If Dan Quayle's debate with Lloyd Bentsen a week earlier was the low point of the 1988 campaign for the Republican ticket, what happened 25 years ago tonight may have been the low point — certainly, it was one of the low points — for the Democrats.
The presidential nominees, Vice President George H.W. Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, met in Los Angeles' Pauley Pavilion for their final debate 25 years ago tonight.
And CNN's Bernard Shaw started things with the only question that anyone would remember: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"
No one would remember Dukakis' answer, only that it was delivered in a flat monotone that seemed to lack the emotion most people would have expected of someone who was speaking of the (hypothetical) rape and murder of a loved one.
For the record, Dukakis' answer focused on statistics that were relevant to capital punishment — and showed why, he believed, it was ineffective. There were no gaffes, no sound bites that could be played endlessly.
It was all a matter of perception.
Like Richard Nixon in his first debate encounter with John F. Kennedy nearly 30 years earlier, Dukakis came into the debate on the heels of an illness. Dukakis was sick with the flu and actually spent much of that day in bed. His debate performance was generally poor, and it reinforced the impression that many voters had of him as cold and distant.
But, even though his performance was not particularly good — the consensus was that Dukakis simply failed to seize the momentum in the debate — there was nothing fundamentally wrong with his responses, no glaring faux pas. Read it for yourself:
"No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We've done so in my own state. And it's one of the reasons why we have had the biggest drop in crime of any industrial state in America; why we have the lowest murder rate of any industrial state in America. But we have work to do in this nation. We have work to do to fight a real war, not a phony war, against drugs. And that's something I want to lead, something we haven't had over the course of the past many years, even though the vice president has been at least allegedly in charge of that war. We have much to do to step up that war, to double the number of drug enforcement agents, to fight both here and abroad, to work with our neighbors in this hemisphere. And I want to call a hemispheric summit just as soon after the 20th of January as possible to fight that war. But we also have to deal with drug education prevention here at home. And that's one of the things that I hope I can lead personally as the president of the United States. We've had great success in my own state. And we've reached out to young people and their families and been able to help them by beginning drug education and prevention in the early elementary grades. So we can fight this war, and we can win this war. And we can do so in a way that marshals our forces, that provides real support for state and local law enforcement officers who have not been getting that support, and do it in a way which will bring down violence in this nation, will help our youngsters to stay away from drugs, will stop this avalanche of drugs that's pouring into the country, and will make it possible for our kids and our families to grow up in safe and secure and decent neighborhoods."
Bush, on the other hand, didn't perform particularly well that night. But that didn't matter. The post–debate conversation focused on Dukakis' passionless response to a question about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife — and little else.
It is ironic that the fatal blow to the Dukakis candidacy came in the form of a fictional attack on his wife. Truly irresponsible — and false — stories were spread about Kitty Dukakis during the campaign, including one that held that Mrs. Dukakis had burned an American flag in a Vietnam War protest. That one supposedly was spread by a U.S. senator, but Republican strategist Lee Atwater reportedly started it.
The Dukakis campaign had survived it all — not always well or gracefully — including self–inflicted wounds like Dukakis' tank ride in September, but the question about Kitty Dukakis sealed the deal.
Before the debate, it was often said that Dukakis needed a dramatic debate performance to swing the momentum his way. His performance was decidedly not dramatic, at least not in a positive way, and the polls reflected it — not immediately, but within a week — and the momentum moved irreversibly away from the Massachusetts Democrat.