Secrets of Past Elections Revealed! (1988)

Image credit: 

After every presidential election since 1984, Newsweek has printed the best gossipy stories, revealing all the whining and backbiting of America's greatest spectacle. Linda Rodriguez has gone through Newsweek's archives to pick out some memorable moments from recent elections, and we'll be posting her stories throughout the week.

The Year of the Handler

There were more than a few candidates littering the field in 1988, but in the end, it came to two men, neither of whom seemed to know exactly why they were running or why they should win. A Newsweek poll around Election Day found that 74 percent of the respondents believed that the candidates were just saying what they had to say to get elected. Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence. Newsweek described the election year as the year of the handler, because it was the candidates' handlers and strategists "“ a breed of professional approaching an apogee of influence in the 1988 election "“ who got them through the campaign more than anything else. It was dull, it was depressing "“ where were our bright lights, our glorious leaders, or even someone who seemed like they actually wanted the job? In the end, we got George Bush.

Bad news is better than no news

George Bush's campaign ran largely on proving a negative: It wasn't that Bush was the best man for the job, it was that he was far better than Governor Michael Dukakis. This strategy was primarily conveyed through television ads that were the very definition of attack campaigning, so much so that Bush himself became uncomfortable. But after some of the more mean-spirited ads were pulled, the evening news stopped reporting on the campaign. The ads were back up and running just four days after they were pulled.

There was one ad, however, that the Bush camp decided not to run (or even produce), one that the campaign called "Bestiality." While Dukakis was still a Massachusetts legislator, he allowed his name to appear on a bill repealing an old law that forbade "unnatural" sex acts. The ad, as the Bush team proposed, would simply feature the words "In 1970, Governor Michael Dukakis introduced legislation in Massachusetts to repeal the ban on sodomy and bestiality." Those last words would be accompanied by frightened mooing and baaing.

While the ad never saw the light of day, it was a constant source of amusement to the Bush campaign. Even Bush himself joked about it: Once, when his pet dog wandered into a strategy meeting, Bush looked at him and said, "You're the reason I'm running. We've got to keep those people away from you."

Inheriting the Reagan Regime

By this time, President Ronald Reagan was absolutely winding down: Aides said that the best way to talk to him about an issue of policy was to open with a joke, or state the problem clearly "“ and loudly "“ up front. At the open of 1988, he sat down with a group of advisors and said, "Say, do you know one of the benefits of having Alzheimer's disease? You get to meet new friends every day." Reagan would regularly fall asleep during meetings with Secretary of State George P. Shultz (whom White House staffers called "Mr. Potato Head"), or over his Monday issues lunch, or in issues briefings. This was the state of the White House during the 1988 election.

Say what, now?

Where George W. Bush is well known for his ability to mangle the English language, it's just possible that he got it from his father. One of George H.W. Bush's most memorable and most public verbal stumbles? The time he tried to say that he and President Reagan had had some "setbacks" and ended up saying "We've had sex."

Then there was the time, straying from his script, when he claimed he was for "anti-bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-racism." Or when, in a speech, he accidentally moved Pearl Harbor Day from December to September.

Temper tantrum time

Michael Dukakis had mostly traveled from campaign stop to campaign stop aboard the affectionately named "Sky Pig," a slow and decidedly unpresidential jet plane. But when the campaign moved to replace it, bundling Dukakis aboard a faster, bigger jet, he got upset. He got even more upset when he learned that the plan didn't stock his favorite cereal "“ "Where's my Raisin Bran?" he demanded.

The next day, the Sky Pig and its Raisin Bran came back.

The Sky Pig temper tantrum was just one of many, according to Dukakis aides. One aide claimed that Dukakis had only two emotions: Mad and madder.

The search for Spikey

The night before one of the big debates between Bush and Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor was sweating bullets up in Boston and had hit the books hard. Bush, on the other hand, had spent the night looking for Spikey. Spikey was a stuffed toy belonging to one of Bush's granddaughters and, it seemed, had gone missing. The little girl couldn't sleep without Spikey, so Bush gamely dawned a raincoat and spent the night searching for Spikey in the shrubs outside. Spikey didn't materialize until the next morning "“ Bush made up a story about Spikey having a sleepover somewhere else "“ but the search left Bush tired, developing a cold, and unable to prepare for the next day's debate. Even though Dukakis essentially won the debate, Bush surged ahead in the polls.

Previously: 1984

January 6, 2009 - 7:30am
submit to reddit