Prologue to See How They Ran "What has America Done to Deserve This?"
|On the night of October 13, 1988,
one hundred million Americans turned on their television
and watched the two major party nominees for President of the United States, Vice President
George Bush and the Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, debate in Los Angeles. The
anchorman for the Cable News Network, Bernard Shaw, moderated the debate and asked the first question. Sounding more like the host of "The Newlywed Game" than a political journalist, Shaw gave Dukakis "two minutes to respond" to the question, "if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"
Without challenging Shaw's premise, and claiming that the death penalty did not deter crime, Dukakis advocated an international conference to spearhead the fight on drugs. This passionless response, many believed, sealed Dukakis's presidential fate. After the debate, the governor quickly left the studio. "Kitty, I just blew it," he told his wife.(1)
This exchange outraged many Americans. Shaw's question was inappropriate and undignified. Rather than calling for a drug summit, Dukakis should have punched Shaw in the nose, some said. Traditionally, aspirants for the "highest office in the land" had been treated more respectfully. Politicians and people on the street pointed to the "Kitty Dukakis question" as further proof that American politics -- and America itself -- had declined. "What has America done as a nation to deserve an election like this?" Time magazine asked, voicing the American voters' "collective lament." (2)
Symptoms of the decline abounded. The 1988 campaign seemed endless, with candidates announcing their intention to run as much as two years in advance. Even before one primary vote had been cast, Americans groaned "Is This Any Way to Elect a President?" (3) The long campaigns seemed artificial, an elaborate attempt by candidates to manipulate reporters who in turn manipulated the people. "Pseudo-events," "sound bites," and "images" had replaced rallies, speeches, and issues. George Bush ranted about Willie Horton, the flag and the "L-Word"; Michael Dukakis mumbled about the "Massachusetts Miracle" and his Greek parents. Finally, on Election Day, barely fifty percent of those eligible bothered to vote. Two-thirds of those surveyed disapproved of both the candidates and the process. "This most dismal of Presidential campaigns ... has set a new low in modern campaigning," the New Yorker's Elizabeth Drew sighed.(4)
Who killed the presidential campaign, many wondered. In 1988 numerous suspects emerged, against whom experts had been amassing cases for years. To some, the problems of the presidential campaign simply reflected the problems of an America in decline. The "very emptiness" of the campaign "suggested its importance," the journalist Sidney Blumenthal argued. By "clinging to irrelevant issues," the candidates "postponed" the "crisis of national purpose" provoked by the ending of the Cold War. (5)
Others viewed the modern campaign as the victim of American consumer culture. Electoral politics had been "commodified," the historian Robert Westbrook argued, with voting degenerating into yet one more "consumption choice" in the American marketplace. Candidates, it seemed, were trussed up, packaged and sold to passive, alienated and gullible consumers. By 1988, many Americans had an almost mystical belief in the power of advertisers to "dupe" the voters. From 1984 to 1988 the number of people admitting that campaign ads had influenced them doubled, one poll reported. (6) Such potent weapons were blamed for making the campaign superficial, trivial, and negative.
Not only had advertising and broader cultural phenomena transformed presidential campaigns but great changes had occurred within the American political universe itself. In a few short decades, the century-long reign of American political parties had ended. The "party's over" declared David Broder of the Washington Post. Without parties to control candidates and motivate voters, the presidential campaign had degenerated into a personality contest where individual quirks eclipsed policy considerations as voters became spectators who had to be entertained. (7)
As the parties declined, primaries proliferated. While these state-by-state nominating elections arguably were more democratic, many considered them far less efficient. Primaries favored charismatic candidates like Jesse Jackson and allowed a clique of activists to hold a broad-based party hostage, as George McGovern's youthful "army" had done in 1972 with the Democrats. Primaries also encouraged "retail" campaigns emphasizing personalities over issues.
Changes in the presidential office had similarly affected the campaign. As the presidency became more of a "bully pulpit" for inspiring the people and more policy-oriented, the presidential campaign became both more populist and more issue-based. Since Theodore Roosevelt, presidents had governed by campaigning and campaigned by governing. Ronald Reagan blurred these two roles masterfully, but so had Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, at least in 1964.
This modern "rhetorical" presidency, such as it was, could not reach the public without the press. In the nineteenth century, reporters were ciphers, cowed by the men they worked for and the men they covered. By 1988, reporters, especially those on television, enjoyed professional credibility as well as individual fame. Often, TV journalists like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather were better liked, or at least better known, than many candidates. More and more Americans feared the "media" as a behemoth, even as they relied on it for information, entertainment, and, all too often, companionship. Candidates acknowledged the reporters' role in setting the campaign agenda. Asked why they did not address the issues more often, candidates and their advisers blamed the press, suggesting that if reporters wanted to hear more about issues, they should ask about them more. (8)
Reporters, especially in 1988, in turn blamed the consultants, the new breed of advisers who dominated modern politics. These political hired guns had become so ubiquitous and the myth of their influence so daunting, that both Time and Newsweek declared 1988 "the Year of the Handlers." These political consultants emphasized personality traits over party loyalty and political ideals, critics charged. Rival candidates quibbled about who relied more on consultants. The speechwriter Peggy Noonan, herself a master puppeteer, simply dismissed "all" the contenders as "Stepford candidates with prefab epiphanies, inauthentic men for an inauthentic age." (9)
Regardless of who were the most important actors in the quadrennial drama -- the handlers, the journalists, the candidates or the voters -- all spoke a common language of "soundbites" and "media markets" that had been distorted by television. Again and again in 1988 commentators declared television the most influential factor in the modern campaign. Television, many believed, was the genie that had changed it all -- transformed American culture, invigorated advertising, undermined the parties, proliferated the primaries, popularized the presidency, inflated the press, and created the need for expert handlers. And, many feared, 1988 marked the crossing of the Rubicon, the emergence of a fundamentally different, and flawed, presidential campaign. Television had "become" the election, numerous commentators concluded. (10)
All these analysts assumed that the campaign had been both revolutionized and trivialized. Most Americans accepted Jimmy Carter's characterization of the 1988 contest as "the worst campaign I've ever seen in my lifetime." Yet these laments were simply the latest in a litany of complaints about presidential campaigning that go back over one hundred years. In 1852, the New York Mirror wrote: "In regard to the method pursued by political parties, with reference to electing their respective candidates, there seems to be just one opinion: That 'it is disgraceful to the country.'" (11)
Critics of the campaign constantly harked back to a golden age of presidential campaigning that never in fact existed. In 1988, the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 were remembered fondly. In 1960, however, many Americans had found the debates disappointing, especially when judged against the mythic standard of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of a century before. That clash, however, had taken place during the 1858 state legislature campaign in Illinois -- during his 1860 presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln refused to say anything about any issues. In fact, since the first truly popular presidential campaign in 1840, Americans have found campaigns too lengthy, too costly, too nasty, and too silly.
These persistent complaints reveal that in fifty presidential elections over two hundred years, Americans have failed to develop a legitimate and popular protocol for electing their president. The most elementary act of American democracy remains problematic. The problem is not primarily structural, stemming from flaws in American politics and culture. Nor is it a personnel problem, stemming from shallow candidates or venal consultants. Rather, it it an ideological problem, stemming from fundamental conflicts the Founders themselves failed to resolve. Over two hundred years ago, the men who made our Constitution could not quite decide how much democracy Americans should enjoy or how popular an office the presidency should be. No wonder that the attempt to select a president democratically has proved so vexing.
Despite all the boasting that the United States is the world's greatest democracy, Americans have yet to make their peace with democratic ideology. In colonial times, "democracy" was a dirty word, associated with mob rule and demagoguery. More Americans considered themselves "republicans," prizing executive humility as an antidote to tyranny and trusting the virtuous leaders of society to channel the people's passions and avoid "mobocracy." Terrified that ambitious men would subvert the government, republicans placed a premium on presidential character. They wanted an ideal man, hovering above the people. To demonstrate virtue, a presidential candidate had to remain silent and passive, trusting his peers to choose wisely.
But a competing strain of what we might call "liberal democracy" impelled candidates toward the people. Liberal-democratic thought also fears dictatorship but trusts the people as an effective counter-balance. It advocates majority rule, the supremacy of public opinion, and the hidden genius of the people. It suspects elites and condemns pockets of privilege. Over the years, liberal democrats have come to view the president as the leader of the people. To demonstrate his leadership abilities, a presidential candidate had to go out among the people, and speak to them, preferably about the policies he would pursue as president. Thus, while the president had to be an ideal man, more upright than the people, he also had to be an everyman, able to communicate with them. The presidential campaign was not simply a search for the most virtuous "king," but an opportunity to debate national policy with the future "prime minister."
The struggle to define a proper and effective role for the nominee in the campaign, then, reveals a larger struggle in American culture to advance liberal democracy without abandoning traditional republicanism. Viewed from this perspective, Americans appear tormented. They celebrated successful men while condemning ambitious ones. They championed modernization and progress yet remained traditional. And democracy, their greatest achievement, caused them unending anxiety.
Since 1796, presidential campaigns have attempted to convey a message to the people. Since 1896, the central messenger has been the candidate. For all the transformations in the media and the messages, this fundamental relationship remains unchanged. And the questions -- how should the people's representatives communicate with the people? what kind of president do Americans want? -- remain unanswered.
By becoming more active, candidates lost their insulation and were increasingly blamed for the problems of the presidential campaign. Unable to satisfy the competing ideological demands, nominees were damned, regardless of what they did. In 1988, George Bush played the republican man of virtue to Michael Dukakis's democratic leader of substance. Yet to solidify his position as the nation's ideal man, Bush engaged in gutter tactics, while Dukakis's supposedly more democratic, more populist campaign appeared elitist and overly intellectual.
This continuing search for virtuous candidates and a suitable campaign links modern Americans with their forbears. Since 1840, the complaints have not changed so much, but the target has shifted. Candidates, not parties, now receive most of the abuse. The modern campaign, therefore, has not degenerated; it is not a harbinger of America's decline. Rather, it is the latest chapter in a two-hundred-year-old struggle to come to terms with American democracy and the American presidency.
NOTES TO PROLOGUE
1. Donald Morrison, ed., The Winning of the White House 1988 (New York, 1988), p. 230; Kitty Dukakis with Jane Scovell, Now You Know (New York, 1990), p. 220.
2. Time, 14 Nov. 1988, p. 19.
3. Throughout this work, "the people" or "Americans" is used as a shorthand phrase to summarize the emerging or prevailing opinion. Nwswk, 1 Feb. 1988, cover.
4. Elizabeth Drew, Election Journal: Political Events of 1987-1988 (New York, 1989), p. 262.
5. Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War (New York, 1990), p. 5.
6. Robert Westbrook, "Politics as Consumption," in The Culture of Consumption, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears (New York, 1983), pp. 145, 171, 151; Robert Spero, The Duping of the American Voter (New York, 1980); NYT, 30 Oct. 1988, 1:30.
7. David S. Broder, The Party's Over (New York, 1972); Michael E. McGerr, Decline of Popular Politics (New York, 1986), pp. 171-179.
8. Jeffrey K. Tulis, Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton, 1987); BosG, 9 Nov. 1988, p. 18.
9. Time, 3 Oct. 1988, p. 18; Peter Goldman, Tom Mathews, et al., The Quest for the Presidency (New York, 1990), p. 418; Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution (New York, 1990), p. 108.
10. Time, 14 Nov. 1988, p. 66; NYT, 30 Oct. 1988, p. 1; Goldman, Mathews, et al., Quest for the Presidency, p. 192.
11. Jimmy Carter on NBC, "Evening News with Tom Brokaw," 13 Oct. 1988; NYM, 23 Oct. 1852, p. 1.
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