uneasy about the Democrats' nominee.

He was perceived as stiff and passionless, a typical wishy–washy, appeasing liberal when it came to things like national defense.

At a time when voters were having to select the successor for Ronald Reagan (who, even in his late 70s, was perceived as being macho, a cowboy, standing tall on the world's stage) being tough and assertive was a clear plus — but being a phony was a definite minus. Dukakis came across as being phony, as not being a genuine leader.

And Dukakis' photo opp wound up reinforcing the negative image the Dukakis campaign intended to disprove.

In other words, you can't smear lipstick on a pig and call it a trophy wife.

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